Our Grown-Up Literacy Problem

By Patte Barth

Headlines about America’s so-called failing schools have been written so many times that their veracity is generally taken for granted by the public. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way American students’ international standing tends to be reported, usually dressed up with words like “lagging,” “sliding,” and flat-out “bad.”

But as we have pointed out many times at the Center for Public Education, the reality isn’t as bleak as the headlines would have the public believe. True, we are not No. 1 on any international test of student performance. But our elementary school students are very close to the top in reading, and they are outperformed by only four of 49 nations. Plus, they and their middle school counterparts score comfortably above the international average in math. More importantly, they are improving.

High school is a different story, and policymakers have been right to call attention to the need to do better. Compared to their international peers, our 15-year-olds are average in reading and slightly below it in math—results that have been fairly consistent since 2000.

Yet there is a larger, underreported segment of the American population that falls behind most of our economic competitors, and it’s not our students. Alarmingly, it’s our adults whose abilities in reading, math, and problem-solving rank significantly below the international average. 

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