America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing our Nation's Future

Irwin Kirsch
Henry Braun
Kentaro Yamamoto
Andrew Sum
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Educational Testing Service (Policy Evaluation and Research Center, Policy Information Center)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

The authors review and synthesize existing research in three key "powerful forces" in the nation: 1) Wide disparity in literacy and numeracy skills among American school-aged and adult populations, with particular ethnic/racial groups especially at risk; 2) Profound restructuring of the U.S. workplace driven by globalization, technological change, and higher skill demands; and 3) Changing demographic trends (i.e., an aging and more diverse workforce). The authors project (to 2030) how the intersection or "confluence" of these powerful forces could significantly impact the nation's ability to remain competitive and support the economic well-being and equality of all individuals, families, and communities. In short, the authors predict that millions of individuals will be less able to qualify for higher-paying jobs and competing with each other and new immigrants in lower-wage economies. The authors predict substantial variations in employment rates, earnings, and health status across subgroups of populations.

This resource is considered a "must-read" publication for educators, the workforce and economic development system, businesses, organized labor, policy makers and community members to explore the national trends in these three key areas. The entire document or selected sections (such as the Executive Summary) can be used in community forums to explore national as well as local or regional trends and data. For example, a community forum was recently held at a community college in Pennsylvania with Dr. Irwin Kirsch as the featured speaker. Such events, with the attention of the local media, credible speakers, and informed moderators, have the potential to involve the entire community in exploring and planning for a healthy, equitable future.

What the experts say
America's Perfect Storm is a must-read publication for adult educators. It provides adult educators with powerful ammunition to illustrate the value of their services to workforce development and more broadly to society. The executive summary can be shared broadly with adult educators, community members, and potential funding agencies.

The greatest value of this resource is its review of data on literacy levels, demographics, and economic change. It asks some very important questions that need to be addressed by educators, policy makers, and businesses in communities around the nation. However, its promise that the improvement of the educational system can solve the problem is not persuasive. Clearly for any individual, a better education gives a more competitive edge. However, the solutions to the problems stated in the resource are far more social and political than discussed in this paper.

This clear, concise, and well-researched document provides strong evidence to support adult basic education and workforce development initiatives targeted to particular populations (e.g., under-educated African-Americans and Latinos who lack basic skills but who will make up proportionately greater percentages of the U.S. workforce). This document can support the adult education systems reform initiative begun by the National institute for Literacy.

Two additional references that support this resource:

Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. (1990). America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages (1990) Rochester, NY: National Center on Education and the Economy.

Berlin, G. & Sum, A. (1988) Toward a More Perfect Union: Basic Skills, Poor Families, and Our Economic Future. New York: Ford Foundation Project on Social Welfare and the America Future.

Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: The authors synthesized descriptive data from recent national and international research areas in three significant areas - divergent skill distributions among U.S. population groups, the changing U.S. economy, and demographic trends. They then project the potential combined impact of these three forces on the nation's ability to remain economically competitive. Education data sources include National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS), International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), and National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Economic and demographic data sources include Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and American Community Surveys.