The first question these kinds of studies raise is, ‘If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich?’ — Anthony Carnevale, quoted in New York Times, October 8, 2013
Last week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published an initial international comparison of adult skills in several areas. The Survey of Adult Skills has the United States’ population in the middle of the pack in literacy, as is typical of international educational achievement comparisons, and lower in math skills than the center of the pack (see the OECD’s interactive chart for more details at a quick glance).
This type of international comparison quickly feeds a certain cynicism, such as the quip by Carnevale, above. He’s not that cynical in reality, quoted elsewhere in the Times article that there are real consequences, especially to inequality in adult skills. But he’s right to note an important limit to comparisons, as the path of an economy depends on much more than what economists call human capital.
Perhaps more importantly, we should ignore rhetoric that implies that the educational attainment and skills of a population are directly related to trade, at least in the United States. We are not competing with Indian and Chinese workers in terms of skill. We are competing in and have lost the race to the bottom on wages, but that happened long before the rise of the Indian and Chinese economies. It happened with the globalization of manufacturing decades ago. The effect of that shift has been the transformation of our national economy into a place where we mostly sell services to each other. That transformation certainly has consequences for the value of schooling. But because trade is a much smaller part of our economy than it is for many smaller countries, it is false to say that the reason why we should worry about international comparisons is because of international economic competition. Such a claim is balderdash. We should be happy that other countries have improved their own educational attainment so rapidly, and wish them luck in continuing improvement.
So should we take anything from international comparisons? Yes. First, it’s important to support international, comparative education research because it broadens our horizons and makes us less likely to assume that just because X is a current fad in the United States, it is the only policy choice. Second, especially for studies of adult attainment and skills, we can look at a range of ways that age, language minority status, and other social indicator distributions affect attainment or skills, and again a comparative approach can and should discourage our parochial approaches in the U.S. We should be very concerned about the inequality of skills among adults, which I suspect is a partial consequence of our having diverted adult basic education program funds into GED programs, something that started four decades ago.
In short, we can find value in international comparisons just so long as we don’t use them as an excuse to declare an Urgent Crisis with each one.