Adult education/ESL leaders often use the term “going to scale.” But the term means different things to different people. Sometimes we mean making our state and local programs larger (reaching more people, through use of technology or in other ways). Or we may mean broadening or adding functions (as in transforming traditional adult education and ESL into a system that prepares low-skilled adults for job and college readiness as well as the GED, see Reach Higher, America). ”Going to scale” can also mean making better use of existing resources and venues of service for clearer purposes (comprehensive planning by all stakeholder groups and better articulation), and/or developing more public and private funding to support our efforts. Or the term may mean ability to prove benefits and outcomes that are both relevant and excellent…increasing public and policymaker awareness… specific state and national policy development work we should do to go to scale,…and/or ways to improve state/local adoption of research and best-practice evidence.
To stimulate thinking about “going to scale,” we recently invited a few state and national leaders to offer their definition of the term along with the priority actions and points of intervention they think are most needed to go to scale in adult education.
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When I hear the term “going to scale,” I think first about the community level. I wonder how to explain what it means to my adult students and then I consider what it means to me as a practicing professional. To me, going to scale for adult education programs is a multi-faceted proposition with a heavy emphasis on curriculum development: developing curriculum that is “contextualized,” using workplace or community based scenarios for all class levels, engaging students to think critically. Contextualizing the curriculum creates a classroom environment that allows students to begin learning “organically,” under the guidance of teachers and staff. It is about developing education, career goals, and life plans so as to be successful in the 21st Century.
“Going to scale” also means professional development for staff and teachers. By this I mean an approach that moves away from the cookie-cutter classes offered now, to a purposeful team-based plan that is directed to one or two goals each year, such as developing hybrid classes. In a hybrid approach, staff learns about the physical and equipment needs of students, teachers develop targeted curriculum for instruction; and infrastructure is put in place. The program is made “electronically ready”– classes are equipped with smart boards, students receive email addresses needed for communicating with teachers and support personnel, staff and teachers are selected/developed who are multi-media literate, and computer labs have up-to-date software. If programs are not equipped to deliver instruction using 21st century equipment they will not be able to teach students the skills they need for 21st century jobs. Of course, there is that Gordian knot: for adult basic education to go to scale, additional funding will be needed.
It seems to me that “going to scale” at the state level means revising how adult basic education is funded. We would need to shift from a “soft money” approach to “hard money,” and be on an equal playing field with public schools and higher education. The uncertainty of not knowing each year what the adult education state budget allocation will be stifles long-term planning and creativity, especially in the programs of community based organizations. I also think that online education has to have an important role. To achieve this, state agencies should strive to develop partnerships with colleges and universities to ensure courses that are specifically designed for adult education students. In addition, there is a great need for more research in our field, and some of it could be undertaken through state-college partnerships. One specific idea that may hold promise is for an adult education teacher to partner with a college professor to develop and conduct field-based research that also functions as a form of professional development.
Actually, I think adult education has been “going to scale” for some time, although at too slow a pace. Our field must speed this up because our students need the skills to function in the workforce and to be fully integrated into 21st Century society. Which leads me to one final thought. Yes, present funding levels have limited our expansion. But our students can be a powerful form of leveraging! Upgrading the education of these millions of potential or current workers, by “going to scale” in adult education programs, can be the answer to the skilled labor shortages that a number of employment sectors are facing.
As I understand it, “going to scale” is a metaphor for creating more or larger versions of model products or activities. I have never believed that more or larger are necessarily better in adult education. My view is that better is better, and that more and larger will follow from better, because good things usually sell themselves. As a result, I think our priority should be to improve our programs, rather than to replicate them.
We certainly know they need improvement. On average, learning gains, retention, and relevance are disappointing–and we know how to improve all these aspects of service. Progress requires a greater per-student investment in both instruction and support. This includes relevant pedagogy, high-intensity classes of longer duration, and greater tailoring of the package to individual and community needs. It also means screening potential students to focus investments on those who are ready to make a commitment to substantially improving their basic skills.
This idea of going to scale is different than serving more students or increasing articulation. It involves policy shifts at all levels–to encourage investment in quality rather than quantity. It requires more funding than we have now, but both old and new funds should be targeted on enriching and expanding the total student experience. We need far better measures of success, and better ways to know if/when students have achieved them. Most of all we need a culture of quality–a cadre of teachers and administrators who are empowered to achieve much more than they can achieve today. Going to scale in this sense aims to create more and more relevant learning for each student, and thereby for society as a whole.
When I think about “going to scale” in the field of Adult Education, I imagine what that would look like at the state level. Our work here at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce has focused, in part, on the need for better information–for employers, educators, participants, and policymakers. Ready Indiana, the Chamber’s workforce concierge works specifically to help employers access available resources to develop current employees and find new ones. Over the past six years and also while working in the field of adult education in Indiana, it has become apparent to me that most employers know little if anything about what these programs offer relevant to their workforce needs.
This is partially because Adult Education participants are often striving to complete basic credentials needed for employment–a high school diploma or GED. But neither a diploma nor a GED are enough in today’s world. Employers don’t feel confident about or know what skill levels those credentials validate in new applicants. Surveys done by the Chamber have shown that work experience is the most preferred indicator of work-readiness for employers, more so than either of these two credentials.
So how can Adult Education programs become more relevant to employers and improve outcomes for participants? I would point to our own Adult Education program in Indiana as a shining example. Through the WorkINdiana program, a relatively new concept is being tested that involves short-term occupational training concurrent with GED completion resulting in an industry-recognized certification (with more than twenty certifications to choose from). This is not a new concept for programs serving dislocated workers, veterans, and others but it is for those working with participants at a basic skill level. Industry-certifications can provide Adult Education students with a needed advantage that has true meaning to an employer because it validates work-related skills, not just basic skills.
Beyond credentials, Adult Education providers must also address the “softer” skills…things like communication, presentation, cooperation. Again, surveys of employers show these skills are those most lacking in new and current employees. At that same time, little if any training is being offered to address this in the workplace. I’ve heard stories of applicants texting during an interview, even arriving in their pajamas. Wherever it best fits, there is an element of basic do’s and don’ts that Adult Education programs (and also secondary programs) must address.
But doing these things alone will not result in “going to scale” if employers and communities do not understand that THIS is what their local Adult Education program can offer. Marketing, communications and outreach (especially to employers) can feel like unknown territory for some in education. This is where partnerships with organizations that make it their business to communicate TO business are key. Adult Education programs can improve their chances of going to scale (and participants’ chances of gainful employment) by identifying and partnering with organizations like chambers of commerce or human resource associations in their communities. Educators don’t have to do it all…lean on your business partners to help promote your good work and increase recognition of your truly meaningful work.
What will it take for Adult Education/ESL to “go to scale?” It will take all of the stakeholders working together.
At the national level, it means bringing attention to adult education from all organizational venues. It will take an extraordinary collaboration of government, commercial, and nonprofit players to bring full attention to the people and communities who need adult education programs. And more for-profit companies must be recruited to champion the cause through the public media.
At the state level, governments must understand the value of adult education programs to their state’s economic development, and they will have to direct more resources to those programs. Also, state ABE staff will have to make sure that local programs hire many more full-time employees and provide benefits to keep them in the field. Full-time employees are more likely than part-time personnel to improve their job performance by engaging in professional development that will in turn help their students.
At the local level, adult education programs are one of the best kept secrets in the community. This is due partly to lack of attention at the federal and state levels, but it is also because communities often don’t realize their own need. Planners need to make sure their programs are provided in adult environments and also provide adequate resources for paid staff, textbooks, and other essentials. They also need to be sure that those who could benefit from services know about them.
In a way, the most indispensable player is the student. If students aren’t active players, the efforts of others will be less effective and often a waste of time. In my experience, students would prefer the term “ramping up” rather than “going to scale.” That’s because they believe more energy is needed, are willing to put their “all” into it, and will work hard to achieve their goals–if they see the value of it. Adult learning theory tells us that for adults to buy into the learning process they must first see the value and necessity of what’s being offered. Students can value adult education for different reasons–as a way to get into and complete college, as a step to a job, or any number of other things. And it’s up to those who plan and provide programs to help them see the value.
The economy calls for doing work differently. It’s a time to use the knowledge we’ve gained, the research that exists, and the tools created by experience to take to scale those best practices, or those that we know have desired outcomes. It’s a time for “scaling excellence.”
In reviewing school reform initiatives during his presidency, Bill Clinton said “nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere.” The frustration, he said, is that “we can’t seem to replicate [those solutions] anywhere else.” And in adult education, I personally do not think we should be using our precious resources on activities that do not move the needle on student success.
So, what does it mean to take a project to scale, or to scale success? It is not simply replication, adding function, or making better use of resources. Scaling excellence permits success from one community or project to expand to other communities. Scaling is the process of spreading success. The goal is to reproduce a successful program’s results, not to recreate every one of its features.
Here’s an example of scaling excellence in California. The Policy to Performance (P2P) project was implemented in this state as a bridge program between adult schools and community colleges. Although P2P was a pilot, the intent was to scale. California is large and diverse, and schools and colleges are locally controlled. Each of the project sites would need to reflect its locale. And so we began by identifying those essential components that were critical for success, and they became the framework for the project. Those essential components were assessment, curriculum, support services, evaluation, resources, and sustainability. Each pilot site then built upon the framework and created a bridge program that was flexible and responsive to the local needs. Although the programs look different in each community, each one is built upon those essential components. The pilot was a success and is currently in the process of being brought to scale.
Change happens on many levels. To achieve sustainable change is a unique challenge. I believe it involves local efforts that lead to policy change, that for an effort to be successful it involves ground-up and top-down collaboration. I have worked at the local, regional, and state levels, and find that scaling excellence is a complex challenge at all of these levels. It will take each one of us, committed to scaling success, to bring about sustainable change. As the late world-renowned Carl E. Taylor noted, “There are no universal solutions [but] there is a universal process that can help us find local solutions.”
One of the challenges in adult education is the limited ability of promising practices to go to scale. In my view, when national adult education and literacy organizations—ProLiteracy is an example—and state entities initially conceptualize projects, they should put the scalability of those projects first and foremost in their thinking. This has always been a challenge to those who develop and provide services. We tend to design projects unique to a given community or specific need—and these do not always lend themselves to adaptability to other communities and other needs.
If we would design our projects to be scalable, our promising practices would be much more replicable, more practical and implementable. Of course, federal and state governments have a responsibility to see that this happens in their funding and policy efforts..
As adult education practitioners we need to keep a few things in mind:
- Upfront planning of projects is essential to be sure they are replicable and scalable.
- Adequate partners must be in place along with a collective commitment to help scale our promising practices. For example, state entities should be committed to taking proven programs and projects statewide. And groups and individuals that are part of a providing network, such as the state ABE directors, or workforce readiness professionals, or groups like my own should keep an eye on their models of success and make sure that they promote these models throughout their networks.
- Heavier use of the power of technology is required to help us more widely disseminate promising practices.