Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Adult Education Needed ASAP!

This guest blog by researcher and international adult education consultant, Dr. Thomas Sticht,, was posted on the AAACE-NLA Discussion List on April 30, 2016. It has been lightly edited and reprinted here with the permission of the author.

May 1st is International Workers Day, also known as May Day, a day for celebrating the working men and women of the world as they labor for personal, family, and community development. Mayday is the international distress call for help.

Today the distress call goes out from adults in the United States of America who are facing barriers to their personal and economic development. One of the most difficult barriers with which many adults must cope is limitations in knowledge and skill, indicated by low scores on any of a number of important standardized tests. For instance, a 2013 report, from Mission:Readiness, a national security organization of more than 600 retired generals, admirals and other senior retired military leaders advocating for educational improvements of children, reported that: “among young adults who do finish high school, 23 percent who seek to enlist in the Army cannot score highly enough on the military exams for math, literacy and problem-solving to be allowed to serve.” The organization then goes on to argue for more investments in early childhood education to prevent future under-educated adults.

In a recent report from Educational Testing Service (Kirsch, et. al., 2016), the authors acknowledge the importance of early childhood education and then go on to say: “Although improving early childhood development is an important investment both for the children who are targeted and for the social and economic health of the country, children’s circumstances mirror those of their parents. They, too, need broader opportunities in order to improve their prospects for work, their ability to earn a decent wage, and to live in healthy communities with the kinds of strong social networks and institutions that will support them and, in turn, expand the opportunities they are able to pass along to their children. To ignore these adults not only condemns them to a highly uncertain future but also has potentially serious consequences for the children they are raising.”

The importance of adult education for improving children’s educational achievement was recognized in a recent report from ReadyNation, a national nonpartisan group advocating for the improvement of children’s education. In this report ReadyNation called upon businesses to support parents’ engagement in early childhood. They argued: “When children don’t get off to the right start, it’s hard for them to catch up and become the productive adults we need. Society and businesses suffer when we let kids slip through the cracks. What do the most effective efforts to help young children succeed have in common? They work with parents.” Also see Sticht (2011) for a review of research supporting the call for adult parenthood education to improve the knowledge and skills of both adults and their children.

Some 35 years ago I discussed the need to support the educational development of workers with low literacy and numeracy skills as a means of both raising the employability and productive abilities of the workforce while also improving the ability of workers who are parents in raising the educational achievement of their children (Sticht, 1983). In this report I presented findings from military R & D that had helped the armed services train and utilize under-educated, low-literate young men similar to those addressed by Mission:Readiness. I also discussed how this could be instrumental in increasing parents’ engagement in educational activities with their children, as discussed by ReadyNation.

Given the importance of improved adult education for meeting national security needs, as argued by Mission:Readiness, and the signal importance of the education of adults in improving children’s  educability and success in school as argued by ReadyNation, it is distressing to find that inflation-adjusted funding for adult literacy education at the federal level has declined across the last decade. A truly national disaster for under-served and under-educated parents and their children.

In the words of Tom Nash, President of the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE), speaking of the 36 million or so adults with poorly developed literacy, numeracy, and problem solving abilities in the United States: “It’s bewildering that our nation doesn’t rally behind and insist on helping these adults. For every dollar invested in adult education, communities reap some $60 back in increased payroll and property taxes, reduced demand for social services and even savings on criminal justice and healthcare.” He could have easily added that millions of children could benefit from their parents’ newly developed knowledge and skills, too, thereby raising the return on investment in adult literacy education even higher.

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Send in the adult educators ASAP!




Kirsch, I., et al. (2016). Changing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America. Learn more (Available online using Google search)

Mission:Readiness (2013). California Report:  A Commitment to Pre-Kindergarten IS a Commitment to National Security. (Available online using Google search)

Nash, T. (2016, April 26).  Close the Illiteracy Blind Spot With Adult Education. The Hill. (Available online using Google search).

ReadyNation. (n.d.). Harnessing the Power of Parents to Support Our Youngest Learners. (Available online using Google search).

Sticht, T. (1983). Literacy and Human Resources Development at Work: Investing in the Education of Adults to Improve the Educability of Children. ERIC Number ED262201 (Available online using Google search)

Sticht, T. (2011). Getting It Right From the Start: The Case for Early Parenthood Education. (Available online using Google search).




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