Graying of Adult Education Leadership

his Blog posting offers a variety of views on the “graying” of adult education leadership, a topic that comes up in conversations about the future of the field. Contributors were encouraged to write about the subject from any angle of interest.  CAAL suggested they consider whether there is a “graying” problem and, if so, how it manifests itself and what ideas they have to remedy it.  Readers who want to comment on any message posted, offer their own views, or read the comments added by others, can do so at the bottom of this page or by clicking the small balloon directly above.

Marcie W.M. Foster
Policy Analyst, CLASP 

The face of adult education national leadership is changing–at a time when adult learners and adult education programs need help more than ever.

I became responsible for CLASP’s federal adult education work just two years ago–a role completely new to me but that I have come to enjoy thoroughly.  No issue is more important or timely than adult education including English as a second language.  The past few years have been difficult for workers in general, but they have been wrenching for those with less than a high school education or for workers who can’t speak or read even functional English. Unbelievably, the system created to help these workers improve their basic education serves only 2-6 percent of the eligible population.  Yet despite scarcity of funding, adult education is in an extraordinary renaissance of innovation and modernization.  New technologies and new workforce needs demanding higher-level skills are pushing programs to think more comprehensively about the work and family needs of students.

Some of this shift in effort is due to changes in labor market needs.  But high praise should be given to those who have worked so tirelessly in this field for decades, advocating for change because they knew it was the right thing to do for adult learners.  Advocates and national leaders in adult education–whether at the local, state, or national levels–are a small but mighty bunch.

National organizations, advocates, and issue leaders serve a unique role in any policy area, but this leadership is particularly unique and necessary in adult education.  Unlike other more defined areas of education, such as K-12 or higher education, adult education programs are broad-based and vary greatly.  They are located in community colleges, school districts, church basements, community organizations, and other settings.  They may be staffed by well-trained full-time teachers, part-time evening teachers, college faculty, or unpaid volunteers. Almost all are resource-starved, with little time to keep abreast of federal policy and budget decisions that impact them.  Those of us at the national level serve as the field’s voice to Congress and other stakeholders, translating evidence and best-practice research into federal and state policy reform, and providing technical assistance to programs and practitioners seeking to innovate or improve services.

But many of my much-loved adult education compatriots are nearing or past retirement age.  They are holding on because of their drive, passion, and, perhaps as important, because there is no one else to fill their “big” shoes.  Here are two ideas for supporting a new generation of leaders to fill those shoes:

Build awareness of adult education in existing graduate-level policy and education programs and fellowships.  The system of adult education and ESL is one of the best-kept secrets in American education.  While some graduate-level education programs offer degrees in adult education pedagogy, it is nearly absent in education policy programs and graduate courses.  Without knowledge of the system and its challenges, emerging leaders are unlikely to take interest in and advocate for adult learners.  Foundations, public service associations, and universities could play a critical role in implementing needed strategies.

Foster new leadership through a long-term, structured professional development process that focuses on the intersection of adult education and changing workforce needs.  Potential national leaders in adult education can be found in many environments—local programs, community colleges, foundations, national organizations that focus on other education and workforce issues, and even adult education alumni.  Adult learners will increasingly need the higher-level skills and credentials found in postsecondary education, so new leadership at the national level should be attuned to these issues and be prepared to partner with a broad spectrum of education and training allies. Emerging talent could be selected for participation in a structured professional development process that would serve to educate new leaders about the changing needs of adult education, spark fresh thinking, and serve as a lifelong network of colleagues. An example of this type of program was the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s Associates Program, which operated from 2000-2011 and helped produce a new generation of leaders in higher education.

I value working with my current colleagues, but at the same time I realize the future of the field depends on a new generation of national leaders who are as impassioned and eager as those who came before them.  The years ahead are likely to bring even more innovative technologies, even deeper financial struggles, and even higher demands for workers.  Let’s make sure this new generation of leaders can step into the shoes that have paved the way.

Robert Hughes
Interim Dean, College of Education
Seattle University, WA

Having meaningful data that identify the demographics of instructors or the leadership of adult basic skills programs is a constant challenge.  However, there are other ways to gauge what we look like.  For instance, the next time you attend a regional or national conference, look around you.   When I do that, I realize that many people are in my age bracket (I’m 60) and this is even more so when I’m at a meeting of adult basic skills program directors and managers. That’s a problem.  If we are going to build adult basic education as a profession, we seriously need to consider how we’ll pass the lessons of the past and present on to the leaders of the future.  We need to start developing those future leaders now.

Those of us who have been leaders in basic skills education need to actively seek out potential leaders and create pathways for the people who will replace us.  But we cannot accomplish this solely as individuals.  The task requires that the organizations that advocate for issues in basic skills must also create supports for the succession of the next generation’s leaders.  Those supports include professional development that helps future leaders build both management and leadership skills, provides opportunities for newly emerging leaders to network with each other and with existing leaders, and offers resources that assist emerging leaders with information as they need it.  That can only happen as we recognize and address the issues of leadership and succession intentionally at regional and national levels.

My challenge to each leader in our field is to ask how you’re replacing yourself? My challenge to organizations like CAAL, COABE, and ProLiteracy is to make this issue a priority so that they can help shape the future through the development of these future leaders.  My question to all of you is, if not you then who?

Forrest Chisman
V.P. & Senior Advisor, CAAL

There has been  a “graying” of adult education leadership because many of the same people have played national leadership roles for several decades.  But I am not concerned about “graying” in itself.  The maturity and experience of senior people has great value and their extended tenure doesn’t block the rise of younger leaders.  Most current leaders hold national leadership status because of their individual efforts, not because of the positions they hold.  And younger people will have to find their own paths to wider recognition whether or not older leaders pass from the scene.

However, I think the phenomenon of “graying” is important, because it highlights problems of leadership recruitment that have been neglected for too long.  There are too few national leaders of any age to address the entire range of problems the field faces, and fresh ideas are in short supply.  These problems first brought me to the adult education field in 1988, and I’ve seen little progress in solving most of them.  I once thought  a more vigorous leadership structure could be developed through institution building, and had great hopes for the National Institute for Literacy. But NIFL was never allowed to reach its potential in this or any respect.

Looking to the future, direct investment in national leadership development may hold promise.  Most professional fields have recognized the need for such investment.  One useful, targeted approach would be to develop mid-career fellowship programs to help practitioners expand their knowledge, skills, and visibility beyond the known domains of their present jobs.  The careers of leaders in almost any field show how essential these opportunities are.  Today no programs provide targeted mid-career opportunities in the adult education field, and most senior positions (such as deanships and directors of public programs) don’t allow room for growth.

Both public and private funding sources should address these problems.  Most public and private funders with an interest in adult education advocate the importance of human resource development.  If they really believe this, they should invest more in the development of leaders in adult education.  Mid-career programs of various kinds are time tested strategies for philanthropy.  They are cost-effective, easy to evaluate, and bring funders the opportunities of “naming rights.”  They should be a cornerstone of growth in adult education.

Garrett Murphy
CAAL Advisor, National Policy Analyst,
& Former State ABE Director

The leadership needed to maintain quality of practice and outcome improvements  is to a great extent the role of the adult education offices in the states and outlying areas–on their own initiatives and also as guided by the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium (NAEPDC).  I left the employ of NAEPDC 10 years ago.  So I wondered how many state directors with whom I worked are still in place today.  In all of the states and outlying areas, only 15 were familiar to me, which suggests to me that “graying” at the state level is not a problem.  Many new people are leading the way in these jurisdictions.  Even NAEPDC has added a new staff member to assist its long-term director.

In addition, in the last several years, E&T representatives have shown increased interest in the role of basic skills in the successful implementation of employment and training initiatives.  This group has been highly influential in the formation of legislation and policy–emphasizing the need to accelerate learning and to foster transition to job training or postsecondary education.

Successful “graying” is evident in at least one other way, with important national consequences.  The state director of New Hampshire is one of the longest term directors of adult education in the country.  He assembled and operated a superb national policy analysis and legislative action system based on a single point of contact in each state.  In one particularly active period, the system managed to send 500,000 messages to Congress.  This system needs to be maintained and strengthened by the state directors and other interested groups.

James Parker
Sr. Policy/Research Associate, CAAL
& Parker Consulting

The continuing turnover in state and national leadership is related to the graying issue.  Since 2006, there has been a more-than-50% change in the make up of state directors.  Likewise, many OVAE staff have retired or otherwise left the Adult Education Program.  When this much change happens in a relatively short time, there is a real possibility that key data, understandings, continuity, and wisdom are lost.  Consider just the following.

Past practices that have improved adult education (AE) are forgotten. How many current leaders are aware that AE once fielded seven program models that were validated as National Diffusion Network (NDN) projects?  This was a significantly higher proportion than NDN-sponsored elementary-secondary projects, considering the small investment in our AE programs.  How many of us recall that major national investments in multi-state and regional professional development programs increased university involvement in AE many times over in the 1970’s?  More than 100 postsecondary institutions offered AE degrees then, compared to just a couple dozen now.  Or that in the 1990’s national funding helped develop successful programs serving tens of thousands of homeless adults and incumbent workers every year?  According to the NRS, substantially fewer in these populations are now enrolled in AE programs.

Perspectives that historically anchored AE practice are seldom discussed.  How many of our leaders are concerned (not to mention appalled) that national enrollment has declined from 3 to 2 million in a short time, barely matching the 2 million enrolled 30 years ago?  How many know that program quality used to be the prime indicator of program success, well before the WIA/NRS measures of gain in educational level?

Program growth opportunities are jeopardized when AE leadership does not know or understand how past program successes may be explained (and “sold”) to policymakers and funders.  AE programs largely missed out on the ARRA funding.  Was data on National Workplace Literacy Demonstration Program outcomes offered to the Administration when funding decisions were being made?  Without this kind of data, how can AE now be seen as relevant to the President’s jobs and economic development goals?

However, there’s possibly a flip-side benefit to not over-relying on past practices. Maybe 2013 is a good time to pick up on the “Project Scratch” notion that we used to talk about.  I think we ought to be asking the following questions with renewed vigor:  If adult education had never existed, if we could start from scratch, what would/should our AE system look like?  Who would it serve?  In what ways?  With what intended outcomes and how would those outcomes be measured?  The work of CAAL (especially the National Commission on  Adult Literacy), CLASP, and several other groups in the past few years suggests what some of the answers might be.

Gail Spangenberg
President, CAAL

It recently occurred to me that leaders in the amorphous field of adult education come to their roles from many different backgrounds.  For example, a friend and recent dinner companion who is a prominent state leader was formally trained in a medical speciality.  She unexpectedly found herself holding a job in adult education which over time became her life passion.  A colleague with whom I work regularly was a Rhodes Scholar.  He devoted years to federal social policy and human resource development, held important responsibilities at the Aspen Institute and the Markle Foundation, studied adult ESL extensively, and became deeply experienced in national and state policy analysis.  He shifted into adult education when two close colleagues encouraged him to apply his considerable talents to that cause.

I began my own career at a major philanthropy where I had the good fortune to work in several areas including adult education.  While there I gained the strong support of such remarkable men as Harold Howe II (education secretary under Lyndon Johnson), Marshall Robinson (higher education management executive), and McGeorge Bundy (president).  In this nurturing environment, while pursuing my college studies after work, many professional opportunities were offered–e.g., responsibility for nontraditional education grant activities in the U.S. and Europe, and for urban higher education in the U.S.  I also directed many studies, examining  such topics as the College Proficiency Examination and NYS Regents External Degree Programs, the prospects for converting the NYC municipal broadcast facilities into a citywide open learning system, and the facilities needs of one of the colleges in the CUNY system.  I had an initiating role in advancing the status of women in grantmaking and in my foundation’s internal hierarchy.  One of my mentors, in urging a top official to become involved in this new women’s initiative, observed that “with her conviction and your wisdom, something might just come of it.”  I prepared a major report on adult education for the Carnegie Corporation, whose president introduced me to Harold McGraw, Jr.  He was just forming the Business Council for Effective Literacy and I joined him as operating head. In time I founded CAAL.

These three very different paths to leadership have certain things in common. We all developed strong skills in policy and issue analysis.  We could all think systemically and see the larger picture.  We were all passionate about issues of social equity and about the role of adult education as a tool for achieving access and opportunity for our fellow Americans.  We knew how to listen, and were in the right place at the right time. It would be fascinating–indeed instructive for those considering leadership development programs–to hear from some of our readers about the paths you have taken to becoming adult education leaders.


9 thoughts on “Graying of Adult Education Leadership

  1. Adult education offered through adult schools, in particular, is in a precarious place. The governor of California is proposing the elimination of categorical funding, which includes adult education, in order to seek education reform for underserved, at-risk K-12 students in the state. If this occurs, adult education will disappear. It is difficult to groom younger staff with leadership potential to become administrators when there is faint hope about a future in this field. I hope and desperately want to be wrong. Please pull for us in California, we need your support.

  2. Although I retired 3 years ago after teaching adults for 42 years, like so many of you, I have made a lifelong committment to the field.

    When many of us entered the profession in the late sixties we were determined to keep the “Great Society” programs that were created in the wake of the ghetto uprisings alive. We were dedicated to improving the lives of our students, and we understood that the deplorable working conditions of the teachers reflected an equally disdainful attitude toward our students. That led me and my colleagues to mount a long and sucessful organizing campaign to improve the working conditions of the teachers.

    Today these programs are under attack and are being systmatically dismantled, to the detriment of our students and teachers. Most notable among these attacks is that access to the GED exam is being limited, both through privatization and rising costs to take the exam.

    We must revive a spirit that will enable us to mount a massive campaign to organize the millions of adult students who need services.

  3. Some of the “graying” leaders probably can’t afford to retire, even if the field did have people trained to step into their shoes. And the younger leaders who should step into them may not be able to afford to get the training and experience they need to do so. Seems to me that more money is needed all around!

  4. Some opportunities for building youth leadership require no new resources, only our individual will and attention. Gray leaders need to keep their eye on bright, talented younger people who are exploring or transitioning into adult education. Most now-gray adult education leaders themselves once transitioned into adult education from some other kind of education, science, law, social work, community organizing, or political activism. We need to recognize those who are trying out our field, affirm them, respond to their inquiries, offer them our time and advice, call their attention to job openings and, as appropriate, be job references for them. Many gray leaders sometimes already do that; however, we need to do it more systematically.

    One group, in particular, deserves more of our attention: adult education graduate students. We need to engage them in every possible way: invite them to join the U.S. Department of Education supported Literacy and Communications System (LINCS) and other adult education communities of practice; invite them to join national and state adult education associations (and provide them with substantial discounts to attend national and state adult education conferences); invite them to join state-supported practitioner task forces; hire them as teachers and tutors in programs; invite them to join public policy task forces, and in other ways.

    It would be useful, for example, for every state that has a higher education institution with graduate students in adult education, to have an annual half-day meeting for them to meet a range of state and local adult education leaders to learn about these and other opportunities, a kind of “job fair” for adult education graduate students that better connects them with the field. It would be best if the state adult education agency, the state adult education practitioners organization, and the university adult education faculty planned this together to reach both the existing practitioner leaders and the graduate students.

    Also, our field needs to support younger practitioners and researchers to do independent research, for example teacher action research and other qualitative as well as quantitative research. This would require a commitment of resources from national private and public funders. For many years the National Institute for Literacy supported the National Literacy Leaders Fellowship program. This provided encouragement, recognition, and support for people who grew as national adult literacy leaders. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education, or a national foundation, could fund literacy fellows again to provide future leadership, although we need a better name than “fellows”.

  5. My nearly 20 years of working in the adult ESL field has mostly been at the local and statewide level as the director of a small ESL provider (we also provide immigration legal services, and elder integration services). I’m lucky to be in Washington State where there is a strong peer group of practicioners, although nearly all the grassroots literacy programs are exclued.

    Part of the graying issue has been the large turnover in staff over the years. I have seen many high-quality actual and potential leaders leave the field for other areas. The reasons are varied, but definately include a lack of advancement opportunities. Every year, I have seen a new crop of younger leaders emerging, but we lose many of them. Those that do advance have little guidance, mentorship, or support along the way. They learn their lessons firsthand without much support from current leadership. We spend all our time when we are together fighting the battle at hand (a great learning opportunity in itself), but little or no time as a group analyzing or reflecting on our efforts; or grounding our understandings in a historical perspective; or doing any of that within the context of leadership development.

    In the groups I’ve been part of, this seems to be forgotten, overlooked, and/or a low priority. It seems we are always too busy mopping up the water to take time to fix the plumbing. We work in an environment with a paucity of resources, and I think we are driven to use those resources in a tactical way (create another class to enroll additional learners) rather than a strategic way (leadership development).

  6. Regarding Laura Stefanski’s concern about the gloomy prospects for adult education in California, there is some good news. The governor’s budget yesterday recommended that the governance of adult education be transferred to the community colleges, in order to secure the adult education system and make it more accountable and coordinated at the statewide and regional levels. Some $318 million in funding support is proposed–an encouraging signal of the state’s commitment to adult education.

    On a national basis, community colleges already provide a third of adult education services, and they are a vital player in ‘transitioning’ adult learners from skills upgrading services to college and job training. While a shift to community college governance may not be a suitable approach in every state because circumstances and politics are so different from place to place, this governance change in California should greatly improve the prospects for ensuring and strengthening adult and basic workforce skills education across that state.

  7. I live in Australia and deal professionally with this topic. Zeal for what you believe and putting it into words is a real talent. This article is informative, illuminating, and passion-driven.

  8. When I saw the title of this blogpost, I thought “Here at last is information about Adult Education for Older Adults.” But no, not I suppose until these folks retire and begin to realize just how valuable such programs are. I’m glad you have written about the need for leadership and academic power in this field. That’s important. I hope you will also address sometime the value of Adult Ed in its full range, including both Parent Education and Older Adults. These programs lead to great cost savings for the state. About Governor Brown’s desire to shift Adult Ed into the Community College system in California, that shift hasn’t happened. But we have a new challenge. The City College of San Francisco provides Adult Ed for San Francisco. Over 25,000 students are in “non-credit” classes, including ESL, GED, Citizenship, and Parent Ed. We don’t know what will happen to these students as CCSF deals with the accreditation problem. The new system of Regional Consortia will need to address this. But back to the graying of things…yes, that’s happening not only in Adult Education leadership, but all across California, and I hope Adult Ed will continue to provide its much needed, low-cost programs that help seniors maintain physical, cognitive, and emotional health.

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