The United States Can’t Do Math, Read, Or Think Very Well

For most reading this piece, you’ll know (simply from the fact that you’re reading) that the United States has been lagging behind most Western nations in education at all age levels. Whether it’s infants, toddlers, adolescents, adults, or seniors, the United States has been trailing for years.

The United States Can't Do Math, Read, Or Think Very Well

OEDC literacy study

Now, in the first study of its kind or breadth, it seems that despite having some of the best universities in the world, we aren’t that smart when it comes to core skills in those aged 16 to 65. The United States is pretty much in the middle of the pack. No matter what we spend on education it seems to be “going in one ear and out the other,” according to the study that was conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

While the world sends its best and brightest to enjoy the quality of a number of universities, these students seem to retain the information before returning to their countries of origin. Never mind that with a more progressive approach to immigration this could be avoided. But as long as a large portion of Americans remain afraid of Mexicans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

The study examines literacy, numeracy, and “problem solving in technology-rich environments” in 23 industrialized nations, and the results were just about what you would expect.

Japan and Finland are powerhouse nations, coming in first and second respectively in all three areas. The U.S., however, scores below average on each of the three assessments and is near the bottom for math skills. I guess I was overly optimistic in hoping that “middle of the road” was what I would read as I went through the study.

United States literacy rankings

In literacy, the U.S. ranked 16th out of the 23 countries. A level-1 reader can get a single piece of information out of a simple text. A level-4 or 5 reader can pick multiple pieces of information out of lengthy or competing texts, and evaluate subtle arguments. Over 20 percent of people scored at level 4 or 5 in Finland and Japan. The United States managed only half that number.

When it comes to math, it gets even scarier. The United States ranked higher than only Italy and Spain, and had the participants in the study not interrupted the test for a “siesta” it could have been worse. Only 9 percent of Americans who participated in the study were in the top two levels, and the U.S. had one of the largest proportions of those failing to make it to level one, coping with very basic, familiar equations and situations.

The data is less complete when it comes to technology related skills, as people could opt out. The test involved using a mouse and keyboard to  “access, process, evaluate, and analyze information effectively in a goal-oriented way.” The States placed 15th out of 19 countries who participated in that testing pattern.

About the Author

Brendan Byrne
While studying economics, Brendan found himself comfortably falling down the rabbit hole of restaurant work, ultimately opening a consulting business and working as a private wine buyer. On a whim, he moved to China, and in his first week following a triumphant pub quiz victory, he found himself bleeding on the floor based on his arrogance. The same man who put him there offered him a job lecturing for the University of Wales in various sister universities throughout the Middle Kingdom. While primarily lecturing in descriptive and comparative statistics, Brendan simultaneously earned an Msc in Banking and International Finance from the University of Wales-Bangor. He's presently doing something he hates, respecting French people. Well, two, his wife and her mother in the lovely town of Antigua, Guatemala. To contact Brendan or give him an exclusive, please contact him at