Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On adult literacy in the United States

Browsing through the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, I stumbled on puzzling numbers on education in the article by Elizabeth Cascio, Damon Clark and Nora Gordon: while the United States is severely lagging in literacy for 16-17 year olds among countries with similar income levels, it is in the middle of the pack for ages 26-30. This is based on the International Adult Literacy Survey, which tests how well respondents answer to questions after reading a text.

That the performance of school students in the US is poor should surprise no one. What I find surprising is how well they catch up on the other countries later on. It is true that university graduation rates used to be higher than anywhere else, but this has changed now. Also, I am not convinced that a diploma in the US is worth the same as in other countries. However, the first two years in US colleges are typically spent furthering general education which has already been acquired in high school elsewhere. Can this explain the catching up? At least part of it. But I cannot believe that US college students learn that much to pass the Italian, Swiss or Danish ones.


Unknown said...

well i have talked to some people from bulgaria and countries like that who i know, and the thing that i see over there is that people dont go to college as much as they do here, which is most likely a major factor in the increase. I mean a factor in their teenagers being ahead is that their middle(elementary) education is ahead of ours by far. My neighbors are bulgarion and it talked to their daughter who was in 4th grade at the time, and she said that they had her in the advanced classes and she had learned that stuff back in like second grade, which just goes to show the difference in their teaching. Another thing not to forget is other countries teaching methods. Some countries such as china do not count tests, yet they assign alot of homework and count only the final exam for the grade, which makes kids work harder to learn alot more. And to throw some person opinion in there, our school systems are poor, I honestly believe that if we have corporal punishment again our education would be better. I see many people at school just messing around and disregarding suspensions, and at the colleges, i have seen many people get in when they do not that good. Also, our grades here are based of averages, whereas medians would be more accurate, since just doing the homework gives people a HUGE boost in their grades.

I apologize for typos, but i am rushing since i must return to typing a paper.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the logic in this is flawed. What you have is a group of 16-17 year olds, and a different group of 26-30 year olds. The older group went through the education system 9-14 years later than the younger group. Who knows what changes took place in education during that time? Rather than assuming something happens to improve literacy between the late teen years and the late twenties, a more likely scenario is that 9-14 years ago (a half-generation), the educational level in the US was on par with other countries, and now it lags behind.

To argue that people in the US "catch up" to those in other countries in literacy, you would need to be comparing one group along a timeline, relative to their peers in other countries. Sad as it is to suggest this, it may simply be that the younger group is poorly educated and won't catch up, neither to those in other countries, nor to the older group.

Economic Logician said...

Lit advocate: your point is very well taken. However, I would think that the education system would change more slowly than the people getting educated.

Going through the quoted paper again, I find a partial explanation for the puzzle I raise: The survey does not cover students living in dorms. Thus the younger sample is missing some 17 year olds that would already be in college (and thus are brighter than average). But I doubt such a sampling bias could explain completely this strange increase in literacy.