In the midst of the day-to-day fixation on the political maneuverings in Washington, it’s easy to lose sight of a bigger picture -- one that a recent study suggests isn’t a very appealing picture for the United States and its future prosperity.

Americans are not the most educated people on the planet, according to a research project that measured degrees of literacy among countries in the industrialized world. The study may be an indictment of the education system and a glimpse into where the nation may be headed as a competitor in the global marketplace.

Other studies have shown that U.S. school kids are not on an educational par with kids in many other countries. Now, research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows American adults test lower than the international average in basic reading, math and problem-solving skills using technology. In those areas, we are generally less competent than adults in Japan, Canada, Australia, Finland and several other countries.

The research clearly ties lower performance levels on basic literacies to lower levels of income. What is most illuminating is that the correlation between lower income and inferior education is more pronounced in the U.S. than in many other countries.

And, the picture looks even worse when you consider that separate studies have shown American children in lower income households have a harder time rising above their circumstances than do children in many other industrialized nations. Here, unlike other countries, access to higher levels of education is increasingly limited to people of greater means.

The results of the study happened to be released the same day former President Jimmy Carter made news by saying the current American middle class resembles the class of people living in poverty when Carter was president, more than three decades ago. His observation – in tandem with the literacy research -- gives fuel to those who would make the topic of income inequality a major talking point in arenas where economic policy is devised.

On that subject, there is no shortage of ideological variances. Whether and how to level the playing field is a debate that raises many questions, chief among them whether it should even be the business of government to try to manage class structure.

But whatever your opinion there, when it comes to the nation’s current and prospective status in the world, the data doesn’t lie. They reinforce the suspicion that the quality of education in America varies widely among income levels. And they show that, in aggregate, it is inferior to the median levels of education available in other countries.

Such a realization is especially discomforting at a time when it seems Americans’ ability to focus on big-picture issues is undermined by a shortsighted infatuation with the daily back-and-forth between opposing political ideologies. The international research on education suggests if that trend continues, the nation’s state of educational inadequacy may well be long lasting.