Early analyses of response to PIAAC


Selected reaction from media and commentators to the release of PIAAC results ranged from muted and mixed in Canada, to minimal in the US where the federal government shutdown prevented release of the national report, to alarmed in England where young people showed no greater skills than people over 55. 

The OECD also did an early analysis of media reactions to PIAAc in different countries. You can read it at http://oecdinsights.org/2013/10/10/how-the-world-reported-the-oecd-skills-survey/. McGill University professor Ralf St. Clair offers his own analysis on his Literacy and Learning Blog, while noted New Literacy Studies theoretician Brian Street has sent us his comments on PIAAC to the e-consultation on the upcoming United Nations Development Program Gender Equality Strategy [pdf document], focusing on the gender differences found in the PIAAC results as well as the need to make lifelong learning opportunities available to all.


Other Places to Find PIAAC Media Reports, News Releases and Commentary


Analyses by Country

International Overviews

The Economist magazine's report on PIAAC starts with a case study of an apprenticeship program in the Siemens factory complex in Berlin where recruits are "drilled in literacy and numeracy" and “soft” skills, such as how to build teams and divide tasks efficiently, are emphasized since they remain helpful even as production processes change. Such a comprehensive approach, though costly, "would come in useful in the many countries whose adult skill base looks patchy". The Pew Research Centre presents a chart showing the correlation between labour productivity and the use of reading skills at work. International adult education consultation Tom Sticht argued that the PIAAC findings reinforce the notion of a "triple helix" of literacy development: education builds up people's literacy skills, with these skills people engage in literacy practices, which helps them learn even more, leading people to stregnthen their literacy skills, allowing for even more involvement in literacy activities, and so on.


DeSilver, Drew. Chart of the Week: The literacy-productivity connection. Pew Research Center. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/11/chart-of-the-week-the-literacy-productivity-connection/

The Economist. (2013, October). Measuring adult skills: What can you do? A new study shows huge international variations in skills. www.economist.com/news/international/21587823-new-study-shows-huge-international-variations-skills-what-can-you-do

Sticht, Tom. (2013, October). Key PIAAC Finding: The “Triple Helix” of Literacy Development. Posted to AAACE-NLA list. http://lists.literacytent.org/pipermail/aaace-nla/2013/007863.html




How Did Canada do? The Results are Mixed

The main question addressed by most media reports in Canada about PIAAC was “how did Canada do?” Despite some upbeat headlines, such as “Canadians Rank High in OECD Survey” in the Windsor Star and the somewhat inaccurate “Canadians’ Math and Literacy Skills above Par” in the Toronto Sun, the results were decidedly mixed.  Some reports, including those in the Toronto Star and Le Devoir (in French), emphasized Canada’s relatively good performance in the “Problem-Solving in a Technology-Rich Environment” (PS-TRE) domain of PIAAC, although the Globe and Mail reported that the distribution of PS-TRE skills in the Canadian population was highly disparate, with “large swaths of the adult population scoring at both the highest and lowest levels”. CBC News, meanwhile, found that PIAAC “reveals a polarization of skills within the population, with a large number of Canadians mastering highly complex problem solving skills but a comparably large number unable to read and work with numbers at a level necessary for modern life”, while another CBC online article and a Maclean's Magazine report drew attention to Canada’s relatively weak performance in numeracy and its possible economic implications.


Analysis of the Results

An initial analysis of the international and Canadian reports was provided by consultant Brigid Hayes on the CLLN website. She noted that PIAAC is a rich source of data, but also pointed out its limitations: “These measures are constructs of literacy and numeracy and may or may not reflect what people do in everyday life.” She stated that, following from previous international adult literacy surveys:

“PIAAC continues the tradition of being a national snapshot of skills. As such, it contains a wealth of information at the macro level. It can also provide indications of how literacy training might be adapted. However, it has limited application for the classroom.”

PIAAC, she stated, “ought to be one of a number of sources of information about literacy skills, practices and impacts, not the only one”. Nevertheless, she said, PIAAC has many implications for further research and policy, and she provided a list of key policy recommendations made in the OECD report.

In a followup document, Further Reactions to “First Reactions to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Results”, Hayes responds to points made in response to her initial analysis, including clarifications made about the Canadian PIAAC report by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).

Alex Usher at Higher Education Strategy Associates analyzed the PIAAC results and particularly their implications for higher education on his blog One Thought to Start Your Day. In Some Bombshells from the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies Usher focused on the results of different countries and the effect that postsecondary education has on different national results. In More PIAAC: The Canadian Story, he compared results from different Canadian provinces. In PIAAC: The Results for Aboriginal and Immigrant Canadians, he noted that the results for Aboriginal Canadians vary widely between provinces and territories, while the relatively poor results for immigrants despite their relatively high educational credentials reflects the fact that "PIAAC literacy isn’t pure literacy, per se - it’s a test of how well one functions in society’s dominant language".


Linguistic Minorities in Canada

A Radio Canada video clip (in French) focused on what PIAAC had to say about francophone minorities outside of Quebec, with Normand Levesque of RESDAC emphasizing the need to study the issue more closely.



Canadian Sources:

Mahoney, Jull. (2013, October).  Large digital-skills divide among Canadian adults, OECD study shows. The Globe and Mail. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/oecd-study-shows-large-digital-skills-divide-among-canadian-adults/article14740669/?service=mobile#!/

CBC News. (2013, October) Canada’s math, science lag bad for economy, report says: OECD survey finds Canadians’ numeracy ‘significantly below’ average. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/canada-s-math-science-lag-bad-for-economy-report-says-1.1930150

CBC News.(2013, October). OECD study reveals Canada’s polarized workforce. http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/oecd-study-reveals-canada-s-polarized-workforce-1.1930222?cmp=rss

Flavelle, Dana. (2013, October). Canada Ranks High in Digital Skills: OECD report. The Toronto Star. ­http://www.thestar.com/business/tech_news/2013/10/08/canada_ranks_high_in_digital_skills_oecd_report.html

Gervais, Lisa-Marie. (2013, October). Compétences en TIC: le Canada fait bonne figure. Le Devoir.

Hayes, Brigid.(2013, October). First Reactions to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Results.

Hayes, Brigid. (2014, January). Further Reactions to “First Reactions to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Results”.  http://www.centreforliteracy.qc.ca/sites/default/files/Hayes_PIAAC-Further_Reactions.pdf

QMI Agency. (2013, October). Canadians’ Math and Literacy Skills Above Par.  The Toronto Sun. http://www.torontosun.com/2013/10/08/canadians-math-and-literacy-skills-above-par

Radio Canada. (2013, October). Les Compétences des adultes analysées dans 24 pays [video clip]. http://www.radio-canada.ca/widgets/mediaconsole/medianet/6852363

Usher, Alex. (2013, October). Some Bombshells from the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies. One Thought to Start Your Day [blog]. http://higheredstrategy.com/some-bombshells-from-the-programme-for-international-assessment-of-adult-competencies-piaac/

Usher, Alex. (2013, October). More PIAAC: The Canadian Story. One Thought to Start Your Day [blog]. http://higheredstrategy.com/more-piaac-the-canadian-story/

Usher, Alex. (2013, October). PIAAC: The Results for Aboriginal and Immigrant Canadians. One Thought to Start Your Day [blog]. http://higheredstrategy.com/piaac-the-results-for-aboriginal-and-immigrant-canadians/

Wells, Paul. (2013, October). Adding up the ways we’re falling behind in education: A new study shows Canadians may be handy with computers, but we’re terrible at math. Maclean's Magazine.


Other Countries


United States

We did not find many American news stories on the results in the days immediately following the Oct. 8 release of PIAAC data, possibly because no American report had been released due to the federal government shutdown. Those stories that did appear were negative about American performance on the survey: for example, the New York Times headline reads “U.S. Adults Fare Poorly in a Study of Skills” (behind pay wall). Other headlines:   “American adults score poorly on global test”(San Francisco Chronicle) and “OECD Skills Test: U.S. Adults Lag in Practical Workplace Skills”. The Chronicle stated that “It's long been known that America's school kids haven't measured well compared with international peers. Now, there's a new twist: Adults don't either.”

In the days following the release of results there was much commentary about the results and their implications. In a blog posting Gail Spangenberg, President of the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, stated that "results show that the U.S. continues to perform well in higher levels of education attainment, but our record at the lower levels is abysmal", and criticized media coverage of the issue for its superficiality. Mary Alice McCarthy of the New America Foundation stated that the PIAAC results, which show that 1 in 6 Americans are "low-skilled", should serve as "a wake-up call to federal and state policymakers who have not put low-skilled adults at the top of their policy priorities."

U.S. Sources:

Carter, Jeff. (2013, October). The wrong message on PIAAC. Literacy & Policy (blog).

Hefling, Kimberly. (2013, October). American adults score poorly on global test. San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/US-adults-score-below-average-on-worldwide-test-4876200.php

Layton, Lyndsey.  (2013, October). U.S. adults lag most countries in literacy, math and computer skills. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/us-adults-lag-most-countries-in-literacy-math-and-computer-skills/2013/10/07/c4654f54-2f91-11e3-8906-3daa2bcde110_story.html

McCarthy, Mary Alice. (2013, October). The PIAAC Results and Implications for Federal Policy. New America Foundation. http://newamerica.net/user/589.

Resmovits, Joy. (2013, October). OECD Skills Test: U.S. Adults Lag In Practical Workplace Skills: American adults out-performed by many global peers on workplace skills assessment test. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/oecd-skills-test_n_4061097.html

Spangenberg, Gail. (2013, October). Media Matters: PIAAC. http://blog.caalusa.org/media-matters-piaac/



United Kingdom

Meanwhile there was also little mood for celebration in Britain at the results for England and Northern Ireland: although the 55-65 age group were near the top of the performance tables, the youngest age group was near the bottom, suggesting a decline in the British education system. The Guardian declared that “England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest, according to the first skills survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.” The BBC noted that “(this) younger group will have many more qualifications, but the test results show that these younger people have no greater ability than those approaching retirement who left schools with much lower qualifications in the 1960s and 1970s.”

The results immediately became a political issue: at the party political conference for the ruling Conservative Party blame was quickly cast on the previous Labour government. At the conference it was also said that the government was looking very closely at Japan as an example (Japan came in first in literacy and numeracy in the PIAAC study). However, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's deputy director for education and skills, warned that developing skills is only part of the picture: while Japan is good at developing skills its "education system works in silos and productivity growth is so-so. Compare this to the UK and US, where they are no longer good at developing talent but very good at extracting value from the best workers. […] In Japan they need to fix labour markets and make them more responsive to skills. In the UK it is a much harder problem to fix, which is creating a training programme."

The Guardian provided extensive coverage of PIAAC on the day after the first release of findings, even providing an interactive program allowing people create statistical tables using PIAAC data. It looked at possible reasons for the poor results of the 16-24 age groups (poverty? inequality? large numbers of low skilled jobs in the UK?), while another report noted the link made in the OECD report between national results and adult education participation rates:

“The OECD commended Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden for boosting adult learning rates among the low-skilled. In addition to Italy and Spain, the report said Canada, England, Ireland and the United States needed to do more to make adult learning more accessible, especially in the workplace.”

In an oct. 24 op-ed piece in thr Guardian, NIACE principal advocacy officer Alastair Thomson provided his own take on the political and media commentary regarding the PIAAC results for England. He stated that while PIAAC showed that England and Northern Ireland made good use of their more highly-skilled workers, countries such as Finland, Japan and South Korea "may have lessons for the UK." In addition he pointed to the need to improve secondary education and to support lifelong learning, "not simply as a second chance to those failed by schools, but also to help individuals to retrain and up their skills, especially if they're employed by places unwilling to invest in their development".


UK Sources

Adams, Richard. (2013, October). OECD literacy leagues: poverty and inequality blamed for England's results: Problem may lie in lack of encouragement and opportunity for people to study once they have left school. The Guardian.

Coughlan, Sean. (2013, October).  England's young adults trail world in literacy and maths. BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24433320

The Guardian. (2013). Interactive: where do the literacy and numeracy skills gaps fall? Facts are Sacred Blog. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/interactive/2013/oct/08/where-do-the-literacy-numeracy-gaps-fall-interactive

Rameshm, Randeep. (2013, October). England's young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills: OECD finds 16- to 24-year-olds have literacy and numeracy levels no better than those of their grandparents' generation. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/08/england-young-people-league-table-basic-skills-oecd

Reuters. (2013, October). Italy and Spain come bottom of OECD's literacy and numeracy league tables: Japan and Finland fare best in survey testing basic skills of people living in 24 industrial democracies. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/08/italy-spain-oecd-literacy-numeracy-league-table

Thompson, Alastair. (2013, October). The UK cannot afford to waste the potential of so many of its citizens. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/22/adult-skills-oecd-report


Ireland and European Union

Meanwhile, the Irish Independent focused on the difficulties faced by those in Level One of the literacy assessment (1 in 5 Irish), and an article in Social Europe Journal provided examples of test items from the survey and warned that the PIAAC results showed Europe to be in danger of losing its “high productivity, high wage” status in the world economy.


Donnelly, Katherine. (2013, October). One in five Irish adults have problems reading instructions on ATM machines or understanding information on groceries. http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/one-in-five-irish-adults-have-problems-reading-instructions-on-atm-machines-or-understanding-information-on-groceries-29643288.html

Schweighofer, Johannes. (2013, October). OECD-PIAAC – Radical New Insights Into Adults’ Skills And Competences!  Social Europe Journal. http://www.social-europe.eu/2013/10/oecd-piaac-radical-new-insights-into-adults-skills-and-competences/

This article actually includes examples of items from the assessment. It looks at European PIAAC results.



Return to Top