"You get 35 cents per mile and $40 per day for meals."

Computing the per diem for a given trip is beyond the capacity of 29 percent — almost three in 10 — American adults. They cannot apply two steps to calculate with whole numbers and common decimals, percentages and fractions or perform other simple tasks with numbers.

Only adults in Spain and Italy did worse than Americans in such skills. In Japan, fewer than one in 10 (8 percent) are so handicapped. Who is going to win in the competition for good jobs?

The dismal figures come from a survey of adult skills in 24 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Ominously, Americans ages 55 to 65 perform around the average of the other countries, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers. We already have a higher dropout rate than other countries, especially among minority groups who are a growing share of our students.

The OECD survey shows that American math education, in particular, desperately needs to improve. Math skills don't need to get very sophisticated to make us competitive. "Read a bar chart and add up the percentage of men who had more than 6 years of schooling," the survey asked. No more than two in 10 Japanese, Finns, or Swedes can rise to that challenge; unfortunately, among American adults only about one in 10 can.

The Common Core is the latest challenge to be placed on U.S. education. Is it going to help or hurt with our major concerns such as income inequality and the fate of the middle class? Answering the question requires a short trek in the weeds of the emerging tests. What will the Common Core require our children to know and be able to do and what learning will they have to forego in order to accomplish that? Will it motivate learning or just frighten students?

Here are some typical Common Core standards to be faced by 8th graders: Know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions, and give examples of linear equations in one variable with one solution, infinitely many solutions, or no solutions.

This is the sort of assessment that Baltimore's students will face next year. New York State recently released results of its first Common Core assessment of students for third through eighth grades. Only one in five economically disadvantaged students in New York State scored at the proficient level in math. In New York City, only one in four students passed the English tests. Only one in 20 of Rochester's students passed both reading and math.

The goals of the Common Core need repair. Right now they are college and career, but, as one can tell from the math standards, they are heavily skewed to the college path. A more appropriate and traditional set would be citizenship, career and lifelong learning. The last may include, but should definitely not be limited to, college in one's late teens or early 20s. Today, even as more high school graduates go to college, too many seek the least and easiest math they can take to graduate. They are unlikely to want to take an on-line algebra course in their adult lives.

Employers, politicians, journalists and cognitive scientists need to be consulted equally with college professors about high school standards. The results of the OECD survey should be one of their guideposts for defining what has to be done to keep the country competitive.

Arnold Packer was the executive director of the U.S. Department of Labor's SCANS Commission, which defined the skills required for work in the 21st century. Email him at arnold.packer@gmail.com.