November 01, 2013

Education: Literacy - OECD World Rankings puts US at bottom

After the American Century

The OECD has tested 166,000 people and ranked nations according to their levels of literacy.  Among persons aged 16 to 24 the results are surprising. The United States is only ranked 20th out of 22, while Finland is in the first position.  It would appear that the Bush "no child left behind" program might have been renamed "a whole system left behind."

How much difference is there between the top and the bottom? Japan is second and Italy twenty-first. The OECD concluded that a Japanese high-school graduate has literacy skills comparable to an Italian university graduate. This would strongly suggest that the distance between Finland (1) and the US (20) or  Britain (18) is just as alarmingly great.

It is also somewhat surprising to see a wider spread in the rankings of the Nordic nations than is usual in such studies, with Sweden at 7, Denmark 13, and resource-rich and debt-free Norway at 16. Why  should Denmark and Norway fall behind former Soviet bloc nations such as Estonia (5), Poland (8),  the Czech Republic (9), and the Slovak Republic (12)?

Literacy, aged 16-24
1 Finland
2 Japan
3 South Korea
4 Netherlands
5 Estonia
6 Australia
7 Sweden
8 Poland
9 Czech Republic
10 Germany
11 Austria
12 Slovak Republic
13 Denmark
14 France
15 Canada
16 Norway
17 Ireland
18 Spain
19 England/N Ireland
20 United States
21 Italy
22 Cyprus

The OECD also compiled a similar table for all adults. Many countries are almost at the same rank in both tables, especially at the top, notably Finland, Japan, and the Netherlands. A comparison also reveals that compared to the older generation the younger people are falling behind in Canada, Norway and the United States. In contrast, youth has improved on their parents and grandparents in South Korea, France, and Spain.

Literacy, all adults
1 Japan
2 Finland
3 Netherlands
4 Sweden
5 Australia
6 Norway
7 Estonia
8 Slovak Republic
9 Flanders (Belgium)
10 Canada
11 Czech Republic
12 Denmark
13 South Korea
14 England/N Ireland
15 Germany
16 United States
17 Austria
18 Poland
19 Ireland
20 France
21 Spain
22 Italy

Literacy is a fundamental indicator for the ability to get and hold a good job, and it correlates well with lifetime income. Poor literacy in a nation harms its competitiveness.