This speech was delivered at the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) conference as a keynote on April 23, 2015. It was dedicated to two individuals who have passed away this year and who made significant contributions to the field of adult education: Eugene Owens, Senior Advisor for the Assessment Division at the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education; and Mary Jane Schmidt, co-founder of the Adult Numeracy Network and an Adult Numeracy Project Director at TERC.
Thank you, Jackie [Taylor], for that kind introduction and for all the work you and your COABE board have done to put on this conference.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.
I want to start by saying, skills matter. They matter to our:
- Health. We know that adults with higher levels of literacy and numeracy report themselves to be in better health condition and U.S. adults with low literacy skills are four time more likely to report fair or poor health than adults with higher skills. This is twice the international average.
- Family well-being and quality of life. What makes up quality of life? Economic security, safe neighborhoods, children’s health and achievement, trust in authorities and a sense that your voice and opinion matter? These things are all strongly correlated with adults’ skills.
- Employment and advancement on the job. We know that youth and adults with higher skills are more likely to be employed, to work in jobs with higher wages, and to work at jobs that allow them to exercise and extend their skills.
- Social mobility. Another staggering finding in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills was the strength of intergenerational lack of social mobility. In the U.S., adults with low educated parents (that is, without any postsecondary education) are 10 times more likely to have low skills than adults with at least one college-educated parent. This relationship eases somewhat for younger cohorts, but it is still stronger here than in our competitive countries.
You know these facts. I know these facts. Our adult education colleagues know these facts. What is not clear is if our neighbors, employers, elected officials, and many adults with low skills know these facts. And, they ought to.
I’m not going to share a lot of data with you today except to say when the OECD Survey of Adult Skills was released in Oct 2013, the findings were stunning. 36 million of our fellow Americans struggle with literacy skills, 48 million struggle with numeracy skills, and an even larger number struggle with the technology skills needed to solve every day work-like problems. We’ve spoken about these findings for a year and a half, sounding the alarm that it is “time for the U.S. to reskill” and upskill.
What I’d like to talk about today is how we can do what is necessary to make significant, lasting changes in the skills profile of this country that are evident to all now and in the long run.
Don’t mistake me for Don Quixote de la Mancha with an impossible dream. I know that our efforts in adult education and literacy alone cannot address the vastness of the challenge. I also know that the efforts by our partners in health and human services and workforce development help a lot but those efforts, too, are simply not enough.
I may be eternally optimistic and express big dreams, but I am also a realist. I know that we need to tell the story in a compelling and transformative manner and that we need friends and partners in this quest. Lots and lots of friends.
We need to reframe the narrative, seek new and unlikely partners, and find fresh solutions. The current narrative does not match the severity and magnitude of the skills challenge. Skeptics have pointed at prior reports, data, and efforts and say this time can’t or won’t be different.