Because we are at a transition point in Adult Education, this is a good time to engage leaders in the Adult Education field in some “futures” thinking. CAAL has asked some two dozen state and national leaders to share their views on important recent gains and our highest priority challenges in the next few years. We plan to publish these ideas in a special issue of the Newsletter in the near future. In the meantime, we are pleased to foreshadow what is to come with these early contributions from former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, field advocate David Rosen, and CAAL’s legislative advisor, Eugene Sofer.
The highest priority challenges for adult education and workforce skills development in the next few years will be to build more effective national, state, and local labor market systems to make these services more readily available to workers, employers, educators, and public officials. The American economy is not likely to function at anywhere near optimal capacity or to achieve broadly shared prosperity without much more effective workforce development (WD) systems to complement and strengthen closely related economic, social, and education policies. There is abundant evidence that these investments can yield high personal, social, and governmental returns, a reality that is widely acknowledged, but neglected by special interests and public officials who focus on budget costs as a justification for neglecting these public investments.
These realities are better understood for public K-12 education, which has experienced significant, though inadequate, reforms since the 1980s. But public WD investments that could strengthen public education and economic performance have been neglected. The consequence, as CAAL has clearly demonstrated, is a vast gap between the escalating need for these services and their availability, especially for low-income adults.
As with K-12 and postsecondary education, the most important challenge is to provide equitable access to high-quality skill development and adult education. The availability of these services to the most advantaged Americans is equal to or better than those available anywhere in the world. But the quantity and quality of services available to low- and middle-income people lag far behind both the need for such services and those provided in the best-performing countries. The consequence is growing inequalities of opportunity, income, and wealth.
Major attention should therefore be devoted to creating the infrastructure and individual resources to make education and skill development services more readily available to all adults. At the national level, WD activities should be streamlined and better coordinated with economic, social, and education policies. And at the state and local labor market levels these services should be much better coordinated with education, economic development, and support services.
It would clearly be in the national interest to reduce the rising financial barriers to the acquisition of adult education and workforce skills. This can be done through a variety of ways, including the creation of tax-advantaged development accounts, low-interest loans, and entitlements for public service (based on the very successful “GI Bill”). High-school-level education should be an entitlement for all adults, paid for by the federal government. And employers should be given incentives to train workers.
There is no shortage of specific national or international examples of how to create quality adult education and skills development systems. What is missing is a greater public appreciation of the urgent need for such investments and for the political will to make them. It would be hard to imagine anything more important for America’s future.
Two of the big adult basic education accomplishments of the past decade that are especially important to me are:
1) Growing state and national level communities of adult educators and adult learner leaders. Indications of this progress are the firm establishment of LINCS as a national community of adult literacy education practitioners and researchers, the growth of state and national professional development webinars, the survival — and in some cases growth, even in difficult economic times — of state and national face-to-face conferences, and increased advocacy efforts at every level that have led for the first time to every state providing at least a modest amount of state adult basic education funding.
2) Recognition by some states, and by the U.S. Department of Education, including OCTAE, that computer basics/digital literacy and now more advanced PST-TRE skills, are in fact adult basic skills, as important as reading, writing, and numeracy.
The two biggest challenges our field has are:
1) Lack of understanding by the American public and policymakers of the importance to our economy, democracy, and national well-being of a lifelong learning system that guarantees residents free access to English language instruction and basic skills that individuals need to escape poverty and sustain families, and that our country needs to have a successful 21st century economy and a true democracy.
2) Lack of Resources. Indicators of an overwhelming need to significantly increase public funding at the federal and state level for adult basic education are:
- At a time when adult basic education waiting lists have grown, public resources have been shrinking at the state level and have not grown at the federal level. As a result, fewer people are being served and in many states waiting lists have grown.
- We have seen a decline in support for family and intergenerational literacy, when we know from research that the education of a child’s parent (mother) is a strong indicator of how prepared the child will be for school and how well s/he will do in school.
- Adult education programs, especially community-based programs, frequently do not have the resources they need to support the state standards we have set. They do not have adequate access to up-to-date computers for students or teachers. They do not have science equipment for students who are at the adult secondary education level. They do not have sufficiently large, well-lit, and comfortable space for learning.
- Professional development in adult basic education has never fully met teachers’ needs. Now the standards, and demands for meeting those standards, have risen. But the resources for providing sustained, high quality professional development have not expanded, and there has not been a professionalization of salaries and working conditions that would make it worthwhile for someone to enter a field with these demands. The great majority of teachers, who are usually part-time, are not well-prepared to teach reading, mathematics, science, and digital literacy skills to adults.
I believe the most exciting development in Adult Education over the last several years is the reconceptualization of what Adult Education should be. Pre-dating the recession, but no doubt influenced by its depth and severity, Adult Education is now about more than literacy and numeracy. It is about college and career readiness and the goal of helping to produce a workforce that is productive, creative, and adaptable, and capable of competing internationally.
From my perspective, the next great challenge for the Adult Education system will be to help incorporate millions of immigrants into American life by teaching English, citizenship, and civic engagement on a scale not seen since the turn of the 20th century. To meet this challenge, the Adult Education system will need to be better funded. Its practitioners will have to be better trained and more professional. And there will have to be more reliance on technology and new forms of instruction and learning.
Finally, in this era of scarce public resources, Adult Educators must explain more clearly the unique role that Adult Education plays in the overall education system. They will have to become more entrepreneurial, identify new sources of funding, and explore the possibility of public-private partnerships, pay-for-success schemes, and other options.