Less than two months ago, the results of an international survey (PIAAC) revealed that American adult literacy and numeracy skills lag significantly behind those of adults in most other developed countries. Approximately 36 million U.S. adults were estimated to have low skills. These are adults who lack sufficient skills to succeed in higher education or training, and thus are often stuck in dead-end, low-paying jobs.
A report issued along with the initial results noted that “countries with lower skill levels risk losing in competitiveness as the world economy becomes more dependent on skills.” Less than a month ago, a followup report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (which administered the survey) called for “concerted action” by the U.S. to address this problem, warning that without such action “the skills of adults will fall further behind other countries.”
Today, the President gave a major address on the economy here in Washington. During the speech, he offered what he called “a road map that I believe should guide us in both our legislative agenda and our administrative efforts,” and listed policy areas “where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts” over the rest of his term. One of those areas, not surprisingly, included education. In light of those very recent PIAAC findings, you might be curious about what the President had to say specifically about the nation’s 36 million low-skilled adults during this part of his speech:
Step two is making sure we empower more Americans with the skills and education they need to compete in a highly competitive global economy. We know that education is the most important predictor of income today, so we launched a Race to the Top in our schools, we’re supporting states that have raised standards in teaching and learning, we’re pushing for redesigned high schools that graduate more kids with the technical training and apprenticeships, the in-demand high-tech skills that can lead directly to a good job and a middle-class life.
We know it’s harder to find a job today without some higher education, so we’ve helped more students go to college with grants and loans that go farther than before, we’ve made it more practical to repay those loans and today, more students are graduating from college than ever before.
We’re also pursuing an aggressive strategy to promote innovation that reins in tuition costs.
We’ve got to lower costs so that young people are not burdened by enormous debt when they make the right decision to get higher education. And next week, Michelle and I will bring together college presidents and nonprofits to lead a campaign to help more low-income students attend and succeed in college.
But while — applause — while higher education may be the surest path to the middle class, it’s not the only one. We should offer our people the best technical education in the world. That’s why we’ve worked to connect local businesses with community colleges, so that workers, young and old, can earn the new skills that earn them more money.
And I’ve also embraced an idea that I know all of you at the Center for American Progress has championed, and by the way, Republican governors in a couple of states have championed, and that’s making high-quality pre-school available to every child in America. Cheers, applause.
We know that kids in these programs grow up are likelier to get more education, earn higher wages, form more stable families of their own. It starts a virtuous cycle, not a vicious one. And we should invest in that. We should give all of our children that chance.
In other words: nothing. No mention of those 36 million low-skilled adults at all, and nothing in the speech suggested that the President is planning to propose any major new initiatives to address the needs of those adults anytime soon, despite the dire warnings we heard just a few weeks ago about how the failure to act will have such a detrimental effect on our economy.
You can read the full transcript of President Obama’s remarks here.