Is the Adult Education and Literacy System in the U.S. prepared to Unlock the Door to Economic Opportunity?

What would happen if by January 2015 or 2016 the new, higher-bar adult secondary education tests (the GED®, TASC™ and HiSET™ high school equivalency exams that will be available in January, 2014) show that very few test-takers can pass at the College and Career-ready level that each of these assessment makers plans to include? What if the Adult Education and Literacy System in the United States is found inadequate to prepare adults for college level studies, and in some cases, for training and work?

Wait, some may say, we don’t know that yet. Maybe we are resilient and resourceful enough to make the adaptations to prepare students for tests that have these new standards. Maybe teachers will rise to the challenge and learn the math – and how to teach it – that these new CCR standards require. Maybe teachers will be able to help their students learn how, on a timed test, to quickly read text and write or type a persuasive argument about it. Maybe adult education programs will figure out how to provide 40 WPM minimum keyboarding skills for students who want or need to take the test on a computer. Maybe they will figure out, given the same number of hours per week of instruction, how to include social studies and science background content that the tests will require. Maybe they will, somehow.

But what if they can’t? What if the system and its programs and schools don’t have this capacity? What if adult education programs don’t have qualified math, science and social studies teachers and don’t have the resources to hire them? What if adult secondary education (ASE) teachers, rarely full-time, often with other, competing part-time or full-time jobs, don’t have unpaid time to take the training to get up to speed to teach the needed math, science or social studies? What if programs don’t currently offer a typing/keyboarding class or, if they do, if they don’t have enough computers so every ASE student could use them to practice keyboarding to meet a 40 WPM standard?

What if programs did have new resources – more money – to make these changes, would their students be able to make more hours per week available to learn the new content, to learn critical thinking, reading, and writing skills — in English – to successfully prepare for the harder exam in the same amount of time, roughly a few months to one year?

I am concerned that programs, and possibly learners cannot do this, at least not with only minor changes. To meet the new standards, major reform of adult basic education is needed, reform that results in:

  • More hours of instruction per week, and by qualified instructors;
  • More technology for almost every adult education program, hardware and software that at least matches the level available to local public schools. That means more desktop and laptop computers in classrooms as well as labs, a multimedia projector and/or whiteboard in every classroom, possibly loaner laptops or electronic tablets for students, and training for teachers in how to use the technology well.
  •  ASE students understanding that the HSE door now will have two locks, one called High School Equivalency and a new one called College and Career Readiness (CCR), and that for most people the door only opens to education and economic opportunity, i.e. increases in lifetime earnings, when the CCR lock is opened.
  • Most students understanding that quick-fix high school equivalency preparation ends in December, 2013, and that most students who take a 2014 HSE exam will need more than a few weeks or months to prepare to pass the new higher standards, if that is their goal. They may need more hours of class per week, perhaps as many as 10-15 hours, and/or more independent instruction and practice using a computer and the Internet – at home, a library, school, or work.
  • Students who need it, doing a typing/keyboarding course to get their skills to at least 40 WPM.

Many of these changes require more than small adjustments, and most require significant new resources.  The test-makers have rightly aligned what they plan to test to what the Common Core State Standards think high school graduates – and college and career ready students – need to know.  ASE programs want their students to be prepared for these test changes. Now it is time for state legislatures and Congress to learn what the changes imply, how the adult education and literacy system nationally and in states needs to be improved to address these new standards, and what that will cost.

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5 Responses to “Is the Adult Education and Literacy System in the U.S. prepared to Unlock the Door to Economic Opportunity?”

  1. Richard Tuoni Says:

    I have 13 years experience teaching ESL to adults. I have a Masters in American History and a BS in Political Science and a certificate in TESOL from Barcelona, extensive computer experience (worked for IBM, taught several programming languages) and have taught math in Verizon World of Work program at at CCRI, speak Spanish, and have not been able to find work part or full time. I am 78 years old and a product of a marvelous liberal arts education, but cannot find work – full or part time – teaching ESL or GED or elementary math. Could the problem be in your definition of “qualified”. Does your definition ignore work history and life experience and look only at specific certificates and overlook generalists in favor of narrower “specialists”?

  2. djrosen Says:

    Hello Richard,
    I didn’t provide a definition of “qualified” in this blog article, but I distinguish between certified and qualified. There are plenty of teachers in adult education who may hold elementary and secondary education certifications (required to teach adult education in their state) who may not be qualified to teach adults, and there are excellent adult education teachers who are not certified.

    I don’t — and the field in the U.S. — and the U.S. government doesn’t — decide who’s qualified. States, school boards and/or programs and schools do. As a result the definition of “qualified” even within a state may vary. Having said that, another problem for job seekers in ESL/ESOL and adult education now is that many states have cut adult education funding. In California for example, and several other states, cuts have been drastic, so I would expect that job seekers are having a particularly difficult time in those states.

    Which leads me back to my main point, that the adult education and literacy system, and most states, in the United States are especially ill-prepared now to meet these new standards.

  3. djrosen Says:

    A colleague replied by email and gave me permission to post his (lightly edited by me) comments here:

    No, the Adult Education and Literacy System is not ready; in fact, less ready than 10 years ago.

    Here’s why:
    – The number served, according to National Reporting System (NRS) data, is significantly fewer (2.4 million vs. 1.8 million)
    – Many fewer adult students are enrolled in Workplace Education programs
    – Last year less than 3% of the 1.8 million learners enrolled in post-secondary education programs, although this goal has gotten a major push from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) – to the detriment, perhaps, of other economic goals such as skills to succeed in job training, advancement in the workplace, readiness for employment, and other goals that research suggests are held by most adult learners
    – Federal funding has actually decreased (in constant dollars) by 17% over the past few years. In fact, there has been no significant funding increase since the last Clinton budget in 2000
    – And federal demands for “accountability” have eaten-up a hefty portion of funds, while (ironically) requiring little data on return-on-investment related to economic opportunity
    – As you point out, state investments have stayed flat or decreased in almost all states.

    Now, how can this be turned around? First we need a Workforce Investment Act reauthorization that gives priority to economic opportunity for adults, and increases funds to provide Professional Development, data systems, research and development, and experienced staff for reformed programs. And we need adult education(AE) leadership at all levels to wisely plan a new system and include partnerships with other adult-serving organizations/programs.

    AE has shown, in the past, incredible ability to plan and implement programs to serve adults with economic challenges (Examples: Homeless adult and workplace literacy programs) with budgets that other adult-serving programs would laugh at.
    So there is capability in the field, waiting for changes as outlined above. Will AE leaders step up to the challenge?

    More….

    • Are CC Standards really the answer to unlocking economic opportunity? Even if AE can step up to that challenge?

    • Can we be sure that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and new GED® are correct in assuming that College Readiness and Career or Work Readiness are the same thing?

    • And what about those lower-level leaners who have employability or trainability goals – and may not be candidates for GED®, at least in the short term?

  4. Michael Ormsby Says:

    David,
    I wonder if the question is not whether AE will or can respond to new higher standards, but if they will even need to in the near future. I suspect that market forces will have more to do with what the difficulty level of new HSE tests than any other factor. One of the most significant changes in HSE tests is move from non-profit status to for-profit entities. The GED test and it’s rivals, HiSet and TASK are market competitors for scarce test taker and test center dollars.

    There is an unspoken force in play in AE, the need to put HSE diplomas into people’s hands so that they can get jobs. Unemployment among high school non-completers is estimated at 20% or more. Additionally, there is a move (at least in OR) to shift AE funding formulas to completion rates rather than enrollment and gain. One suspects that it is not price that is moving states away from the GED test (6 already are committed), but rather the need to not shift to a harder test with fewer passers at a time when putting diplomas into people’s hands is more important than raising the bar on competency.

    The 2014 GED test will be normed against graduating high school seniors this summer, and more important, be put into a very competitive marketplace that values the status quo. My guess is that 2014 will see very little change in HSE test difficulty. I believe that in the end, the marketplace forces will prevail.

    • Richard Tuoni Says:

      I think major problem with HSE and AE is the undervaluing of Liberal Arts. Apparently schools are to become job factories at the expense of enlightened citizenship. “All is seared with trade, smeared, bleared with toil.”

      We usually hit the target we aim at, and that target seems to be to create workers toiling for the profit of a few. I’d like to see the target become good, intelligent citizenry.
      Richard Tuoni

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