U.S. adults lag in numeracy, literacy

U.S. adults are dumber than the average human, proclaims the New York Post. A new international study doesn’t quite say that. But it’s not great news.

art“In math, reading and problem solving using technology – all skills considered critical for global competitiveness and economic strength – American adults scored below the international average,” the Post reports.

Adults in Japan, Canada, Australia, Finland and other countries scored higher than the United States in all three areas on the test, reports the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Americans ranked 16 out of 23 industrialized countries in literacy and 21 out of 23 in numeracy. In a new test of “problem solving in technology rich environments,” the U.S. ranked 17 out of 19. Respondents were tested on activities such as calculating mileage reimbursement due to a salesman, sorting email and comparing food expiration dates on grocery store tags.

American baby boomers outperformed people of the same age overseas, reports the Wall Street JournalYounger Americans lagged behind their international peers “in some cases by significant margins.”

The results show that the U.S. has lost the edge it held over the rest of the industrial world over the course of baby boomers’ work lives, said Joseph Fuller, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who studies competitiveness. “We had a lead and we blew it,” he said, adding that the generation of workers who have fallen behind their peers would have a difficult time catching up.

“We have a substantial percentage of the work force that does not have the basic aptitude to continue to learn and to make the most out of new technologies,” Mr. Fuller said. “That manifests itself in lower rates of productivity growth, and it’s productivity growth that drives real wage growth.”

Workers in Spain and Italy posted the lowest scores.

The college advantage is narrowing

College graduates’ earnings advantage is narrowing slightly, according to two new College Board reports.

Flip MOOCs to help community college students succeed, suggests Bill Gates.

More try STEM majors — and quit

More students are trying — and quitting — STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, reports USA Today.

Interest is up, says UCLA Professor Mitchell Chang. Persistence is not.

Many students aren’t prepared for the rigors of introductory chemistry and calculus, says Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. Women are more likely to drop the major.

“If women get a B, they think they’re failing. A man gets a B, and he’s happy. They say they’re acing the class,” Cosentino says. “Women who go into hard sciences, they’re very driven, they’re very high achieving, and if they’re not performing at that very top level, they become discouraged, and they think that it is not for them.”

Tough grading in science classes leads to attrition, a 2010 Cornell study found. STEM students realize they can work less and earn higher grades in liberal arts courses.

The S in STEM has been oversold, writes Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

“Employers are paying more, often far more, for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering and mathematics (TEM),” College Measures President Mark Schneider wrote in his report, “Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others.”

But “evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in biology earn a wage premium — in fact, they often earn less than English majors,” Schneider wrote. “Graduates with degrees in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics.”

A TEM bachelor’s degree qualifies a graduate for a good job. An S bachelor’s degree usually isn’t enough on its own, though it can be the first step to a medical degree.

2-year degree raises career pay by $259K

Earning an associate degree raises career-long earnings by $259,000 compared to a high school graduate’s earnings, a new study estimates. However, some community colleges provide much more return on investment than others.

U.S. overspends on college

The U.S. is overspending on higher ed, argues Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic. “We devote more of our economy to postsecondary education than any other developed country (except South Korea, with whom we’re tied),” but we’re rated near the bottom in college spending “efficiency.” That’s degrees earned per percentage point of GDP spent. The chart’s weighted measure gives more credit for graduating students from four-year, rather than two-year, colleges, which boosts the U.S. rank.

“Unlike, say, Germany with its renowned apprenticeship systems,” the U.S. doesn’t offer “alternatives to college if you want a middle-class life,” writes Weissmann. “So ill-prepared young adults flood into degree programs they never finish, leaving the U.S. with some of the lowest completion rates in the developed world.” That means, “we’re spending extraordinary amounts of money to produce college dropouts.”

Accountability helps — at low-rated schools

Accountability pressures improved outcomes for students who attended low-performing Texas high schools in the ’90s, concludes a new study, School Accountability, Postsecondary Attainment and Earnings.

Schools at risk of receiving a low rating increased the math scores for all students, notes Education Gadfly.

Students at these schools were later likelier to accumulate more math credits and graduate from high school. On top of that, they were more liable to attend college and earn more at age 25. In particular, students who had previously failed an eighth-grade exam ended up around 14 percent more likely to attend college and 12 percent more likely to get a degree.

Accountability policies had no impact at schools that weren’t in danger of a low rating.

At schools with a shot at a relatively high rating, “recognized,” more low-scoring students were placed in special education, “perhaps in order to take them out of the accountability pool,” reports Gadfly. Low-scoring students in these schools had “large declines in attainment and earnings,” the study found.

Job 1: Educating for self-sufficient citizenship

Education young people to be self-sufficient citizens is Job 1 for public education, writes Mike Petrilli on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

“College and career” readiness isn’t enough,he writes. We need citizenship readiness. (Citizenship First suggests that every high school graduate should be able to pass the U.S. Naturalization Exam. See how you do here.)

The most basic requirement of citizenship is self-sufficiency, Petrilli argues.

If we haven’t prepared our young people to be financially self-sufficient once they finish their educations, we have failed our most fundamental duty. And the “we” is meant to be inclusive: our education system, our social service agencies, our families, our churches, all of us.

There are two ways to help children, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. We can try to “make bad parents less relevant” or “make bad parents less bad.”  He puts preschool and education reform in the first category; home visits and parent training — which smack of “Big Mother” — are in the second.

These programs “help at the margins but they aren’t breaking the cycle of poverty,” writes Petrilli.

Let me float a third option: A renewed effort to encourage young, uneducated, unemployed women to delay childbearing until they are ready–emotionally, financially–to start a family. Let’s promote a simple rule: Don’t have babies until you can afford them. If everybody in America followed this rule, most long-term child poverty would disappear, and parenting would improve dramatically.

. . . Social scientists have long known about the “success sequence”: Finish your education, get a job, get married, start a family. Stick to that sequence and you avoid poverty, and so do your kids.

Petrilli asks Deborah Meier, the other half of the Bridging Differences dialogue, if schools can encourage students to follow the “success sequence.” Offer effective pregnancy prevention programs?

Should we consider paying low-income individuals to put off childrearing? Mayor Bloomberg is already experimenting with cash incentives to encourage all manner of positive behaviors. Maybe offer “25 by 25″: All young men and women who graduate from high school get a post-secondary credential, get a job, and avoid a pregnancy and a prison record get $25,000 in cash at the age of twenty-five. Is that worth trying?

Or is the best way for schools to tackle this issue simply to provide a top-grade education to their charges? To instill in them the “hope in the unseen” that they, too, can aspire to college, to a good career, to an early adulthood full of intellectual and social and emotional challenges and experiences, not to include parenthood (yet)?

I wish schools would teach this statistic: Ninety percent of children born to an unmarried teen-ager who hasn’t finished high school will grow up in poverty. If the mother waits to have her first child till she finishes high school, turns 20 and marries, the risk her children will be poor is 9 percent. They could add the stats on the percentage of unmarried fathers are supporting or visiting their children after the first few years.

There needs to be more focus on showing young men from low-income single-parent families how to qualify for a decent job with or without a college degree. One path to success– a bachelor’s degree or bust — isn’t enough.

Update: When parents have conversations with their children, it makes a huge difference, writes Annie Murphy Paul. Robert Pondiscio responds:  ”On my bucket list of ed projects: a PSA campaign to inform low-income parents on the benefits of reading to kids and engaging them in conversation. Cognitive development classes in inner-city hospitals can teach inner city parents the habits that more affluent parents do reflexively. And if the Gates Foundation wants to help, let’s get low-cost books — say 25 cents apiece — into inner city bodegas.”

Where high school is taken seriously

High school is serious business overseas, say U.S. students who’ve studied in Korea, Finland and Poland. PBS NewsHour interviews the three students featured in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

Eric: The biggest positive difference that I took away was that in Korea people have a very palatable sense of how education affects their lives and how it affects their future. People understand that how you do in school, what you do, has repercussions for how successful I am and my opportunities going forward.

But, at the same time that sort of mentality ties into a huge pressure system, where students are really encouraged to just do well on tests so that they have high numbers, go to a good school, and do perhaps, something that makes a lot of money, something prestigious, not necessarily something that they are interested in.

Finnish teachers rely mainly on lectures, said Kim. “There weren’t a lot of assignments during the semester until the end when you did exams in the form of essays.”

Tom: In Polish high school the students took their education much more seriously than American high schoolers do. They considered it unpleasant for the most part, but an extremely necessary duty. People didn’t really have identities besides being good students. There wasn’t really a gauge of success outside of doing well in school, unlike high schoolers here where you can not be the best student, but if you are a really great athlete you can be recruited to a school … But there was none of that in Poland it was entirely academic.

All three countries provide alternatives to college prep. Polish students decide at 16 whether they want to attend an academic high school or start vocational training. Nearly half of Finnish 16-year-olds choose the vocational track. In Korea, 20 percent are in vocational high schools.

Texas colleges ‘stack’ energy credentials

Texas community colleges are creating ”stackable credentials” for oilfield workers. Students can earn an entry-level certificate quickly, qualify for a job and return to college for more training later as needed. Each credential “stacks” on the one before. Many associate-degree holders earn $50,000 to $70,000 right out of college in “brown” energy jobs.

It’s time for a smarter (and cheaper) sheepskin

High-tech start-ups are retooling college instruction, writes venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, in The New Republic. We need to “make certification faster, cheaper and more effective too,” he writes.

. . . a diploma is essentially a communications device that signals a person’s readiness for certain jobs.

But unfortunately it’s a dumb, static communication device with roots in the 12th century.

We need to . . .  turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.

There’s a lot more to college than earning a diploma, responds Michael Gibson, who works for the anti-college Thief Foundation, in Forbes. To lower the debt to party ratio, we need to consider “all the friendships formed at school, the esprit de campus, all the networks.” What about beer pong?

College consists of: the clock tower, the stadium, the frat/sorority house and the admissions office, Gibson writes.

Taken together this is like an awful cable TV package. To get HBO, you also need to pay high prices for all those unwatchable stations like the Hallmark Channel. The future of higher education will involve unbundling this package and offering cheaper, higher quality substitutes.

The clock tower represents the amount of time spent studying a subject.

 Classes are measured in hours per week; exams are given in hour length chunks; and students need some requisite number of hours in any subject to signal mastery. It is remarkable that we still use the hour as a substitute measure for learning to this day.

. . .  we are on the cusp of having the technology to unbundle and decentralize this piece of the college puzzle. Coursera, Udacity, and other massively open online courses are only getting started in their effort to demolish the clock tower and provide the customized certification Reid Hoffman describes. What the fireplace, another medieval invention, is to the cold, the clock tower is to learning: proximity used to matter. And now it doesn’t. Central heating is better.

The stadium represents the tribal experience, which is very important to alumni. The frat house represents the friendships that lead to future networking. The admissions office confers status. These will be harder to replace than the clock tower, writes Gibson.

In the near future, the residential college experience will become a luxury item, I predict. Most people will decide it makes more sense to hang out with their friends, play beer pong, root for a professional football team and earn a low-cost career credential.