When CSUN economics professor Kenneth Chapman tried to teach principles in a microeconomics class in the 90s, he was surprised by the math education level of some of the students.
He assigned them homework on present value calculations for bonds to see if they understood how the formulas functioned. A student walked up to him to ask a few questions, struggling to figure out the problems. The student asked whether he could leave his work unsimplified. Chapman didn’t care either way since the student only needed to press buttons on the calculator to simplify his work.
The student’s face altered to a worried expression. He looked at Chapman and asked whether the horizontal line meant divide.
“He is an extreme (example). But we have all sorts of people who can’t read graphs,” Chapman said. “We are speaking this alien language. How are you going to follow what we are talking about? There is a problem in the technical classes (today).”
A new comprehensive study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of adult skills shows American skill levels continue to be lower in comparison to 24 other countries like Japan, Australia, Norway and Sweden.
The organization measured skills in literacy, basic math or numeracy and the third assessment, “problem-solving in technology-rich environment,” which measured how young adults use digital devices to evaluate information and perform standard tasks. The study assessed the proficiency of adults from age 16 to 65 living in one of the 23 developed nations included in the assessment.
Japan ranked first in all three fields and Finland second in average scores. The U.S. ranked near the bottom in skills with numbers and technology, with only 9 percent of Americans scoring in the top two of the five proficiency levels, compared with an average of 12 percent in 23 countries, and 19 percent in Finland, Japan and Sweden. Only 34 percent of American adults scored high in numeracy.
Chapman believes education plays a role in American workers falling behind in numeracy. He said international students in CSUN economics classes do better than those that received a local education.
“The Eastern Europeans mostly have (numeracy skills) but that’s because they were trained in the Soviet era (where) science and engineering is what those guys pushed,” Chapman said. “When you get into a technical subject like mine, they do pretty well which is kind of funny. They are trained in a former communist system and what class do they do well in? Econ—the capitalist econ. There is something kind of perverse about that, but it’s true.”
Sam Mejila, a freshman studying theater at CSUN said both professors and students need to share the responsibility to make sure the material presented in the class is being fully comprehended.
“Professors need to make sure they’re teaching it well enough and make sure students are getting it and retaining it,” Mejila said. “We may be the biggest consumers of technology but that doesn’t mean we are using it wisely.”
The study defined literacy as the “ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written text to participate in society and manage to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” The U.S. ranked near the middle when it came to proficiency level in literacy.
CSUN history alumnus Stephen Fallon didn’t experience difficulty getting a job in investment banking after his fall 2012 graduation. However, he experienced seeing others without writing skills struggling to keep their jobs.
“A lot of the analysts that would come in with finance or business degrees didn’t write very well,” Fallon said. “You can learn the finance and the math and the business side on the job. Those other skills are harder to refine because it’s easier to teach somebody math than it is to write a summary well.”
CSUN history professor Thomas Devine said his students tend to have problems with literacy and problem solving skills. Instead of discussing an assigned reading, he ends up showing students how to write basic sentences—a topic he remembers learning in 5th grade.
“Functional literacy is when you can read and then tell somebody what you just read in a way that they can understand it,” Devine said. “That means you’ve mastered the concept, not just have your eyes going over the words but that you have thought about it and internalized it enough that you can then go paraphrase it in a way that’s clear enough for someone else to know the idea to be able to understand it. That’s what we don’t have.”
Devine said high school classrooms designed to focus on SAT testing is a waste of time in terms of preparing students for college or job market skills because it’s based on a test driven education system, in which students are not told how to write a clear sentence.
“I just read an article on Slate about how the preparation for the SAT forces teachers in high school to teach their students how to write badly because they are writing these nonsensical five paragraph essays that when they get to college they have to immediately unlearn,” Devine said.
CSUN doesn’t necessarily teach students certain skills either, Devine said.
“The untenured professors are told all the livelong day about the importance of graduation rates. What the young untenured professor hears is don’t fail people because that will hurt our graduation dates,” Devine said. “So what do you do? You move them right through or you dumb down the course so far that no one will fail. That’s meeting the goal of the business model, that’s not necessarily educating everybody.”
Secondary education professor Clara Park notes cultural, social, and economic struggles that contribute to the skills gap.
“Hillary Clinton indicated in her book that it takes a whole village to provide optimal education of children in this nation and across the world. (Loss of skills is) not just because of education, but of various factors,” Park said.
Park said a combination of parents, teachers, school administrators, counselors and community members are responsible for the children’s education.
“There are diverse parents who don’t understand how the American education system works. Their cultural expectations and attitudes towards schools are very different from white parents of middle class backgrounds,” Park said. “We need to educate parents to exercise their parental rights and also to become better partners in their children’s education.”
Devine said that the huge amount of money and time we have spent on education is not paying off and has only made things worse.
“I wonder if we would have been better off just taking all the money and lighting it on fire because at least there wouldn’t have been bad consequences and someone might have been warmed by the fire,” Devine said. “And now they say cut education funding, but we seem to fund things that produce students that have fewer skills, which is insane.”
Today’s employers point out that they continue to struggle during the hiring process because there aren’t enough workers with the skills they require.
“We have never been a country that particularly valued education,” Devine said. “The kind of education we are providing, I don’t know if it’ll get you a good job anymore.”
CSUN freshman Pilar De Haro said even some of the entry-level office jobs require employees to learn skills outside of the classroom.
“Some skills you learn on your own. If your major doesn’t have anything to do with (skills the job market requires), you should take initiative to learn,” De Haro said.
Although Devine noted many flaws in the education system, he retains some optimism.
“It’s not all (doom) and gloom. You can have an amazing education here. You just have to take the right classes,” Devine said.