[Assessment 1360] Assessment Issues in Reach Higher, America report

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tsticht at znet.com tsticht at znet.com
Mon Jul 14 14:12:53 EDT 2008

Marie and others: The following note raises an important set of issues about
adult skills assessment raised in the Reach Higher, America report. The
report is premised on the notion of a skills crisis in the American
workforce. But as the note indicates, there are some important questions
about just how one goes about assessing the skills of the American
workforce and how one assesses the skills demands of jobs. Assessment in
these areas is important at the level of policy formation for funding for
adult education and literacy skills development as well as for counseling
of students regarding their education and training needs for employment.
Tom Sticht

July 9, 2008

The Great Crisis in Workforce Skills Debate

Tom Sticht

In June 2008 a National Commission on Adult Literacy presented the final
report of a two year study of the skills of the American workforce and the
demands for skills in the workplace. Entitled "Reach Higher, America:
Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce", the report states "Almost a
decade into the 21st Century, America faces a choice: We can invest in the
basic education and skills of our workforce and remain competitive in
today’s global economy, or we can continue to overlook glaring evidence of
a national crisis and move further down the path to decline." (p. v)

Continuing its claims of a crisis in the U. S. workforce due to low skills,
the Commissions report goes on to state: "Americans should have been
stunned when the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), released in
2005, revealed that a staggering 30 million American adults scored at
"below basic "—meaning they could perform no more than the most rudimentary
literacy tasks. Another 63 million adults could perform only simple, basic
everyday literacy activities.1 The NAAL findings are ominous because most
good jobs require at least some education beyond high school. The NAAL
found that of the approximately 222 million adults aged 16 or older living
in households or prisons in the United States, some 93 million lack
literacy at a level needed to enroll in the postsecondary education or job
training that current and future jobs require. This alarming number should
have produced a national outcry. But—at a time when our economy and welfare
are more dependent on knowledge and skills than ever before—there was barely
a whisper." (p. 2)

Why has there been "barely a whisper" in the face of this workforce skills
crisis? There are no doubt many factors involved, but one of them seems to
be that the claim of such a crisis is challenged by another stream of
reports by organizations and individuals. For instance, in a recent article
online at http://www.ednews.org,, Dennis Redovich, a job skills specialist
(www.jobseducationwis.org) surveyed a number of the claims of workforce
skills deficits and concluded Quote: "Reality is 1. For the majority of the
jobs in the world and the U. S., basic reading, writing, arithmetic, and
developing a work ethic may be required. 2. Education for education sake is
good and is helpful in getting a job and doing well. However there is a
surplus of highly educated workers for jobs that require higher levels of
education and training. 3. A majority of jobs in the United States
workforce require only short-term or moderate length on the job training or
experience. About 21% of jobs might require a bachelor's degree or more.
About 32% of workers in 2003 in the U. S. workforce 25 years and over had a
Bachelor's degree or more. 5. About 5% of jobs in the United States in the
2000s might require higher math and or science course work."

In a September 2006 article in Phi Delta Kappan, Gerald Bracey has an
article in which he notes that for years both he and Redovich "have been
screaming about what we might call the "high-skills hoax" -- the notion
that everyone must have high skills." He goes on to say, Quote: "It's not
that we don't recognize a civil rights issue in the debate -- everyone
should have the opportunity to develop the skills to land a high-paying
job. However, we understand the law of supply and demand, and we know about
what jobs are actually being created. In fact, if everyone became highly
skilled, the wages of skilled labor would fall, and the unemployment rates
for skilled workers would rise, a condition conducive to social unrest."
End quote

Both Redovich and Bracey point to research indicating that the workforce of
the near future (e.g., up to 2020) will not face a future dominated by jobs
with postsecondary or college degree requirements. Bracey states, Quote:
"Most new jobs, though, continue to be in the low-paying service sector.
When the Bureau of Labor Statistics issues its 10-year job creation
forecasts, the number of new jobs for retail sales clerks alone approaches
the number for the 10 fastest-growing jobs combined. At present, the number
of people with bachelor's degrees is just about right to fill the proportion
of jobs requiring them, and that proportion is not projected to increase
much in the near future. Producing a great many more college grads will . .
. well, here we are again, back to supply and demand.
Parallel to the claim
that we will need more skilled workers is the claim that there is a mismatch
between jobs and the skills of workers: workers don't have the skills that
employers demand. We have argued against this, too." End quote.

In 1998 I prepared a paper for the U. S. Department of Education entitled
Beyond 2000: Future Directions for Adult Education. In that report I drew
upon work from the Hudson Institute [Judy, R. & D’Amico, C. (1997)
Workforce 2020: Work and Workers in the 21st Century. Indianapolis, IN:
Hudson Institute] looking at the education and skills requirements of jobs
up to the year 2020. I concluded that Quote "If the new Hudson Institute
report is correct, 65-75 percent of the new jobs in the fastest growing
occupations will require language and mathematics skills at or below the
8th grade level in school.
Regarding the so-called "skills gap," then,
what can be said for certain is that the last decade and a half has
witnessed a plethora of analyses to find out if such a gap exists and to
this date there has been no definitive answer (there is not even agreement
on what is meant by the word "skills," see papers for the National Academy
of Sciences edited by Lesgold, Feuer, & Black, 1997). This debate is likely
to persist into the next millennium." End quote.

Now we are nearing the end of the first decade of the new millennium and we
find that, indeed, the great debate about workforce skills and job demands
goes on. The recent report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy is
the latest in the stream of reports decrying the skills of the workforce
and portending a crisis for our global competitiveness. On the other side
of the debate are the reports by Bracey, Redovich and the analysts they
cite who argue that we are not facing a workforce skills crisis that
threatens our national economy nor our international competitiveness.

This debate may contribute to some degree to the conclusion of the Reach
Higher America report that, despite the surveys of adult literacy conducted
by the U. S. Department of Education suggesting that some 93 million adults
lack literacy at a level needed to enroll in the postsecondary education or
job training that current and future jobs require, barely a whisper has been
heard. More to the point, little by way of policy and funding for the Adult
Education and Literacy System of the United States has changed, and the
system continues to work staffed mostly by part-time and volunteer
teachers, with an obscene level of funding of barely $800 per enrollment.
This does not signal to me that a crisis exists in the skills of the

Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
Email: tsticht at aznet.net