Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy

Passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is a battle won after years of struggle by persistent committed people in Congress and professionals in both adult education and workforce development.  It’s not a perfect bill, and doesn’t capture all of the important provisions of the Adult Education & Economic Growth Act supported vigorously by CAAL and others, but the legislation offers significant reforms to its WIA predecessor.  It sets a new context for Title I and II services for 21st century social and employability needs. The most important thing it doesn’t do is provide funding at a level even close to what will be needed to carry out its intent.  A number of postings in this Blog address that point.

At this turning point, we should regroup and think anew about how best to focus our efforts to take advantage of the new opportunities envisioned by WIOA.  In so doing, we should keep two sobering realities in mind: the looming crisis-level findings of the PIAAC assessment[see footnote 1] and the enormous funding challenge.  To help kick off the process, CAAL invited a group of state and national leaders to offer their ideas about past gains and next-step priorities.  We are pleased to present their essays in Past Gains, Future Goals.  The contributors were given free reign to write whatever they wanted–with a focus on policy, research, distance learning, ESL, funding, family literacy, the state and federal role, or some other area of high relevance.  Most of the essays were crafted following the passage of WIOA.  No contributor knew who their fellow contributors were until now.

In my view, the operative word in WIOA is Opportunity.  What happens as we move forward depends heavily on what state and national leaders in the field do.  Obviously, we need to keep advocating for changes to further improve the quality, purpose, and reach of instruction.  Many of the Blog contributors focus on those needs.  We need to press Congress, federal departmental leadership, and state legislators and economic planners to squarely face up to the findings of PIAAC, and to the high urgency of the funding need.  And we need to keep an eye on implementation to make sure, among other things, that service includes our lowest-skilled adults and that those most in need are not “creamed” out as we have so often done in the past.

We also need to pay attention to the specifics of the implementation guidelines now being developed and to their application and enforcement by the Departments of Education,  Labor, and HHS.  We should be giving serious and creative attention to adult education funding opportunities throughout the federal government (not just in the Department of Education but in DOL, HHS, Justice, and Commerce).  The Immigration Act, which has implications for adult education, is a case in point.  We have done little in pursuit of multi-stream funding in the past, but periods of austerity and the diverse and pervasive nature of the adult basic skills problem requires new kinds of partnerships–in providing services and in funding them.

Adult education cuts across the work of nearly every federal department and state agency.  At the state level, planners have begun to identify available nontraditional funding resources, but as CAAL’s recent Return-On-Investment work indicates[2], we have barely begun to tap the possibilities.  We should think and plan more for the role of adult education in the context of state economic and community development.  This is a recurring theme below.  And we must be ever diligent in pressing Congress for substantially more funding than WIOA provides.

In fact, funding may well stand at the top of the list at this juncture.  We owe it to ourselves and our students to keep working on framework and substantive elements of action, but without a major infusion of new funding, we won’t make much progress…starved adult education programs will still be starving…and the intent of Congress won’t come close to being realized.

Part of the focus needs to be on the federal appropriations process and on reversing the destructiveness of sequestration.  But we must also communicate our needs better to business and to state legislatures.  We must work much more with governors and mayors to increase their understanding of what a strong adult education program will contribute to achieving the goals of their cities and states.  Philanthropy also has a large responsibility and we should find ways to expand their current limited interest and involvement.

Enormous thanks are due to all of the contributors to this Blog.  You are an amazing group of colleagues with a deeply astounding collective experience and remarkable dedication.  CAAL is honored to be in your company.

Distinguished Professor of Education Emerita
Former Co-Director, Institute for Study of Adult Literacy
& Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy
Penn State University
(July 27, 2014)

One of the biggest contributions to research in adult education in the recent past was the creation of the research and development (R&D) centers, especially the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) coordinated by Harvard University with federal funding.  Other centers, such as Penn State’s Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy and Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy, have been able to conduct thematic research with funding from diverse sources.  Such efforts, though relatively small scale, have studied important issues and tried to transfer the findings into practice by working with practitioners and policymakers.

The biggest challenge that research in adult education faces is obtaining grants to provide for large-scale implementation and dissemination. NCSALL had applying research to practice as part of its stated mission.  It experimented with various means of reaching the practitioner community, such as study circles, newsletters, publications, teaching and training materials, and conference presentations.  The U.S. Department of Education has continued this type of effort through the LINCS electronic discussion groups, where practitioners and researchers can discuss important issues under informed leadership. Similarly, CAAL has been a leader in policy research, dissemination, and advocacy for good policy.

Support for research is a special challenge when funds are scarce, even though adult education research is essential to inform good practice and policy.  Moreover, various research methodologies should be welcome to examine critical issues from different perspectives.  Multi-year grants are needed to provide time to examine important research questions.  And researchers, in partnership with practitioners and policymakers, should strive to learn what works for whom and why.  The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act may offer the opportunity for comparative analysis and assessment of various workforce development programs.  Universities can offer the expertise to research and evaluate these programs in partnership with service providers, business/industry, and labor unions.


Vice-President, Industry and Business Strategy
The Conference Board of Canada
(August 18, 2014)

The next few decades will see global competition rise as economies in Asia, Africa, and South America catch up with the highly developed economies of North America and Europe. As global competition increases, workers’ skills, knowledge, and abilities will become even more critical drivers of future success—for individual businesses, for whole industries, and for state and national economies. Improving and increasing skills will increasingly underpin efforts to enhance our productivity, innovation (of products, services and processes), and high performance: in short, our competitiveness.

The best results from workforce skills development come when employees have a firm foundation of literacy and basic skills. Future-looking companies see the value in offering literacy and basic skills upgrading opportunities to workers and their family members and they actively encourage participation. They also tend to review their corporate training and learning programs to be sure their workers gain the crucial foundation skills.  However, most do not have the in-house expertise to act alone: they need partners to get the best results. Already, many community agencies and organizations assist employers—and individual workers—by sharing information about literacy and basic skills development offerings, and by distributing training resources and materials. Some also act as clearinghouses of research on the outcomes and impacts of skills development to help guide employers make sound investments in employee skills development.

A one-time investment in skills development is not enough. Literacy skills are like muscles–if you don’t use and challenge them, they deteriorate over time. Declining literacy skills negatively impact workers’ ability to adapt to new technologies, new processes, and other changes. Once adults leave the formal education system, their literacy skills are challenged primarily through their jobs. However, some jobs do not demand high literacy skills. As a result, on average, people’s literacy skills tend to either stagnate or decline as they age. Designing jobs that make the value of literacy skills explicit is needed to make sure literacy skills are maintained and even developed as people age. Skills needed for jobs should be integrated by employers in a way that is transparent, fair, and effective. Often this means drawing in workers, training providers, and unions.

In the future, greater efforts will have to be taken to incorporate literacy and basic skills development into job allocation, performance evaluations, promotion decisions, career planning, and adult learning and education support systems.  Opportunities to upgrade literacy skills will have to be made available from a wide variety of sources, including employers, communities, governments, unions, educational institutions, and specialized training providers. Technology can be used to give workers greater flexibility of time and place to acquire the skills they need, but that will require more investment by federal and state government, employers, and unions. The data indicate that these investments will yield a rich return on investment as employees turn their enhanced skills into higher productivity and greater innovation.

Literacy skills training can be a stand-alone solution or embedded into other training. Employers can begin by contacting their local community college, local school board’s continuing education office, local community learning centre, or union for help in assessing literacy skills in their workplace, or to find an instructor, or design a learning program that fits their needs.

former Vice President
Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy
(former President, Southport Institute for Policy Analysis)
(July 27, 2014)

When I first encountered adult education 26 years ago, I quickly concluded that its greatest need was for more potent leadership. I think that is still its greatest need. In recent years research (importantly the NAL, NAALS, and PIACC) has repeatedly demonstrated the importance of adult basic skills, and the field has evolved intellectually to place more emphasis on the linkage of those skills to employment and on addressing the chronic need for staff development. Moreover, we now have a fairly good idea of “what works” in adult education – probably as good an idea as we have in any other area of teaching and learning.

Despite this progress, adult education still gets little support from any source. After nearly a decade of deliberation and multiple inputs about how to strengthen this service, Congress recently passed a new authorization that in my view changes little or at best does no harm. That’s because the new legislation fails to address the issue that virtually all analysts in the field have headlined: the need for greater federal funding. In a further disappointment, preliminary statements suggest that the Department of Education’s response to the PIACC findings may be essentially the same as it was to similar past research: evasive, bureaucratic, and largely beside the point. It seems to me that the Department keeps recycling old ideas, including the ever-receding “potential” of technology. Nor has adult education gained much respect elsewhere. Attempts to build bridges with job training programs and institutions have proved to be one-way friendships with little net gain for basic skills, and business leaders have long been willing to utter bromides about basic skills as long as it doesn’t cost them much. Also adult education has been as much a prey to commercialization by assessments and packaged curricula as have other areas of education.

It is an old story for adult educators: nobody will stand up for them in the fight for authority and resources. To make progress they must stand up for themselves with the skill and sophistication of other education lobbies. This is all the more important at a time when the call for improving basic skills is being marginalized by a weak labor market and strong nativist feelings, and when educational reforms of all kinds are in disrepute. For adult education to cut its way through these thickets requires a stronger and better supported leadership structure than the field has ever had before. An attempt made to address this problem with the National Institute for Literacy in 1991 was sabotaged by the Department of Education. In retrospect, the key mistake was to establish NIFL with federal funding, rather than to create an institution designed and controlled by adult educators and supported by tithes from them as well as private sources. Members of the field should learn from that mistake and take up the leadership challenge. They can and should give priority to building a NIFL leadership structure that at long last will empower them to carry out their important work.


Principle Researcher and Director
Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL)
American Institutes for Research
(August 14, 2014)

A significant achievement for adult education and workforce programs is establishment (2013) of the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (CCRS), which is mirrored on the Common Core State Standards but relevant to adult learners and anchored by empirical evidence of what employers and educators demand of prospective employees and students.  It defines what adult students should know and be able to do to succeed in postsecondary and training programs.

The shift in teaching that must occur under CCRS is a sea-change for adult educators, who must create student-centered learning environments that foster critical thinking and problem solving.  Teachers must learn and implement instructional approaches that encourage student participation in meaning-making, reasoning, idea generation, and problem-solving.  For effective instruction, a comprehensive system of high-quality, evidence-based, sustained professional development (PD) will be needed.  Currently, most adult education programs are staffed with part-time teachers who receive little or no compensation for participating in PD.  In addition, the traditional model has been the one-shot workshop, “hit-and-run training,” which research (Yoon et al, 2007) shows has little effect on changing teacher practice or improving student achievement.

Current PD opportunities for adult educators vary in quantity and quality across states and programs. Indeed, OCTAE’s preliminary report, Making Skills Everyone’s Business[3], acknowledges that the current adult education system “lacks the infrastructure to support teachers equitably across states and programs” and that greater investments are needed in high-quality PD as well as in research, development, and evaluation of promising interventions and program models.

Thus, the challenge to adult education and workforce preparation programs is to structure a new and different model of PD for teachers, based on a nationally-validated set of professional standards that define what adult education and workforce preparation teachers should know and be able to do. The model should include individual PD events that embody active learning experiences to help teachers make sense of new practices.  It should allow time for teachers to learn and implement new strategies. And it should contain a coaching component as well as ongoing communities of practice through which teachers can address the challenges of changing their practice and engage in problem-solving. PD events should be offered through a variety of formats—face-to-face, online (both synchronous and asynchronous), independent study, coaching, electronic communities of practice, etc.

We can no longer afford to defer the provision of high-quality PD for adult education teachers. Professional learning that results in changed teacher practice is the link between our current reality and the “new normal” implicit in the CCRS standards. The obvious question is how to fund the new model. Here are a few suggestions:  (a) At the national level, funds can be earmarked to develop and validate professional teaching standards, define the parameters of a comprehensive PD model, develop evidence-based PD resources, help states adopt or adapt the standards and the model, and maintain a cadre of national trainers to offer events that are accessible to all teachers.  (b) State HHS, DOL, and ED agencies can agree to collaborate in funding and providing effective PD for their teachers who serve the same client population. (c) State and local programs can identify and apply for new or additional funding streams to support professional learning.  (d) Local programs can redirect some of their existing funds earmarked for direct student services to enhanced PD for teachers.


Professor Emerita, Department of Education
(former Co-Director & Director of MA TESOL Program

& PhD Program in Language, Literacy, and Culture)
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
(August 18, 2014)

I am heartened by what I see as an increased understanding among adult educators and policy makers of the needs of adult English language learners (ELLs), as well as the assets that they bring to the classroom.  CAAL was instrumental in this regard, especially in its focus on the role of the community college in educating adult ELLs, beginning with the publication of Adult ESL and the Community College, and later with in-depth portraits of adult ESL programs in five community colleges in Passing the Torch and Torchlights in ESL[4].

There is also greater awareness of the diversity of adult ELLs and the types of programs they need–including programs for internationally-trained professionals (such as the Upwardly Global or Welcome Back programs)…and programs for emergent readers (such as the work of Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition (LESLLA) for Adults, and the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) with its Center for Adult English Language (CAELA) Network and other projects). A great deal more attention is also being given to professional development for educators of adult ELLs through ELL-U, LINCS, and other online resources, including training courses, webinars, and blogs. These have helped link participants from around the country into communities of practice focused on common concerns such as citizenship, health literacy, financial literacy or the design of rubrics to assess learner progress.

Some of the increased attention to the educational needs of adult ELLs is the result of the growth and broader distribution of this population. Communities with previously limited populations of immigrants or refugees are now finding that their adult education programs have more diverse learners to serve. New standards, such as the Standards for Adult Education ESL Programs and the Standards for ESL/EFL Teachers of Adults (developed by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, TESOL), and the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education issued by OCTAE have also identified outcomes that set a high benchmark for programs to achieve.

The increased diversity, broadening populations, and new standards pose significant challenges in terms of the range of programs needed, curricula, assessments, and teacher training, especially in a time when available resources and classes seem to be decreasing and waiting lists are becoming more common.  A number of organizations are working to support skilled immigrants from various fields, but there are still too many highly skilled immigrants who are languishing in low-skilled jobs because of a lack of appropriate programs and services.  In addition, although we have a much better understanding of the needs of emergent readers, the influx of refugees who need adult ESL and literacy classes has increased significantly, and with it, the need to train more teachers and provide more classes. New assessments and programs are also needed to help adult ELLs transition into more advanced education, training and employment.  Perhaps the newly-passed WIOA will provide some of the needed resources.

As is usually the case for those helping to educate adult ELLs, the challenges are great, but there are also significant successes, as evidenced by the number of former adult ESL students who have enrolled and succeeded in adult basic education programs, community colleges, or advanced education and training programs.


President & Founder
National Center for Families Learning
(August 13, 2014)

Without question, the passage of WIOA is the biggest recent accomplishment for adult education. WIOA is designed to create a system that prepares workers for the 21st Century workforce and gives businesses the skilled employees they need. From the family literacy perspective, this system is critical for raising parents and their children out of poverty by preparing them for living wage jobs and postsecondary opportunities. The College and Career Readiness Standards recently embraced by many adult education programs provide a progression of skills and a strong link to State Common Core standards so important for partnership with K-12 education.

There is a new-found and growing momentum from multiple sectors to focus on more than one generation. Family literacy, also recognized as a two-generational approach to education, currently is emerging as a priority in a variety of public and private initiatives as a means of improving child educational outcomes, community life, and family well-being. Recent findings from Jack P. Shonkoff (Harvard Center on the Developing Child)[5], NIH Center for Maternal and Child Health[6], and the Foundation for Child Development[7] provide compelling evidence that the improvement of child outcomes cannot be successful without an investment in the caregiver in the child’s life. Statistics note the value of dual-generation strategies that provide three components – education, training, and wrap-around family services. This emerging trend is excellent news for family literacy and adult education advocates and allows a broad base of funding opportunities for the future.

The kind of dual-generation strategies the researchers outline for the three components need to be included in further legislation. Dual-generation strategies through early education, child care, or workforce development programs should be included in legislation and policy at the federal, state, and local level.  Creating blended funded streams for the development of comprehensive dual-generation strategies through dedicated funds for adult education services is critical for the future.  Providing job training for parents and wrap-around services for both parents and children should be embedded in policy in publicly funded programs, allowing school districts and community-based programs to participate in and coordinate dual generational strategies.  Rapidly expanding Charter Schools for Pre-K-6 also provide an excellent source of funds for family literacy and can be achieved with minor state and local legislation and policy changes. Successful models already exist that require parents to attend school with their children with charter school funds available for both.

“If we want to do better for our children, we must aim higher. …One promising path is to focus on fostering the skills in adults that allow them to be both better parents and better employees.”[8]


Executive Director
District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund
(August 11, 2014)

Adult education is at a crossroads, positioned to provide educational services to millions in the workforce who need 21st century workplace skills. OECD’s international study, PIAAC, reveals that 36 million Americans lack basic cognitive and workplace skills proficiency, as well as basic technology skills.  Two-thirds of them are working adults.  Youth aged 16 to 24 are cited as particularly deficient. The U.S. ranks low among the 24 OECD countries in the study.  One can only conclude that our country’s ability to compete globally is in jeopardy if we continue to ignore these stunning findings.  The study also points to workplace and income inequity with millions of Americans unable to qualify for and advance in jobs and vulnerable to job loss.

WIOA provides a platform for adult education to play a stronger role in preparing the current and future American workforce with credentials and skills that can help drive economic growth and improve their life prospects. Many adult education programs contextualize foundation skills instruction in numeracy, reading comprehension, writing, and technology and workforce skills (e.g., time management, communication skills, critical thinking, and problem solving).  Less common are those that break out of the traditional stand-alone literacy and GED class model to embrace sector-based industry partnerships and evidence-based best practices that integrate basic cognitive skills with occupational skills training.  There are many models to provide guidance.

My own program in Philadelphia is an example.  The District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund is a labor management partnership of Delaware Valley healthcare employers and the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, AFSCME. It has created occupational pipelines of union members and community residents. Adult education and job skills training are integrated into occupational programming along a career path of connected steps.  A target population of highly vulnerable adults (resulting from long-term unemployment, lack of work history, and other significant job barriers) are participating in accelerated bridge classes that teach math, reading, and writing skills integrated with technology, critical thinking, and contextualized occupational content as a pre-requisite to occupational skills training.  This qualifies the graduates to work as behavioral health technicians, nurse aides, and home health aides.  Once employed, they can attend the Training Fund’s pre-nursing/pre-allied health program, which prepares qualified students for the next occupational step available through the Training Fund (practical nursing, an associate’s degree in health and human services, or moving into any number of other post-secondary healthcare programs offered by the Fund in cooperation with area colleges and universities). The Training Fund’s business partners ensure that the curriculum aligns with industry standards.  They also provide work-based learning opportunities, and they hire and promote graduates.

Joint projects with employers provide incumbent workers the opportunity to keep up with workplace skill requirements and technological advances, through adult education classes that help them learn the basic cognitive skills needed to support their acquisition of new technical and problem-solving skills.  Integrated adult education and occupational training programs are available to the unemployed who want to get started on a healthcare career pathway as well as incumbent workers seeking the education and credentials to advance their skills and qualify for promotions. Education and training programs are implemented within the context of a workforce strategy tied to employers’ talent needs.

Adult education is a fantastic resource for the field of workforce development. The new College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) of OCTAE ensures that adult education programs teach adult learners the skills required to succeed in the workplace and in postsecondary workforce programs. CCRS will have its greatest impact economically when used in adult education programs that give priority to connecting students to career paths leading to good jobs and advancement opportunities and that also embrace pathway industry partnership initiatives including regional and statewide training and economic development.

Executive Director, Outreach and Technical Assistance Network
& Assistant Superintendent, Sacramento County Office of Education
(August 11, 2015)

Over the past ten years adult educators have made significant strides using technology to extend and enhance learning.  Many states now have structured distance learning programs, systems are in place for reporting students who receive distance education services, and an array of state and national policy documents and services has been created.  Although still relatively small in comparison to classroom-based programs, distance learning has the potential to improve adult student learning and expand access to high-quality education opportunities in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Ten years ago less than 20% of U.S. households were connected to broadband; today that number is about 72%.  During that same period of time cellphone ownership has risen to 90% with about 58% having smartphones.  But perhaps the greatest growth has been in the area of mass digitization of learning content.  Given this rapid growth in Internet connectivity, the proliferation of digital devices, and mass digitization of learning content, the era of distributed and distance learning has arrived.

From a policy, program, and service perspective, I believe there are two key distance learning and adult education priorities for the next decade:  (1) refining blended learning models so that adult learners are offered the most appropriate instruction at any time, at any place, and at any pace, and (2) creating personalized learning opportunities with content tailored for each adult learner.

Increasing the time and intensity of an adult student’s engagement in learning is a clear pathway to greater learner gains.  One of the best ways to accomplish this is by developing models to extend learning beyond the classroom, instructional approaches that blend brick-and-mortar delivery with online learning.  Blended learning will play a vital role as adult educators begin to rethink the structure and delivery of learning while dealing with the realities of limited public funding.

Individualized learning has been a mainstay of adult education for many years, but today’s world of connectivity and mass digitization of learning content gives rise to a new paradigm of personalization.  A priority for the next decade needs to be the creation of digital systems that will adapt to each learner’s unique needs.  Already being implemented by major publishers and universities, adult education should pursue adaptive learning models that allow content from multiple sources to be more easily tailored to individual adult needs.

Senior Policy Analyst

Center for Law and Social Policy
(August 12, 2014)

The last decade of adult education policy has witnessed a dramatic shift. Calls for a greater focus on postsecondary transitions and career-focused programming have gained considerable momentum. The growing consensus to change the course of adult education policy has been so strong that, today, the entire focus of national adult education conferences or meetings is frequently related to career pathways or postsecondary transitions. Only ten years prior, one might have been able to find only a handful of sessions related to the topic. The near unanimous passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act amid one of the most partisan and reauthorization-averse Congresses in recent history is yet another sign of the groundswell of support for adult education and the need to re-commit to today’s adult learners and English language learners.

But even with the door swung wide open to these opportunities, challenges remain. Today, combined federal and state funding for adult education provides services of varying intensity for only 1 out of every 20 adults with low basic skills. To put this spending in context—the two-week government shutdown in late 2013 cost the Pentagon more than the federal government appropriates for adult education services and English language learners across all 50 states for an entire year.

But not only do we have less funding than we’ve had in a decade—we’re about to try to buy more with it. Immigration reform is on the horizon—and with it may be new requirements and needs for widespread and effective English language services. In addition, an increased need for postsecondary-educated workers amid a lack of growth among traditional-age students will continue to fuel the demand for adult education. New technologies and creative private and employer financing can get us part-way there, but only an attitude shift in Congress toward reasonable and appropriate spending levels will get the nation out of crisis.


Dean, Workforce and Economic Development Division
California Community College Chancellor’s Office (Sacramento)
(August 10, 2014)

I served as California’s state director of adult education from 2007 through 2011. In 2008, the state experienced the phenomenon of “flexibility,” meaning that the $750,000,000 budget that had been dedicated to adult education became local general education funding where superintendents and local school boards determined how those funds would be spent.  Many districts used the adult education funds to restore funding to their K-12 schools and classrooms. Those decisions became the catalyst for the decimation of adult education services to students. Every year fewer resources are used to serve adult education students.

Three years ago I began working in workforce and economic development for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and although it seemed a world away from K-12 adult education, I realized that they are threads of the same tapestry. However, it is difficult to integrate those worlds at the local and state levels. WIOA mandates an alignment of literacy and the workforce that benefits our students, and challenges us as providers to work together to create many access points for students between K-12, community college, and workforce systems. The WIOA calls for a regional delivery model with many partners aligned under a single state plan.

This year California’s legislators called for similar alignments in the delivery of adult education that mandates regional planning between community college and K-12 providers, I believe WIOA and the California regional planning initiative are aligned to best serve our students. I am hopeful that California’s Governor will once again dedicate funding to serve California’s adult education students. Literacy and the workforce are intrinsically linked, and we must provide our students the ability to access both.  WIOA provides an opportunity to do that.

Senior Policy Advisor
Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education
(former Study Director, National Commission on Adult Literacy, CAAL)

(August 13, 2014)

The PIAAC findings are again a stark reminder of the magnitude of the literacy crisis in America. The impact of low educational attainment plays out across the U.S. every day as millions of adults can’t qualify for jobs for lack of basic skills, credentials, and degrees.

The passage of WIOA is a step in the right direction.  It brings improvements in adult education service delivery, such as greater coordination among federal agencies, use of common outcome metrics for all federal workforce programs, preparing individuals with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in postsecondary education and the workforce, and alignment of workforce development programs with economic development and education.  These changes, many recommended in the National Commission on Adult Literacy’s report Reach Higher, America[9]should result in higher quality programs.  But better program design and coordination is only part of the story.  The WIOA provisions have the potential to significantly ramp up current stagnant enrollment in adult education programs, but federal funding to support that work is woefully inadequate. It is crucial that increased federal funding be provided.  Unless it is, we will simply be tinkering at the margins.

Change is also needed at the state level in several areas.  States need to enact specific adult education legislation along with appropriate state funding.  There is currently wide disparity in state financial support for adult education, even though all states receive federal funds.  States should also set goals to increase the number of adults who achieve high school equivalency/GED and enroll in postsecondary education, and they should have a system to track their progress.  Programs integrating adult and workplace skills, coupled with strong employer involvement, have shown promising results and need to be replicated across more states.  The good news is states have the latitude to establish goals for adult education programs beyond the WIOA to better meet their specific state needs.

Adult education programs and services are the gateway for millions of Americans to restart their education to become postsecondary and job ready.  They deserve higher priority at the federal and state policy and funding levels.  The states and the nation cannot meet their education attainment goals or grow their economy without addressing the needs of low-skilled adults.  America will continue to fall behind internationally unless dramatic change is implemented, and soon.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor,
Member, National Commission on Adult Literacy
(June 5, 2014)

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 is 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 in 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.


Senior Vice President, TechVision21
(August 7, 2014)

A noteworthy change in recent years is acceptance that “adult education” can no longer remain separate from the rest of the education and training systems in the U.S.  Regardless of the level of skill and ability, adults should have access to highly trained and effective teachers, to content and practice that is relevant to the demands of work and living and that moves along a career and further education pathway.  In addition, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a huge accomplishment. PIACC has changed the equation for adult education by including the ability to solve problems in a “technology-rich environment” alongside literacy and numeracy. Adults rank poorly in all three areas, which has caught many by surprise and captured widespread attention.

But attention alone is not sufficient to address the needs of adult education in coming years.  The continued issue of funding remains a challenge and access is still limited for millions of adults who are not served by the system.  Despite all we know about how to use technology[10], the field (policymakers, educators, researchers, teachers, philanthropists) is still reluctant to embrace it, even though it’s the key to more access and learning.  Offering adults the opportunity to improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities for work and further education is fundamental to the purpose of education.  Using technology for online learning, whether in support of a teacher-led classroom or on its own…or mobile devices to access content for work just in time…or games for hard and soft skills are some of the options that exist now and that are being introduced, but they are rarely integrated into the adult education systems.

Until the adult education community is willing to take the risk of using technology in place of the traditional, often inadequate, classroom model, there is little likelihood of major change.

Executive Director
National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium

(July 22,2014)

The most positive accomplishment of the past few years in the field of adult education is the transition from a literacy program to a college and career readiness program of services.  As the needs of adult learners and society have changed over the decades, our field has adapted.  For example the 3Rs focus of the 1960s and early 1970s was challenged by the APL (Adult Performance Level) study in the mid-1970s which espoused that adult learners need to have learning presented in a life skills context, not abstract 3Rs.  Hanna Fingeret’s work in participatory learning in the 80s moved us to student-centered learning.  President Bush’s Education Summit in the early 1990s and his wife Barbara’s commitment brought family literacy to our repertoire.  ISO 9000 and international competition in the mid-1990s added workplace education in thousands of worksites across the country.  And of course the focus on high demand jobs in the early 2000s brought us to college and career readiness standards.

This last transition to CCRS has been the most challenging, especially for those of us who saw adult education as a social justice issue.  Giving up that mantra was difficult.  However, our students need jobs and they do not have the skill levels to obtain those jobs or qualify for college-level occupational training.  And it is not just dropouts.  For example, fifty-four-year-olds with a 1978 high school diploma who have done “lift and put” jobs for thirty years are not equipped for the new high demand jobs either.  All that said, the field has embraced its new direction and already created a wide variety of career pathway programs.  The I-BEST and similar bridge and co-enrollment programs at the upper levels are growing throughout the country.

The challenge of the immediate future is to help program managers and teachers “infuse” careers throughout the program services—at the beginning reader levels, in multilevel classrooms, which are still the predominant delivery, and in English language learning services.  By “infuse” we hope not to throw away the student-centered learning we are doing now; but rather integrate contextualized learning around the high demand jobs in local areas, integrating the soft (job readiness) skills that employers long for in their employees, and infusing career awareness and exploration because many of the high-demand jobs are those with which we are unfamiliar (we hear regularly that the high-demand jobs of today did not exist five or ten years ago).  The challenge is magnified because we have a teaching force that is 80% part-time and a program management/leadership force that is 50% part-time.

We have a rich history of adapting our program services to meet the needs of adult learners in the society and culture they find themselves.  I have all confidence the field will continue those transitions.

The Manufacturing Institute
(affiliate of National Association of Manufacturing)
(August 13, 2014)

Over the past decade, The Manufacturing Institute has seen tremendous success in the development and implementation of industry-based certifications, such as The Skills Certification System[11].  Certifications provide the opportunity to accelerate the timeline for employment, and deliver real market value to the adult student.  Such industry-based certifications offer alternative education pathways that lead to better jobs.

Despite these benefits, there remains significant opportunity to increase their use and document the value to all stakeholders. More educational institutions need to recognize that accelerated learning models combined with certifications provide needed career pathways for adults, including transitioning veterans.  The wider access and implementation of industry-based certifications will allow adult students additional on-and-off ramps for education.

Additionally, cultural acceptance that self-sufficiency is not the end goal, but rather an intermediate step on a career ladder, is a much-needed shift.  Manufacturing, in particular, is a unique industry that offers accelerated programs for adults to begin careers, and often provides tuition reimbursement and training programs for growth.


Sr. Advisor for Policy and Strategy
Consortium for Worker Education
(August 13, 2014)

The mantra of adult education has long been that the acquisition of literacy, numeracy, and English language skills lays the foundation for success in the workplace and for the further education necessary for upward mobility and economic stability. From this foundation, individuals can climb career ladders and raise their status and salaries as they do so. While few, if any, adult education providers can offer the resources and scaffolding to ensure fulfillment of this dream, none come closer than the cohort of 46 NYC Central Labor Council unions, and 40 community-based employment and training programs assembled by the Consortium for Worker Education’s labor-management and community partnerships portfolio. Over the last 25 years, CWE has used NY State Education Department (SED) adult education funding to upgrade educational, skills training, and in-demand job credentials for over 1 million NYC residents.

CWE has taken the concept of adult education and expanded its breadth and scope to help shape careers, by assimilating into the business process of employers.  Through workplace literacy courses designed with employer inputs, a transformational platform has been created and expanded into low-income communities laden with high unemployment and underemployment indices.  CWE adult education funding is matched by other workforce resources to create career ladders, connect workers to businesses, and create and retain jobs. CWE and its partners measure program effectiveness and results–both quantitative and qualitative– through a prism of outputs that reveal exceptional participation levels. This is largely due to flexibility of scheduling (day, night, weekend classes), venue (in proximity to worker residences and workplaces), and a worker-centric approach (with contextualized worker/instructor inputs).

With the recently signed WOIA, we have an opportunity to recalibrate the objectives of adult education and workforce development.  They need not be separate silos with divergent objectives hoping to meet somewhere down the line. Our thought processes must shift in the direction of collective impact. We must shape our mission and efforts around what a 21st century worker needs to succeed in the ever-changing world of work.  Then we will be able to achieve alignment of diminishing public resources into a singular stream that attracts external resources, greater private sector involvement, and the production of an agile, educated cohort of learners called our 21st century workforce.  Adult education should be seen as a catalyst for worker capacity building and economic advancement.

Senior Advisor & Policy Analyst, CAAL
(August 4, 2014)

When Forrest Chisman autographed my copy of his book, Leadership for Literacy, he wrote, “ For Garrett, who was present before the creation” recognizing, since I am entering my 51st year in adult education, that my adult basic education career actually preceded the bedrock Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.  Looking back over those 50+ years I see two overall major developments   The first is the gradual acceptance by the workforce community of the crucial role played by basic education in preparing and maintaining the nation’s workforce.  Once viewed by workforce officials as an annoying setaside, basic education has seen its importance grow through a succession of federal workforce acts, i.e., the Manpower Development and Training Act,  the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, The Job Training Partnership Act, and the Workforce Investment Act, and it now occupies a key position in the newly enacted Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act of 2014. 

The second development has been the dynamic growth of instruction in English to speakers of other languages.  Irrespective of unsettled immigration policy and lack of sorely needed immigration legislation, almost one-half of all federal and state basic education funding now supports instruction in English, and both progressive and conservative policy advocates agree that learning English should be a priority, although their views may differ with respect to needed funding.

Neither of these developments comes without associated challenges.  Hopefully the aforementioned movement toward a greater emphasis on employment and training does not signal a diminution of service to least educated adults and those most in need.  These adults may need instruction that is well below the high school completion and postsecondary instructional levels required to participate in the majority of jobs or job training programs.  This population received a modicum of attention during the PLUS campaign of  the 80’s but has drawn little attention since then.  Service to this population need not signal a lack of rigor.  It will require setting reasonable outcomes for this population – at least some of which should be advancement to participation in higher levels of preparation.  Yet, the greater prominence of adult education in the formation of state workforce plans comes with a sacrifice by adult education of its education-specific outcome measures.  Even such a key accomplishment as earning a high school equivalency diploma may only be regarded as a success if it leads to a workforce-related goal.  Flexible interpretation of the legislation will be needed to accommodate non-workforce-related achievements of this low performing population.

Another challenge confronting the field will be to gain recognition of what it will really cost to provide English instruction should the Congress actually settle on immigration legislation.  While legislation is still not on the books the field should examine the number of potential students, the average cost per person, and the number of years needed to provide service to all who need it, and have this information available for policy makers and Congress.

Finally, states providing instruction in English may have to operate under two planning periods, the 4-year period called for in WIOA, and a much longer period should the existing Senate immigration bill’s 10-year waiting period be adopted in any final legislation.  Because English language instruction may be an authorized activity in both acts, determining student eligibility and attributing costs and outcomes to one act or the other will require careful attention, especially if, unlike WIOA which calls for student workforce progress, immigration reform legislation may only call for the ability to speak and write in English, familiarity with American history and government, and avoidance of being a public charge.


Chairman Emeritus, Southern Regional Education Board 
Member, National Commission on Adult Literacy
(August 6, 2014)  

A : Billy in the comic strip Family Circus.  Q : How can we understand one of the fundamental challenges in Adult Education … and overcome it?

What can a comic strip have to do with a serious, critical problem in America ? Perhaps it provides an important insight about Adult Education that we don’t always seem to grasp, or remember. The insight is that Billy’s neighborhood  journey from…anywhere…to home is almost always a mind-boggling, winding trek with many starts, stops, detours, dead ends, and numerous distractions between him and getting home.  Persons seeking to reach an Adult Education milestone are often traveling a “Billy path.”  It is not a straight-line path.  It is not on a level playing field.  There is no magical compass or watch that can help one go straighter or faster.

Billy can remind us that Adult Education happens in the real world. Our policies, actions, and support for Adult Education must take into account that Billy’s winding, illogical-looking path can lead him home while a straight-line path may look good on paper but be a dead end in the real world.

Yes, to “go to scale” and assist millions of adults we have to be systematic and use “GPS educational technology” to help folks on their winding paths and to know how effective the efforts to assist them are.  And we also need ways to place a hand on their shoulder to encourage them and help them stay on their winding paths.

Program Director  
Jobs for the Future
(August 17, 2014)

The last few years have been an exciting time in adult education, as prior efforts to connect these services to career pathways are expanding and solidifying! We see strong recognition of adult education’s contributions to regional economies through the development of a skilled workforce and more educated citizens. Adult education’s role as an important partner is reflected in a number of new collaborations with postsecondary institutions, employers, and sector-based projects.

Without a doubt, one of the great accomplishments is the focus on integrated pathways, which align ABE, ESL, and GED preparation with postsecondary occupational training.  Building on the highly successful outcomes of I-BEST, 15 states are now implementing integrated pathways through Accelerating Opportunity, Accelerate Texas, and other initiatives. In the 5 core states of Accelerating Opportunity alone (GA, IL, KS, KY, and LA), some 6,000 lower-skilled adults have obtained nearly 8,000 postsecondary credentials, with more than 40% earning 12 credits or more and over 1,200 already entering employment. Instructors are contextualizing their curricula by integrating occupational content into reading, writing, and math courses. Adult education providers in community colleges, school districts, CBOs, and other settings are implementing these programs to connect their students to economic opportunity. In fact, the strong emphasis on alignment with regional employment demand is another significant adult education achievement.  Many more adult ed providers seek to understand career opportunities in their regions and are engaging Career Navigators to share this information with their students and connect them with additional education and training. A growing number of providers are using labor market tools, including real-time labor market information–which draws data on skills, competencies, and certifications from employer online job postings to support career counseling activities.  Furthermore, many programs are incorporating employability skills (e.g., team work, problem-solving, communications, professionalism) to make sure their students have the skills employers seek.

There is strong evidence that these approaches work and move lower-skilled adults to good jobs. Our challenge is to expand these models, so that even more adult education students can take advantage of them. One of the greatest barriers is the lack of funding to support students without a GED or high school diploma. The elimination of federal Ability to Benefit provisions, which allowed students who passed a test or successfully complete two college credit-level courses to receive federal financial aid, has created a significant gap in resources available to support this population. States and colleges are finding creative approaches to filling these financial aid gaps, but their efforts are insufficient to fully scale up these programs. In the future, we hope to see the reinstatement of this provision for students in high-performing career programs like integrated pathways.

At the same time, adult education programs must meet the challenge of increased academic rigor to support GED attainment and college and career transitions. There is much experimentation in classrooms right now, but we must consolidate our knowledge of proven and promising instructional strategies and approaches to meet college and career readiness standards and to ensure that more students can clear the higher academic bar in a reasonable length of time.  Finally, stronger engagement with employer partners will be essential going forward, in both program implementation and advocacy efforts.  We are seeing a lot of eagerness on the part of adult ed providers to collaborate with employers, such as the group of providers in Texas that worked with employers to implement their Counseling to Careers activities. Coordination with other educational institutions (community colleges, high schools) through sector-based and place-based strategies will ensure that we align and streamline our involvement with these partners, and also that we are preparing adult education students to meet industry needs.


Sr. Research/Policy Associate, CAAL
(August 9, 2014)

This year is the 50th anniversary of the national adult education program. Over this time adult educators and their programs have helped tens of millions of adults improve skills, earn credentials that have paid off in higher education attainment and employment, and raise the standard of living for learners and their families. Yet these contributions have not always been recognized at the federal level. With passage of WIOA, Adult Education may have its best chance ever to emerge as a major player in social and economic development and to remain a publicly-funded program.

One provision of the law is that all states must develop a plan that encompasses all WIOA programs.  These include Adult Education, Youth Programs, Adult and Dislocated Worker Programs, Job Corps, Vocational Rehab, and Wagner-Peyser Employment Services.  Also, in response to Congress’s inability to address a variety of social needs through legislation, several other federal departments are beginning to allocate funds to support Adult Education in the context of their core missions. The Departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice, as well as Libraries (IMLS) and others, have recently issued funding announcements that include Adult Education and that Adult Education should be tapping into. These programs have attainment of employability skills as a common goal. It is to be hoped that Promise Zones, TANF, Public Housing, and other such programs will include our Adult Education programs in their grant funding.

The challenge for Adult Ed programs at all levels will be their ability to develop partnerships with these unusual sources. We know that public programs have the infrastructure and experience to provide critical services to lower-skilled adults, and to serve other populations as well.  So the opportunity is here!  The question is: Will Adult Education seize the opportunity?


Professor, Applied Linguistics 
Portland State University
(August 14, 2014)

Several research findings have emerged over the past decade that are very important to the field of adult education.  Longitudinal research suggests that the impact of adult literacy programs – whether on employment, earnings, skill growth or other outcomes – may not fully develop until several years after adults leave the programs.  This finding has several important implications for the field.  First, it means that the relatively short-term accountability and evaluation measures being used are not capturing much of the actual program impact.  Second, ongoing program improvement efforts, tied to short-term outcome measures, may not lead to significant improvements.  Third, and perhaps most important, ROI calculations based on short-term program impacts underestimate program cost-effectiveness and weaken the case for investment in adult education.  Additional longitudinal research is needed to extend these findings to more adult programs and populations in the United States.

A growing body of research indicates that basic skills develop across the lifespan.  Gains in literacy proficiency and everyday uses of literacy skills are interwoven in lifelong development.  Increased proficiency leads to expanded use of basic skills which in turn leads to proficiency growth.  Less use of basic skills, on the other hand, leads to loss of proficiency and vice-versa.  Effective interventions will need to teach basic skills as well as increase engagement in literacy and numeracy practices that utilize those skills.  Additional research is needed to design effective interventions to increase engagement in literacy and numeracy practices.  This research will depend on developing better ways to measure and track skill use.  Longitudinal research and historical trends in large-scale population assessments show that adult proficiencies systematically decline after about age 30.  Given the graying U.S. population and workforce, interventions will be needed to help maintain skills across the lifespan and support the inclusion of older adults in a broad range of work and civic activities.

Recent research also suggests there is a close relationship between increasing economic inequality in the U.S. and changes in the distribution of skills.  The large population of low-skilled/low education adults may increasingly become unemployed or underemployed and impoverished, complicating the development of effective policies and programs to increase adults’ skill levels and help them move out of poverty.  Amidst priorities to expand access to postsecondary education, serving low-skilled populations may pose a large challenge for the field of adult education in coming decades.

President, Newsome Associates
(May 28, 2014)

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.

Executive Director
Senior Service America
(former member, National Institute for Literacy Advisory Board)
(August 18, 2014)

For the last 20 years, three OECD adult skills surveys have documented that as a nation, Americans are willing to accept a growing “basic skills underclass,” as described in the 2002 ETS report, “The Twin Challenges of Mediocrity and Inequality.”[12]  According to the most recent skills survey, low literacy Americans are far more likely than high literacy Americans to express low political efficacy.  If our nation values participatory democracy and self-governance, we cannot tolerate a permanent underclass with low literacy, numeracy, and digital skills.

Our form of government requires informed citizens who are critical thinkers and have the skills required to participate fully in an increasingly complex society and economy.  To make meaning of the information explosion on the Web, we need an adult education system that provides high quality universal lifelong learning that complements a robust K-16 system.  Perhaps for the first time, it is vital that our system of lifelong learning must reach growing numbers of older Americans.

Nine million Baby Boomers never finished high school.  They are now likely to be among the nearly four million unemployed or underemployed workers between 50 and 68 years old.  Improving their basic skills—including digital literacy—is a wise investment in their health and well-being as well as their employability.  Reaching those 19 million older Americans unable to access online resources is sound public health as well as education policy.  We need to address the disturbing fact that in 2012, fewer than 10,000 Americans who were at least 50 years old passed the GED Test, comprising less than three percent of all passers.

Achieving this vision of a truly universal system of adult education for Americans of every age and income level requires new political will. How might we forge the new alliances and coalitions necessary to break through our current political gridlock? Advocates may wish to reach out to older Americans and their organizations as potential allies, especially since the turnout of older voters continues to lead all age groups.


V.P. for Policy Development & Research
American Council on Education
(former president, Center for American Progress)

(August 15, 2014)

The last 30 years has seen the industrial economy evolve into the knowledge/ learning economy. In the new economy, individuals, firms, regions, and nations need to continuously upgrade knowledge, skills, and ability to adapt, stay competitive, and move up the economic ladder.  How much learning occurs in an economy will soon eclipse how much an economy produces as measured by GDP as a primary measure of economic vitality.

As a consequence, in the next 30 years, policymakers will need to revisit core assumptions about human capital and its development. Nobel Laureate Gary Becker views human capital as the stock of knowledge, skills, health, and productive habits in a population that adds to its economic capacity. Clearly this notion goes beyond simple education and training.  Building a productive workforce for the learning economy requires intentional policy development across workforce development, labor market, education, health, and even work-life balance policy arenas. Three key themes can help organize how we think about the future:

(1) Smart workforce investment acknowledges the law of compound interest: Human capital accrual is like compound interest. Learning adds to learning and builds up over time. It just doesn’t happen when someone loses a job. We need to move to policies that provide adults with financial resources to invest in themselves across different aspects of human capital, for example education and health. Lifelong Learning Accounts begin to approximate this mechanism. Workers need the equivalent of a 401k to draw on for human capital investment. Further, policy could link a high wellness rating in the workplace to enhanced access to learning opportunities.

(2) Integrate academic and applied learning with new credentials:  The knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the learning economy are a deep mix of book knowledge and applied knowledge–the ability to contribute to solving complex problems working with others. To develop this skills mix we need a deep integration of education institutions with workplaces with a new set of credentials to demonstrate mastery.  Sector initiatives, career pathways, and badges are a first step but a learning economy may very well end up as a “co-operative education” economy. In a co-op economy, tax and regulatory policy encourages learning across formal and informal sectors at scale. Education institutions evolve toward experiential learning while employers provide release time for learning or build credential accrual into work.

(3) Provide learning advice: Intentional human capital development requires ways to track and measure how learning accrues and to indicate what might be the best next investments. This is a complex activity not unlike investing in the stock market. Workers need learning guides that span a lifetime. Learning advising activities are currently in a nascent stage of development. They are reflected in sub-categories such as career counseling, academic advising, and life coaching.  A fully-developed learning advising model–a kind of Charles Schwab for learning advice–acknowledges that human capital accrues incrementally, and relationally, like the compound interest effect.  It also builds web-based tools to support investment and provides access to professional experts on an as-needed basis.

CAAL Legislative Advisor
Susquehanna Group
Washington, D.C.
(June 2, 2014)

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.


Vice President
Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education
(August 14, 2014)

Thanks to CAAL, a most significant accomplishment was the visionary leadership that led to the “Reach Higher, America” report and its laser-focused charge: “The National Commission on Adult Literacy calls on Congress and state governments to make postsecondary and workforce readiness the new mission of the adult education and workforce skills system.”  This call to action served as the driving catalyst to begin the dialogue of transforming and re-engineering the nation’s adult education system, culminating in the recent passage of WIOA.  OCTAE’s College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) is another recent significant gain with transformational power.  These standards focus on preparing students to successfully enter the workforce and to enter postsecondary education directly into credit-bearing courses, not just developmental education.

Our biggest challenge moving forward is to become change adept.  We must embrace the challenge to prepare our students to be college- and career-ready.  We know a high school diploma or equivalent is no longer enough for our students to succeed, and that today’s jobs are going to require some level of postsecondary education and training.  Gallup Chairman Jim Clifton[13] says “At the current rate, employers in 2025 will need 23 million more degree holders than our nation’s colleges and universities will have produced….Approximately 2/3 of the nation’s college completion goal will come from non-traditional students entering and staying in the pipeline.”

Experts say we are nowhere near on track to meet that demand.  Thus we need to produce more credentialed students and encourage more of them to enter the postsecondary pipeline.  To succeed, we have to provide high quality professional development in preparing our instructors to teach to higher academic standards.  We must embrace new delivery models that focus on career pathways and integrated education and training models.  And we will need to use strategies that accelerate our students’ path from education to employment in family sustaining wage jobs/careers.  While doing this, we will need to be sure that we do not leave behind those most educationally and economically disadvantaged…. individuals lacking a high school credential or its equivalent.

According to the PIAAC, more than 36 million American adults, many already possessing a high school diploma, struggle to read, write, do math, and use technology above the third-grade level.  And the 2012 GED Testing Service Annual Statistical Report indicates there are nearly 26 million working age adults (18-64) without a high school diploma.  Yet federal and state data tells us that we are reaching only 1.6% or less of the target population.

While new legislation (WIOA) comes with much needed innovation and change, it is essentially an unfunded mandate and funding circumstances at the state level aren’t much better.  We must rise to the challenge of preparing our students to be college- and career-ready.  And we must be sure to include the lowest-skilled adults in our target populations for service.  Otherwise, we will fall further behind our global competitors in educational attainment and put our nation at risk.


Acting Assistant Director
Office of Career, Technical, & Adult Education

U.S. Department of Education
(August 14, 2014)

Since the mid-2000s, several significant advances have taken place in adult education.  First, we have a solid performance accountability framework operationalized through the National Reporting System that provides us with increasingly higher quality performance data. Adult education has established a performance culture–indeed our commitment to outcomes and our data systems are looked upon by other nations with envy. More importantly, our data show that we have significantly improved performance over time.  Second, over 30 states are now voluntarily using some form of performance-based funding and in many of these states this innovation has changed outcomes for students for the better. Third, we have survived a period of unprecedented fiscal austerity without suffering significant reductions in resources for our adult education program. Fourth, we have built collectively to ensure that adult learners have access to instruction based on rigorous standards. Fifth is the advancement of the construct of career pathway programs and systems, and the interagency and private sector support we have been able to build for this work. In 2013, 13 states had policies to support career pathways and almost all states reported some investment in career pathway programs.  And finally, a major recent achievement was the April 2013 release and high adoption rate of the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education.

Findings released last year from the PIAAC[14] assessment tell an important story about our poor international ranking and our ability to be and remain globally competitive. A companion report[15] takes a closer look at the U.S. low-skilled population and identifies policy implications and a framework to help address our weaknesses. Federal, state, and local leaders need to heed these reports in their strategic planning and in partnering with industry, business, labor, philanthropy, and community organizations to tackle the challenge.

Last month, President Obama signed WIOA into law, presenting a new opportunity to streamline and better coordinate the education and workforce development programs that serve adult learners. One of WIOA’s biggest changes is unified state plans and integrated state data systems that help break down silos between and among Title I and Title II programs. Implementation of WIOA will require an extraordinary level of interagency coordination between the U.S. Departments of Education, Labor, and HHS.  Further, Vice President Biden’s Ready to Work[16] report, which was released at the signing ceremony, features 50 executive actions the Administration and key federal agencies have committed to in order to create more opportunities for job seekers and workers.

In a time of scarce resources and based on various projections, it is important that we pursue as a priority increased investments in Adult Education, using new thinking about how to fund adult learning. If the public and private sectors work together, they can find new ways to meet the challenge of helping our low-skilled adults access pathways into the middle class. Currently, 36 million adults in the U.S. are low-skilled, 24 million of them employed. Often these adults work in low-wage, low-skill occupations. The numbers keep growing, and the federally-funded system is reaching only a small fraction of the 36 million high-need adults. The 2014 Appropriations Act is one new approach to using existing funds without additional federal dollars. New authority was granted to the Departments of Education, Labor, and HHS to establish up to 10 performance pilots, in a way that will give flexibility to blend existing funding streams and remove some of the barriers to serving vulnerable populations. In exchange, the new pilots must include innovative, cost-effective, and outcome-focused strategies to improve outcomes for disconnected youth. Based on initial analyses of our interagency Career Pathways Request for Information, the adult education system could benefit from this type of flexibility.

The power of emerging technologies to transform adult learning–some are no-cost or low-cost–is another high priority in advancing our collective work, and will enable us to more fully reach both urban and rural areas.  Innovative technologies can also help us address the growing number of immigrants and refugees that may seek our services in the future.  Newly emerging adult learning games for lower skilled adults are another example of how adult learning is changing.  In short, scaling new technology to meet new demands will be critical.

Finally, creating or expanding new public-private sector partnerships is an essential priority.  Building on our commitment to shared responsibility in pursuit of opportunity for all, the expansion of partnerships with employers, for whom many of our students work, can move many of the 24 million entry-level workers onto a career pathway that creates opportunities to earn more. Similarly, partnerships with labor-management initiatives and labor unions can lead to opening up career pathway programs to dislocated workers and community job seekers.


Executive Vice President
(August 17, 2014)

It isn’t always helpful to view the future from the lens of the past, but in the case of adult literacy, it is not only useful but instructive as we navigate the new waters of federal policy and national priorities.  The heyday of adult literacy was in the late 80s and early 90’s when there was a confluence of attention at the federal, state, and local levels. This focus and subsequent resources were reinforced by private sector interest from media, business, and labor.  Virtually all major groups initiated some program directed at adult literacy.

The lessons to be learned from that age are relatively simple and as relevant today as they were back then, even in this very trying, partisan environment in Washington and around the country.  Among the principles that should guide our movement are:

(1) Identifying and cultivating high profile champions who can articulate the issue and solutions well.  (2) Galvanizing the private sector to support and promote adult basic education including but not limited to manufacturing, health, construction, and other industries directly affected by low levels of adult literacy.  (3) Motivating state legislatures and governors offices to support the cause of adult literacy.  (4) Profiling best practices at the local level, especially those that reflect the power of collaboration.  (5) Engaging community leaders to help leverage the assistance of community based organizations, volunteers, and public agencies as new approaches and solutions are developed.


International Consultant
Literacywork International
(August 14, 2014)

Recent policy developments have been mixed on the education and training of immigrants and refugees.  Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which would have allowed millions of undocumented adults to participate in DOL-funded training programs, has not yet materialized. Deep cuts in Adult Education funds severely hurt adult ESL programs, especially in New York and California. As a result, tens of thousands of adults needing ESL classes to learn how to navigate systems (work, education, health) and to develop the skills needed for “good” jobs have not had access to programs.

On the brighter side, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is now in place, allowing young people with limited English skills to gain authorization to work legally by attending adult ESL or GED classes (as long as they otherwise qualify).  OCTAE has funded two national initiatives to support adult ESL.  One focuses on community collaboration between ESL and other providers offering services that adult English language learners routinely access. The other is a three-year professional development project focused on adult ESL instruction. This project will offer states high quality on-line resources related to current trends, such as greater emphasis on academic language and literacy skills, the integration of technology into adult ESL, and contextualization of curriculum and instruction for career pathways.

The field is excited as reports are published highlighting the integration of job skills training and basic skills.  But, if these new models are to serve immigrants and refugees well, programs must be designed specifically for the millions of immigrants with limited schooling who have relatively low levels of English proficiency (LEPs). Simply redesigning and contextualizing existing curricula won’t be enough.  Low literate adult English language learners (ELLs) often lead complicated lives, making participation in integrative programs difficult, and they need culturally sensitive wrap-around services (possibly through referrals to collaborating agencies). Bilingual outreach and advising must be made available in communities so that the new immigrants and refugees can participate.  Job development and placement services also need to be re-thought . New immigrants and refugees rarely have the social networks that make it possible to get family-sustaining jobs with a future. Proactive job development and placement by professionals with cross-cultural competence can help level the playing field. If the U.S. is serious about fostering individual economic stability and immigrant integration, then we will need to explicitly address the social and linguistic realities of new Americans.

Some current policy directions sound promising for low skilled immigrants and refugees in the workforce. A recent report from the Departments of Labor, Education, Commerce, and HHS, What Works in Job Training: Synthesis of the Evidence[17], reinforces the points made above. Yet the report makes no mention of immigrants, refugees, ELLS, or LEPs. ESL appears only in a footnote.

As WIOA implementation is being discussed across the U.S., we might well consider forming a national Commission on Immigrant Integration and the Workforce, or, as the Migration Policy Institute has suggested, a federal immigrant integration office to provide leadership, visibility, and a focal point.  Only through a focused and sustained effort on diverse subpopulations can the weak response of the current adult education and training system to LEP adults in the workforce be reversed. It’s time.


[1]    See

[2]  Invitation to a Roundtable:  A Discussion of Return-on-Investment in Adult Education, March 14, 2014, Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, at

[3]  Making Skills Everyone’s Business: A Call to Transform Adult Learning in the United States, recently issued as a preliminary report by OCTAE of the U.S. Department of Education is available at

[4]  See for these and other CAAL ESL publications. 

[5) Shonkoff, J. P. (2013, Apr. 22). Strengthening adult capacities to improve child outcomes: a new strategy for reducing intergenerational poverty.  Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.  Retrieved from .

[6] NIH News. (2010, Oct. 25). Improving mothers’ literacy skills may be best way to boost children’s achievement. Retrieved from .

[7] Hernandez, D.J., & Naierala, J.S. ( 2014, July). Mother’s education and children’s outcomes: How dual generation program offer increased opportunities for America’s families. New York, NY: Foundation for Child Development.

[8] Chandler, M.A. (2014, Aug. 3). D.C. charter school educates parents alongside children. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

[9]  See Reach Higher, America at .

[10]  See The Power of Technology to Transform Adult Learning: Expanding Access to Adult Education & Workforce Skills Through Distance Learning, by Mary McCain, for CAAL, 2009.

[11]  For information about the Skills Certification System, go to .

[12]  The Twin Challenges of Mediocrity and Inequality: Literacy in the U.S. From An International Perspective, a policy information report by the Educational Testing Service, related to the IALS assessment which predated PIAAC, by Andrew Sum, Irwin Kirsch, and Robert Taggart, 2002.  Available at

[13]  The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton, October 2011, is adapted from data and analysis of a worldwide survey by Gallup.  The book is available from and other sources. 

[14]  For findings of the PIAAC assessment, go to

[15]  Time for the U.S. to Reskill?, OECD, 2014, go to .

[16] The Biden companion report, Ready to Work (76 pp) is available from

[17]  What Works in Job Training: A Synthesis of the Evidence, U.S. Departments of Labor, Commerce, Education, and Health & Human Services, July 22, 2014, is available from .

This publication is issued and copyrighted by the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, August 19, 2014


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