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REACH HIGHER, AMERICA: National Commission on Literacy Finds Ninety Million Americans Unprepared for Demands of Twenty-First-Century Workforce

“Even more alarming,” the report reads, is that many students who do complete high school “are deficient in basic skills and job and college readiness.”

The nation’s failure to address the education and workforce skills needs of its citizens is putting the country in great jeopardy and threatening its standard of living and economic viability. So says Reach Higher, America: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce, a new report from the National Commission on Adult Literacy. According to the report, between eighty-eight and ninety million adults are not prepared to meet the demands of today’s global economy or secure a job that will pay a family-sustaining wage. It finds that these individuals face at least one “educational barrier to economic success:” eighteen million Americans do not have a high school diploma, fifty-one million have not gone to college, and eighteen million are not proficient in their English language and literacy skills.

“The harsh fact is that we have a crisis today in America,” writes David Perdue, chairman of the National Commission on Adult Literacy, in the report’s foreword. “At a time when one out of three of our children is not graduating from high school, the competitiveness of our workforce at all levels has significantly declined, threatening our standard of living and way of life. It is time to act. It is widely known that a vast number of adults need educational services to be ready for the college and the job training that our global economy requires. But our adult education and workforce skills development programs, designed for a different reality, are not meeting the needs of America’s citizens or its workers.”

At a time when the nation is becoming “less educated,” other countries are catching up to and surpassing the United States. The report notes that the United States is the only country of the thirty free-market countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development where young adults (ages twenty-five to thirty-four) are less educated than members of the previous generation. In addition, the United States continues to fall behind other countries in terms of high school diplomas and two- and four-year college degrees awarded.

Each year, the U.S. adds another approximately 1.2 million Americans to the dropout total. For the eighteen million Americans who do not have a high school diploma, dropping out of high school will “haunt them, their families, and our economy for the rest of their lives,” the report says, and adds that individuals who fail to complete high school are much more likely to end up in prison.

“Even more alarming,” the report reads, is that many students who do complete high school “are deficient in basic skills and job and college readiness.” It notes that about 40 percent of all college students must take a least one remedial course while the same is true for over 60 percent of two-year college students.

Other challenges that the report addresses are the demographic shifts that are already underway in the United States and the extensive need for English language instruction. It finds that every year, almost two million immigrants come to the United States, but low literacy levels, combined with a lack of high school education and English language skills, severely hinder about half of these individuals in their attempts to earn family-sustaining wages. Changing demographics present problems in other ways, as well. According to the report, eight thousand Americans turned sixty each day in 2006. As these highly educated baby boomers leave the workforce, they are replaced, on average, by workers who are less educated.

Noting that the current solutions to these problems, such as the Workforce Investment Act, workforce and adult education, and literacy services, fall short, the report calls on Congress to “transform the adult education and literacy system into an adult education and workforce skills system with the capacity to effectively serve 20 million adults annually by the year 2020.”

To meet this goal, the report calls for the enactment of a new Adult Education and Economic Growth Act to overhaul and expand adult education and workforce skills training. It says that the act is “at the very heart of the Commission’s action plan” and should be as “bold in scale and crafted to excite the public imagination” as the GI Bill and the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. The act would “strengthen and align the nation’s existing adult basic education and workforce skills systems to address the priority education needs of American adults…[and] better prepare [them] to enter and succeed in postsecondary education and job training and move more seamlessly into well-paying jobs of the future.”

The report says that delaying this action will mean that the nation will have to “bear the burden of meeting the needs of an even larger pool of adults with low skills and language deficiencies” by 2020. “We cannot begin too soon,” it warns.

The complete report is available at

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