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Study: American adults lagging behind international peers

Published: Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013 11:51 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Nov. 4, 2013 12:09 a.m. CDT
(Sarah Nader-
Maria Camacho (from left) of Woodstock, Saeeda Ahmad of Lake in the Hills get help from their teacher, Kathy Young of Cary, during their adult education basic reading class Thursday at McHenry County College.
(Sarah Nader –
Tim Fisher (left) of Woodstock works on a practice GED test during class Thursday at McHenry County College.

Libraries, education programs and book clubs available throughout McHenry County can often serve as bastions of learning for adults interested in continuing their efforts beyond the confines of a classroom.

And they might want to start using those services more frequently based on the results of an international survey that compared American adults’ know-how to their international peers.

Researchers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that American adults scored below the international average in areas such as math, reading and problem-solving using technology – basic skills considered vital for global economic strength.

The adult education department at McHenry County College tries to address the skill gaps among its older and more traditional students pursuing a GED. Math and reading have been the cornerstones of the program, but teachers have also turned their attention to technology – a skill set increasingly in demand in today’s global economy.

“Our students have to be more competitive with the rest of the world than they would have to have been 20, 30 or even 40 years ago,” said Tom Pierce, the department’s executive director.

American adults, in particular, now have a greater need to sharpen basic skills like math and reading since job loss at home and market competitiveness abroad are increasing, Pierce said.

International researchers in the study tested 166,000 people ages 16 to 65 in more than 20 countries. The findings revealed that in countries such as the United States, England, Germany, Poland and Italy, social background had a major effect on literacy skills. Children of parents with low education often had lower reading skills.

The study also added another caveat to the fact that American schoolchildren often score lower on international assessments than children in other countries. But as with their children, American adults represent a diverse population, including a high immigrant population, said Regional Superintendent of Schools Leslie Schermerhorn.

The various cultural and economic backgrounds, along with escalating poverty and violence, often pose more educational challenges for the United States, she said. Ongoing cuts to education also makes it difficult for Americans to compete with their international counterparts.

“We have a tougher road to tow,” Schermerhorn said. “The cuts are brutal. ... The cutting in education is a huge hindrance to our country achieving more.”

To build on formal education, local communities have to step up and provide additional opportunities for school children and adults alike, she said. Libraries often can be a community’s first stop for those opportunities.

The Crystal Lake Public Library has made its mission to be a community center for lifelong learning, said public relations coordinator Linda Price.

The library offers various adult education programs and even provides an online database for adults interested in learning about personal finance, reading and grammar improvement.

“Our mission is to help people of all ages learn, enjoy and better their lives,” Price said. “Giving equal access to learning for everyone is an important part of what we do.”

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