Back to School: The Adult Version

Parents and policymakers often voice concerns over the educational system for children in the US. Rarely, though, do we hear much about the educational system for adults. In fact, you may read this and wonder, what educational system for adults? According to a report released earlier this week by the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), adults in the US perform significantly weaker than peers in other developed countries across several measures.

Adult Education, OECD

The US needs more options for adult education. Rukuku can help.

One of those measures is literacy. One in six adults in the US have low literacy skills, according to the study, compared to only one in 20 in Japan. Mathematics is another measure. There, one in three adults in the US performs poorly, compared to an average across the countries surveyed of one in five.  And the situation is not improving. Adults today scored at or below the levels of adults in the 1990s.

So what gives? The study offers a few ideas. One, initial schooling was not that strong. In other words, they didn’t learn this stuff the first time around. The good news there is that if we fix the school system for kids, then this factor will eventually correct itself. But there are other reasons, too. Socioeconomic correlation was much stronger in the US than in other countries, meaning poorer adults performed significantly worse than their more well-off peers.

Weaker educational skills mean dimmer job prospects, regardless of actual educational attainment. This was truer in the US than in other countries. It also goes beyond employment woes. Adults with low proficiency scores were four times more likely to have a low level of health than those with high scores. That difference was more than double the average across all countries surveyed.

But the news is not all bad. The US does do a good job of rewarding those with strong skills. Basic educational skills are more well-rewarded in the US, in terms of wages, than almost any other country surveyed. That means that the potential for getting a better job with just a little more studying is significant.

Another piece of good news is that most low-skilled workers in the US are still employed. That offers an avenue to reach these workers. Educational opportunities offered through the work place would benefit both the individual and his or her employer. Well, and society, too and also those of us who follow international test score rankings.

We can help. Rukuku offers lots of great content and course development tools as well as an innovative online environment to help adults looking to improve their academic and other skills. For employers, get in touch with us, too. We can set up easily deliverable educational programs for your employees, which will be great for them and great for your company.

Socioeconomic barriers

On this blog, we’re always talking about problems in education that need solving. One of these is the socioeconomic gap in access, quality, and achievement. What specific issues should stakeholders in education be aware of in solving this problem? Here are some examples:

High cost

Sure, in most countries public education is funded by the taxpayer, so it’s ostensibly free. Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole picture. Even in the developed world, public education is often of low quality, requiring learners to supplement their instruction with expensive, resource-heavy private services. And outside of primary school education, the world is full of people who want to learn something but aren’t able to because of prohibitive costs.

Poor access/low quality

In low-income areas of developed countries, as well as those in the developing world, access to quality education is in short supply. Good teachers are few and far between, and other educational resources are even more scarce.

Lack of relevance

As we discussed in our commentary on curricular problems and in our last post, the things that are being taught in public schools are often irrelevant to the learners. For example, often people who require instruction in a trade will receive an abstract education that is of little use in advancing their career aspirations. There are no services broadly available to effectively and cheaply educate interested people in a subject they find relevant or necessary to their life or career advancement.

In our next installment, we’ll be talking about the ways in which online education technologies can help to address these issues.

Relevance in Education

At Rukuku, we’re always thinking about solutions that will give people options when it comes to education. One of the problems we are trying to solve is the problem of relevance: we want people to be learning things that are relevant to their personal interests and professional goals.

The United States is respected around the world for its venerable system of higher education. There is much to laud: there’s no doubt that we have some of the world’s best colleges and universities, greatest opportunities for research and innovation, and most talented people.

Unfortunately, American education is also severely deficient in one very important area: real-life career training. When it comes to technical or vocational programs, or even just learning a relevant skill at one’s own initiative, we do not have many quality options available. This is in stark contrast to other developed countries, such as Germany, where only a small fraction of people attend full-fledged universities, with most opting for narrower professional programs.

In a recent exchange of political slurs between our president and candidate Rick Santorum, the latter called Obama a “snob” for suggesting that everyone should go to college. It’s a shame Santorum’s many years of higher education didn’t teach him any tact, because he missed a perfect opportunity to make a serious statement on the matter. What he might have been trying to say, in his indelicate Santorumish way, is that there should be a lot of alternatives to the traditional four-year higher education model. That, actually, would have been a pretty sensible thing to say. If he had said it.

As important as higher education is to many people, there are many other people who do not need to attend universities and learn useless things that will not help them to become productive members of society. There was a time in America when it was possible to be make a great living doing a skilled trade without having to go through the motions of receiving a (completely useless for many) bachelor’s degree. Those days can return if we’re willing to accept the idea that college really isn’t for everyone, and that many of us would be better off learning real, useful skills instead.

This argument has some seriously positive economic implications, too. The United States, once the world’s most prolific producer, currently exports much less than it imports. A lot less. We don’t make anything anymore in this country – and I daresay part of the reason is that we’ve forgotten how.

Now, you can talk all you want about how our labor can’t compete with cheap labor from Asia, and how we’re destined to become a 100% service economy, and all that jazz. But guess what? The Germans clearly didn’t get that memo. Despite having one of the most expensive labor forces in the world, they continue to produce everything from washing machines to cars to electronics to medical equipment to Märzen. You can go ask their $18 billion trade surplus if you don’t believe me.

College is undoubtedly one of the most important ways to encourage an educated, productive population. But it should not be the only answer, and if you still think it is, perhaps you ought to get off your ivory tower!

What do you think, readers? Leave your angry comments below.