The Wrong Message on PIAAC

(Updated Below)



The initial of set of PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) survey data released yesterday by OECD received a reasonable amount of attention from major U.S. news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the AP. I’ve nitpicked a little about the coverage, but by in large it’s been decent. (My biggest criticism is the lack of voices from the U.S. adult education field. The study is, after all, primarily concerned with adult literacy and numeracy skills, so one would think that one of our national adult literacy organizations would be good for a quote. Or maybe even an actual adult learner or two.)

But today I came across two stories (pictured above) that are accompanied by some pretty distasteful and misleading headlines and graphics, implying that those Americans OECD believes fall below average in literacy skill are, essentially, dunces. So let’s take a moment to explain why this is not only wrong, but also damaging.

Americans with poor literacy skills are not stupid. Many have struggled with reading and writing due to a disability, (including both physical disabilities and learning disabilities), and were never afforded the proper accommodation they needed to compensate for the disability. Some are refugees or immigrants from other countries with poor education systems or where English is not the native language. Others simply were not afforded the same educational opportunities that other Americans have been fortunate enough to have received. I knew an individual enrolled in an adult literacy program in Washington D.C., for example, who grew up black and poor, with an alcoholic father, in a rural area of a southern state in the days before the Civil Rights movement. He dropped out of school at a very young age to take care of his family and never learned to read much beyond a basic level. Worked as a laborer most of his life—but a bright and articulate guy, who just didn’t have the same kind of opportunities that I had growing up. That’s the kind of story that more often than not is behind your typical adult with below average literacy skills. It infuriates me when people label such individuals as “dumb.”

Moreover, employing such labels makes the problem worse. It’s embarrassing to admit that you have difficulty reading and writing. Many people who have struggled with reading all of their lives really do feel like they are stupid, and that makes it challenging for them to come forward and get the help they need.  I used to operate an  adult literacy hotline in Washington, and we used to get dozens of calls every day. I know what I’m talking about. The stories were often heartbreaking. The callers weren’t stupid people, but people who had struggled for one reason or another—usually it had a lot to do with being poor. Not due to some innate lack of intelligence. (Not that all adult learners are blameless—there are plenty of people enrolled in adult education programs who would own up to being serious f*ck-ups when they were younger—making mistakes that led them to failing, dropping out, or getting kicked out of school—but making a mistake, even a serious one, doesn’t mean you are incapable of learning.)

Labeling people as dumb also perpetuates the idea that policies designed to improve adult skills are doomed to failure—if these adults are just “dumb,” after all, then there really is nothing that can be done for them, right? Low literacy in this country exists largely because we let it happen. As the OECD report(s) make clear, there are policies we can put into place to change this. It’s not a question of whether low-skilled adults can learn, but whether we will provide them with the opportunity.

As the Speaker of the House said the other day about the government shutdown, this isn’t a damn game. Thankfully, most of the media isn’t treating it like one.

UPDATE 10/10/13: The Atlantic picked up the Quartz story above. (Apparently Quartz is a “sister site.”) However, for The Atlantic version, the headline was changed from “Americans Are Dumber Than Average in Math, Vocabulary, and Technology” to “Americans Are Way Behind in Math, Vocabulary, and Technology.” It appears from scanning the comments that they might have originally used the Quartz headline, but I’m not certain. Thankfully, The Atlantic version does not include the picture of the boy in the dunce cap either. Instead they opted for a less offensive—but far more inexplicable—screen shot from the movie Legally Blonde, which makes absolutely no sense at all. (If I remember correctly, the main character in that film is perceived as dumb, but is actually quite intelligent, despite appearances. This is pretty much the opposite of what the study is telling us—that a nation, we are not as skilled as people may believe.)

I also want to say one other thing about the media coverage. More disturbing, really, than the thoughtless headlines above (which, as I mentioned, aren’t typical of the coverage), is the fact that from what I’ve seen, none of the major media outlets reporting on this story have mentioned or seem to even be aware of the fact that there is an adult education system in the United States. My hope was that as a field we could use this opportunity to not just point out the the problem, but to highlight the success stories in adult education that demonstrate that the problem is solvable. Maybe I’ve missed something. If you know of any good examples, let me know in the comments.

Greetings from PIAAC-istan

I haven’t written much about PIAAC (the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies)—the latest international survey of adult basic skills—because I don’t have much to say about it, at least until the first set of survey data is released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tomorrow. (A U.S.-specific report that was due to be released by NCES tomorrow as well is apparently going to be delayed due to the government shutdown.) There is plenty of information out there about the study itself, so it really doesn’t make sense for me to try to summarize it. If you’re interested, a good place to start is the OECD PIAAC site. Another resource is the AIR PIAAC Gateway.

The last survey/estimate of adult skills in the U.S., the NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy), didn’t do that much, in my opinion, to move federal adult literacy policy forward. Not that it wasn’t helpful: for better or for worse, the NAAL provided us with a commonly accepted figure for the estimated number of American adults who struggle, to some degree, with literacy (93 million)—a figure that we’ve been using for about a decade.

But there were critics of the NAAL methodology at the time, and some confusion in the field about what exactly it measured. (I think the fact sheet we put out at D.C. LEARNs about the NAAL was pretty good, but others, not so much.) In addition, some argued that the 93 million number was so huge that it proved too overwhelming for policymakers to wrap their heads around. With a few exceptions (like the Affordable Care Act), our political system hasn’t had a particularly good track record in recent years of addressing 93-million-people-sized problems. The release of the NAAL certainly didn’t persuade Congress to make a substantial new investment in adult education. In fact, 2003, the year the national NAAL data was released, marked the beginning of what has actually been a gradual decline (in real dollars) in federal adult education funding via Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, the largest source of federal funding for adult education. I’d argue that most of the public policy successes since the last survey have been on a small scale—usually at the state and local level—often involving the creation of new models of service delivery, such as integrated career pathway models.

We’ll get new national numbers from the PIAAC study—and we’ll be able to compare those numbers with other countries that participated in the study. The NAAL also gave us state estimates (eventually), which was unquestionably helpful for state and local advocates, and probably does more to get the attention of  members of Congress than the national numbers. (On domestic issues, members want to know what the issue looks like at the state or district level.) My understanding is that it is hoped that credible state estimates based on the PIAAC data will be produced at some point, but it’s not yet known whether or when that will happen. If we don’t get them, then we will be facing an unfortunate situation where advocates (and the media, surely) will continue to use the old 2003 state estimates when reporting on adult literacy locally, even thought we’ll have an updated national estimate. Which will likely result in more confusion, unless (and even if) states and localities perform their own estimates.

The government shutdown may slightly dull the excitement over the release of this data. As I mentioned above, the NCES First Look Report with specific results for the U.S. population has been delayed indefinitely. In fact, right now you can’t get any information at all from NCES—if go to, you’ll see that this page, like  most federal government Web sites, is down.

Thankfully, the OECD report—which will have some U.S. data—will be released and there are several events here in the U.S. where experts will discuss the findings, starting at 5:00AM EDT (!) when the OECD will officially release the PIAAC data in Brussels, along with two international PIAAC reports: OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills  and The Survey of Adult Skills: Reader’s Companion. A highlights report, Skilled for Life?, will also be available. These reports will be downloadable at The PIAAC Data Explorer and data files will be available at (I’m really pleased that you can access the raw data files—that should prove to be really useful.)

At 10:00AM EDT, a panel will discuss findings from PIAAC as part of the fourth annual NBC News Education Nation Summit. Panelists include Former Michigan Governor John Engler, (now President of the Business Roundtable); Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (and a cool guy); and Mary Isbister, President of GenMet Corporation and Vice Chair of the U.S. Manufacturing Council.  (NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley was also originally on the schedule, but he will not be attending, as he has been placed in cryogenic freeze due to the government shutdown, like most federal government employees.) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be interviewed.

At 2:30 PM EDT, Andreas Schleicher, OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills, will present results from the first round of PIAAC via webcast. You can register for the webcast at:

While the Obama administration’s response to PIAAC may be somewhat muted due to the shutdown, it will be worth watching how the findings are framed when administration folks do comment on it. Remember that they have several high-profile education priorities on the table right now—universal pre-K and a slew of higher education proposals. I suspect Secretary Duncan will want to use this opportunity to tie the PIAAC findings to these two administration priorities. What kind of message they will have about adult education and adult literacy (if any) remains to be seen.