A Few More Thoughts About PIAAC

I’m spending a little more time with PIAAC today in preparation for a webinar I’ve been asked to participate in tomorrow. So I thought I’d post a couple of random, non-exhaustive (but possibly exhausting) thoughts about not only the data but also the media coverage of the survey—which has a large influence, I think on how to view this new data in terms of advocacy.

First, it’s important, I think, to remember that PIAAC is a measure of skills. One of the most prominent issues that emerges from the PIAAC data is that, in the U.S., many adults with a high school or even a postsecondary education still lack strong basic skills, and lag behind their counterparts in many other countries. This serves as a reminder that we have to be careful in adult education not to conflate credential attainment with skills—they’re not the same thing. It’s not unusual, for example, to hear someone talk about how adult education addresses skills by increasing the number of GEDs or diplomas acquired, or the number of students who have gone onto college. That works if you believe credentials are accurate proxies for skills, but the PIAAC data calls into question whether attaining those credentials (and we do a relatively good job compared to other countries in handing out credentials) provides all those receiving them with a good education and strong, marketable skills. We probably need to evaluate more closely the actual skills people acquire at every age and in whatever course of study they’re in, rather than just focus on credential attainment—or at least look more critically at whether our credentials are sufficient proxies for skills.

This might, in turn, spark a renewed interest in skill acquisition and program quality in adult education programs at all levels. It’s never made any sense to me to assess an adult education program primarily in terms of credential attainment anyway—so maybe PIAAC will encourage us to look more closely at what students are actually learning, not just the degrees they are earning.

A second, related point: if you look at the media coverage, U.S. performance on the PIAAC was largely portrayed as an indictment of our entire education system. Despite the fact that the PIAAC was concerned with adult skills, there seems to be little awareness in the media that an adult education system actually exists in this country. (I realize that we are far from taking a true systematic approach to addressing adult literacy in the U.S., but there is a system—for better or worse—that you can point to, even if it is severely underfunded and fragmented.)

The one good thing about the fact that no one in the media seems to be aware that an adult education system exists is that, to my knowledge, U.S. adult education programs were spared any criticism in the wake of these findings. This is important, because, like past literacy surveys, the PIACC tells us nothing about the performance of  U.S. adult literacy programs. It’s a survey of the general population, not adult literacy students. It’s safe to say that there hasn’t been much change in adult skill levels among the general population since the last adult literacy survey, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the job that adult literacy programs have been doing during that period. Sadly, the U.S. adult education system serves so few people, it simply couldn’t be having a discernible impact—good or bad—on overall skill levels, if you’re taking the entire population into account.

But this lack of visibility does present something of a blank slate for advocates in which to make the case that U.S. adult education programs are contributing in a positive way to increasing adult skills.

Third, while there is a lot in the data for those who have jumped aboard the universal pre-K bandwagon, OECD’s summary analysis of the findings actually emphasizes a multi-pronged approach to improving skills that includes both quality early education and lifelong learning opportunities for adults (page 13):

The impressive progress that some countries have made in improving the skills of their population over successive generations shows what can be achieved. These countries have established systems that combine high-quality initial education with opportunities and incentives for the entire population to continue to develop proficiency in reading and numeracy skills, whether outside work or at the workplace, after initial education and training are completed.  (my emphasis)

Fourth, there’s also a lot here about linking skills development strategies with economic development strategies in general. The PIAAC data could open up more opportunities to draw labor market analysts and economic development experts into a discussion about the role of adult education in the economy. Businesses, too.

As far as the data itself goes, something that jumped out at me is the alarming gap in skills in the U.S. that runs along racial lines, and also between native-born Americans and immigrants. I don’t think you can have a serious policy discussion about skills in this country without acknowledging and addressing the racial component in these findings.

Finally, the numbers on math skills in the U.S. across all demographic categories are particularly grim. If this doesn’t inspire the U.S. (and states) to make a big adult numeracy push in the near future, I don’t know what will.

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