We Need SOLE: American Adults Failing Modern Literacy Standards

A new OECD report comparing American adults’ mathematical and technological literacy indicates that we do not stack up well against our global competitors.

The following chart was taken from the report and shows that American adults are not prepared to lead the way in creativity or innovation during the 21st century due to below average proficiency in mathematics and  problem solving employing technological solutions.

The implications are vast. According to the report:

“The median hourly wage of workers who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments in written texts is more than 60% higher than for workers who can, at best, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information. Those with low literacy skills are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed.”

For anyone who has spent time in an American classroom over the last 20 years, the information contained in this report is old news. With the increase in administrative requirements and quantitative methods of assessment, our overall ability to educate American children and promote adult literacy has fallen by the wayside. Instead we have opted for a two-tiered education system.

On the elite tier we have private day schools with student-teacher ratios of less than 15:1 where qualitative models of curriculum development, student led learning and holistic projects are the norm. In this system students produce portfolios/projects to show competency across a wide range of subject areas. They are guided by teachers who have diverse backgrounds in mathematics, literature, science and the arts to create meaningful learning experiences that cannot be easily measured on standardized tests. Nevertheless, these students generally outperform their counterparts on traditional measures of learning too.  Their ACT and SAT scores are significantly higher that those educated in steerage classrooms, the feed lots of contemporary education.   When students raised on the day school model enter college, they are ready to engage in research, pursue creative ideas, and occasionally, as the dot com era shows, start global companies that can change the world.

On the steerage tier small schools have teacher-student ratios of 25:1 in elementary school generally increasing to 35-40:1 by high school. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in his TED Talk students are turned into low-level clerical workers and spend years repeating the same redundant base literacy skills learned in elementary school throughout grades 7-12.  They take fragmented classes that last 45 minutes or less in large groups where student-teacher interaction is minimized. If students are lucky enough to encounter a creative teacher who can build assignments around projects/portfolios, they are very fortunate.

When students finish up in the steerage tier system, only 10-20% are ready to tackle even the most basic college assignments. A stunning 60% will require remediation in math and reading when they enter college. Still, many will manage to complete a bachelor’s degree and will earn significantly more than their counterparts who do not choose college and are not at all prepared for adult life.

Enter the SOLE Project:

The OECD report also shows that older adults have a significant knowledge gap in problem solving with technology versus their younger counterparts within a particular country.  Certainly the gap is attributable to the rapid advance of technology over the last 30 years.  While younger adults ages 25-34 have grown up on the web, their older counterparts ages 55+ have had to gradually adapt to an increasingly technological environment. The skill gap is significant and has dire implications for the economic well-being of both the Baby Boomer Generation (B. 1946-1964) and Generation X (B. 1965-1985).  Adults in both groups lacking technological skills have few options to participate in the 21st century economy and earn a living wage.

The solution to this problem is not to send older adults for retraining in the same dead schools that created the present situation. The American university is collapsing at the undergraduate level due to the deprofessionalization of academic teaching and the growth of administrative bloat. Neither community colleges nor overpriced for-profit vocational training can adequately address the skills gap. We need SOLE, if we are to prevent American adults from falling into dire poverty as  employment opportunities for low skill workers disappear.

SOLE stands for “self organized learning environment.” Learning environments based on the SOLE philosophy are needs based and student driven.  The SOLE philosophy is equally applicable for K-16 models too, but the entrenched interests that promote steerage tier practices are resistant to change and unlikely to loosen their grip given the profitability of the standardized assessment testing methods currently in place under NCLB.  At present only the wealthy enjoy the choice of enrolling their children in innovative day school environments or traditional rote learning academies.  For the rest, the steerage tier is the only option available.  Thus, for the survivors of third class education, we can offer a more engaging model with SOLE that allows the learners to investigate questions that are interesting and relevant for their lives.  Community based SOLE projects are needed if we are to increase skills in our neediest adult populations.

Some of the key characteristics of a SOLE environment are as follows:

  1. The learning environment is open and oriented toward problem-solving;
  2. Learners determine the methodologies and practices used to both investigate and propose ways to address the question at hand;
  3. Teachers are optional; SOLE environments are based on student led learning communities with teachers in the role of posing interesting questions for individuals/teams.  While teacher led environments may be more efficient, especially for those who are learning to use technology, the “grandmother” method seems to work equally as well to promote proficiency level skills.

Check out Sugata Mitra’s talk on SOLE environments from TED.com: