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The Global Skills Gap Widens as U.S. Students Struggle

Babylonians school most of us in math while the UN warns that entry to the modern economy is getting tougher.

The weekly journal Science features on its new cover a Babylonian tablet that calculates Jupiter's movement through the sky. The archeological find pushes the discovery of a rudimentary calculus back at least 1,400 years, from 14th century Europe. 

Advisers to Babylonian kings were recording two facts—the passage of time and Jupiter's velocity—to project where the giant gas orb might pop up next. A more sophisticated version of the same analysis, painfully known to many as integral calculus, lets you look a year ahead from today's stock price and come up with the value of options. 

But 2,000 years later, that kind of math remains far out of reach for many students in the developed world. In the U.S., the question is particularly acute. American students rank 35 among the 64 nations in the most recent international testing, well below the average for developed nations. And this week the news got worse, as three quite different voices expressed concern with the failure of educational systems to keep up with a dynamic economy that requires ever smarter participants.  

The UN Global Compact, a group that encourages companies to pursue sustainability across governance, social, and environmental issues, published a report Tuesday that ranks the biggest worries of more than 5,500 leaders in business, universities, and civil society groups. Two of the top three were how to close the skills gap and groom people for the “digital labor market.” 

Yesterday's graduates went off and founded today's companies; it's becoming clear that tomorrow's graduates may not be qualified even to apply for jobs with them.

“The redesign of work is happening at such rapid speed that to adjust skills at the same pace requires an extraordinary ability to learn how to learn,'' said Marianne Haahr, the report’s project director, who works for the Scandinavian think tank Monday Morning.

One thing that might help, Haahr said, is for companies to make four-year forecasts of the kinds of skills they expect employees will need, “to enable educational systems to adjust better to shifting market demands.”

Another study this week from the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington extrapolates how many students meet or miss education goals, using recent U.S. testing data. The results are discouraging, particularly for poor and minority students.

Only about 123,000 eighth-graders—or 3 percent—scored at the advanced level in reading on National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. Math aptitude wasn't much better. In Cleveland, for example, just 80 of 1,340 black eighth-graders are proficient in math, the authors write. That's 6 percent.

But the news isn't all bad: Some 22,000 more fourth-graders in Florida are proficient in math than a decade earlier. 

The CAP report echoes the UN study—the kids can't keep up with the economy. And prospects for change aren't great, at least in North America. On a scale from -10 to 10, participants in the UN study put the political will to close the skills gap in negative territory.

If anyone disputes that a population able to reason mathematically can be more productive, they're not speaking up. Amanda Ripley, a journalist whose 2014 book, The Smartest Kids in the World, took a data-driven view at what works in education globally, says math training can provide basic life skills and experience. 

"It's a great way to learn all the things Americans say they learn through sports," she said—self-confidence, team-building, persistence. "The Babylonians probably had a ton of grit."

That may well be, but in the current political environment, the discussion is more about what's wrong than how to fix it. The third event this week comes from the campaign trail, where Donald Trump released a 45-second video clip bashing Common Core, the widely adopted and widely controversial curriculum meant to standardize U.S. education.

The Washington Post gave it a fact-check as part of its election season coverage, but unlike the Babylonians with Jupiter, the newspaper had a hard time predicting Donald's trajectory.  

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