Beyond Student Councils: Adult Learner Leadership

The national adult learner leadership organization, VALUE, has long said that the success of the adult literacy education field depends on adult learners. This doesn’t mean only that practitioner success is measured by adult learner gains in education progress. It also means that, as a marginalized field, the best hope for mainstream attention and increased public investment, especially in economic hard times, is a large number of well-organized adult learner leader advocates.

We know, from years of experience, that legislators on both sides of the aisle pay more attention to what adult learners say than practitioners, whose jobs they often rightly believe depend on public funding. What gets legislators’ attention is passionate and articulate adult learners, people from their Congressional or representative district, especially those who are politically active and who are registered to vote.

Student councils; student or graduate-led mentoring or learner support groups; student participation on program boards and advisory councils; student-produced projects, such as health literacy information and advocacy in their communities; and student-led public speaking events about adult literacy education are all important adult learner leadership activities, but they are not enough. Look at the devastation of adult education funding in New Jersey, New York, California, Arizona, and any number of states, not to mention states like Iowa and Colorado that have no state funding devoted to adult literacy education. This must be changed.

Recently the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education (MCAE), an organization I am proud to be a member of, began to mobilize adult learner and practitioner advocates to ask candidates for the U.S. Senator position left vacant by long-time Senator John Kerry these four questions:

U.S. Senate Candidates – Adult Basic Education Questionnaire

1. Do you believe adult basic education is a right or a privilege? Should we have a social contract for adult basic education the way we do for K-12 education?

2. Currently our state has many residents who lack access to adult basic education services either because there is no program in their area, the programs in their area have long waiting lists or there are scheduling, transportation or child care barriers. What steps would you take to correct this lack of access?

3. Efforts are underway at the state and national level to raise the quality and standards of adult basic education programs and services to be comparable with that of the K-12 system, yet the ABE system receives only a small fraction of the funding that goes to the K-12 system. What would you do to increase the resources allocated to adult basic education in order to promote the development and professionalization of the field?

4. What do you believe should be the vision and purpose for the adult basic education system, in good economic times and bad?

These are great questions. So great that New Hampshire’s Adult Education Director, Art Ellison, sent them out to adult basic education state directors and advocates across the country to consider using in their own state, and with U.S. Senators and Congress people. The greatest power to move legislators with these questions is in the hands of adult learner leaders. The challenge for practitioner- and other advocates is how best to help organize program graduates and students who are leaders, or who could become leaders, to meet with their elected officials, to ask them questions like these and to talk about the impact of adult literacy education on them, their families and communities.

For several years a collaboration of the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education and an adult learner leadership group organized and led by students and graduates of adult literacy education programs, the Massachusetts Alliance for Adult Literacy, have offered adult learner leadership training. This is a volunteer activity, one that does not use public funding, and where students can choose to attend. They meet for training in the morning and then many choose to visit their state legislators’ offices in the afternoon. They are told that it is their own story, how they came to realize they needed adult literacy education services and how they and their family and community have benefited, that legislators want to hear. They are also given an adult literacy education fact sheet, and they have a clear idea of what the “ask” should be, because legislators usually want to know what they think should be done about the problem of long waiting lists for services. This is one activity, but there are others in a leadership training process.

Many adult learner leadership training models involve inviting learners to take leadership roles in their programs: participation in program decision-making, and telling their story and talking about the unmet need for adult literacy education services in community venues such as rotary club meetings, church or library forum, and other activities. One part of this process can be a large annual rally at their state legislature. We live in a democracy, and adult learners need to visit their “state house” or state legislature to appreciate that it belongs to the people of their state, including them, if they are citizens. Many students have said that visiting the state house, walking through its halls in large numbers, and talking with legislators is a profound education experience. One student, many years ago, put it this way on a trip home. He said, “In my country, if I had done what I did today, talk with my legislators, I might have been shot.”

There is a natural confluence of democracy education and helping adult learners understand how to advocate with their elected officials for what they believe is needed in their community or state.

Many states, all over the country, have been supporting adult learner leadership efforts like this for years. You’ll find this in Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Missouri, Georgia, Ohio, New Hampshire, and in many other states. However, this may be a new idea in other states, and in some states it happens in fits and starts. This needs to be a regular, year-in and year-out activity with many hundreds of adult learners and graduates. If adult learner leadership is of interest to you, email me, including information about what adult learner leadership activities you have now in your program or state, and I’ll send you a list of contacts of people who can help you organize or give you ideas on how to improve what you do.

David J. Rosen


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