America's Racial Skills Gap

Many have seized on a new OECD report, featured in our White Papers & Research section today, finding that the U.S. lags behind other nations in terms of skills. I'm always skeptical of these sorts of international comparisons, though: The U.S. deals with problems that other developed nations do not, especially the legacy of slavery and racism. A closer look at the numbers usually reveals that the U.S. has a problem with racial inequality, not a problem specific to the topic being studied.

This is from the OECD's "country note" for the U.S.:

While one in ten (10%) white adults scores below Level 2 in literacy, more than one in three (35%) black adults do so, and nearly one in two (43%) Hispanics do. Similar patterns are observed in numeracy: 59% of black and 56% of Hispanic adults score below Level 2, compared to 19% of white adults.

Overall, 17 percent of Americans score below Level 2 in literacy -- making us 18th out of the 23 nations the OECD looked at (we're ahead of Germany, Poland, France, Spain, and Italy). White Americans, however, are in second place. With numeracy, the difference is less pronounced but still significant -- Americans as a whole are 21st out of 23 (at 29 percent scoring below Level 2, ahead of Italy and Spain), but white Americans are tied for 14th with Korea.

Essentially, it's not the case that America in general is lagging -- we can't just look at what the highest-ranking countries do, imitate them, and expect the same results. Instead, there are serious gaps within America, for reasons that most other developed countries do not experience. And that's a tougher problem to solve.

Tweet me if you'd like me to send you the OECD spreadsheets I used to calculate the international rankings of white Americans.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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