Thinking Out Loud

Welcome to this first Blog posting by CAAL.  It speaks about four issues that bear on the effective development of Adult Education.  They were generated by CAAL staff as expressions of strong personal interest and concern while we were considering the future of our field.  We would welcome comments on any of the messages presented and will post your reply (click the bubble just above or the Comment box below).  Be sure to check back from time to time to see what your colleagues may have added.  Or if you have thoughts or questions not necessarily public in nature, feel free to email us at  If you think a colleague or friend would be interested or might like to comment, please feel free to forward this Blog posting to them.

1.  Transforming Agents: Research to Practice

In a recent listserv posting, an adult education practitioner expressed concern that we have much more adult education research than service providers have the capacity to use.  I’ve had this same concern all the way back to my years as a junior professional at the Ford Foundation.  I’ve worried about it more recently as CAAL and others continue to turn out volumes of new research.

One of the most exciting projects in my Ford years was a multi-year grant to the British Open University.  It was to support an effort led by one of the world’s great learning theorists, Gordon Pask, in which “knowledge” and “knowledge domains” as we know them were literally remapped so as to better meet student learning needs.  The research team took apart and put back together the bits and pieces of knowledge in a way that would better enable students to pursue and be supported in appropriate learning activities toward a specific stated goal, that would help teachers better facilitate learning, and that would reform the design of programs, curriculum, and assessment tools accordingly. Although principles of “contextualized” learning weren’t as common back then, they were at the core of the researchers’ thinking.

World-class learning theorists from the U.S. were involved in the project.  Everyone was excited by the findings.  They had profound implications for the way programs are carried out at the local level – if only they could be translated into practice.  I don’t recall the specifics of the subsequent “adaptation efforts,” though I know that some initial follow-up implementation took place in the U.K. and the U.S.  But I do remember how hard it was to get sustained funding for such work. It wasn’t long before the momentum died down, the findings disappeared from public attention, and I moved on to other projects.  Looking back, I suspect that this groundbreaking work mostly ended up the way so much research does, with researchers talking to researchers.

I remember thinking at the time that to truly transform the extremely important project results into practice, we needed a new kind of professional, someone I called a “transforming agent.”  I find myself thinking about this again today as I consider our current research-to-practice challenges.  How can we expect research scholars to deal seriously with the specifics of program application?  Their job is to conduct the research and report on it credibly.  And, how can we expect program managers and teachers to apply the findings at the local level when every (usually underpaid) moment of their time must go into teaching and providing student services and evaluation – and when there are so few funds available for services and innovation anyway.

Maybe it is time to seriously consider training this new kind of professional, perhaps initially through some pilot projects – someone with expertise and an informed foot in both research and local service provision, someone whose job is to track the research, pull out the findings in a useful pragmatic way, and then help local programs, in all their variety, implement what is relevant into their teaching, management, and assessment activities.

I wonder what our readers think about the idea of a “transforming agent.”  It would also be great to hear about any other approaches that come to mind to bridge the research-to-practice gap.  It seems clear that we need to do something different if we don’t want a lot of valuable research to go to waste.  (Gail Spangenberg, President)

2.  The Passion of Adult Education Teachers

CAAL has spent a lot of its energy in recent years trying to improve the climate for and understanding of professional development.  But we haven’t addressed the passion of teachers as an important goal in its own right.

A few months ago, an ESL instructor spoke in a listserv posting of her personal feelings about professional development.  She was reacting to a discussion in process on the purpose of PD.  In splendid candor, she commented that professional development should be about motivating the instructor, not just the student, important as the latter is.

She said that PD, even with its currently limited development opportunities, has sometimes been the only thing that keeps her in the adult education profession at all.  She spoke about being a better teacher and person as a result of attending PD events—about collaborating with other teachers, learning alternate techniques, having a seed planted on ideas to improve instruction, having a venue to review research in a group context rather than wading alone through hundreds of pages and papers to “winnow out the salient facts,” expanding her horizons by seeing new places, and, in short, feeling a new sense of excitement and self-invigoration as a result of the PD experience.

She observed that efforts to evaluate program effectiveness and student learning retention cannot always capture the effectiveness of PD if the teacher’s own love for learning and wanting to teach well isn’t also fostered.  Would the PD be considered a failure, she asked, just because “it may take years for an idea to germinate or for the materials to implement an idea to become readily available.”  For the teacher, she said, if you “take the personal out of professional development, you also take out the passion.”  “When I have no passion for what I do, I don’t do it as well.”

We have spoken for decades about the need to professionalize Adult Education, with a good amount of attention given to the lack of a decent salary and competitive benefits.  But the matter of professionalization takes many other valuable forms.  Our Adult Education teachers, whether part- or full-time, are the backbone of our system, and we should be doing everything we can to reward and motivate them.  Even in tight economic times, activities to preserve and deepen their passion for teaching seems not only wise but within reach.  (Spangenberg)

3.  Identifying ROI To Sell Adult Education

Adult education has struggled for years to hold its own with other public service programs in the chase for funding.  Understandably, this question keeps coming up:  Just what outcomes are taxpayers getting for their money?  It’s a question we need to answer, sooner rather than later, if we are to compete successfully for available funds.

Several national organizations—CAAL, the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium, and the National Coalition for Literacy—have called for return-on-investment (ROI) evidence so that we can better demonstrate and tell the story of adult education services, successes, and contributions, especially as they relate to economic development and jobs improvement.  But we are not even close to having the kind of information we need.  There are many reasons for lack of progress.  For example –

  • The federal reporting system for adult education requires and collects limited data to demonstrate outcomes of services in many areas, most notably workforce and workplace education, yet the NRS could and should be a major source of ROI-related performance data.
  • A reauthorized Workforce Investment Act (WIA), as it’s now written, would contain many provisions calling for ROI-related data.  The areas of “service to employers” and “job-readiness certificates” are just two examples.  Yet reauthorization is now 10 years overdue, and despite the best efforts of CAAL and many other groups in recent years, a reformed, reauthorized WIA has still not been passed.
  • We have missed or discarded opportunities over the years.  For example, the National Diffusion Network and National Workplace Literacy Demonstration Program collected ROI-related data, and yet these programs were dropped, mostly for non-programmatic reasons.
  • There is little if any research and development funding for ROI activities, even though data gathering and analysis should not be all that expensive.  This is an area where a small amount of foundation or public funding could make a big difference.

There is plenty of ROI information at all levels.  The question is how to mine it to create the concrete tool(s) we need, so that adult educators can be more effective when we “sell” our story of success to policymakers, governors, foundations, and even our fellow citizens.

I would strongly urge funders to step up to the plate and take this on.  Even in a time of scarce resources, when program survival must be the primary goal, it’s a top priority.  We need to move beyond this chicken-and-egg impasse.  We’d love to hear any other ideas our readers might have for generating the ROI evidence.  Right now, we’re too often on shaky ground when making our case, as are funding and government entities whose decisions can make or break what we do.  (James Parker, Senior Research/Policy Associate)

4.  How About An Adult Education Report Card?  

I’m a skeptic by nature, but I have an unshakable belief that Adult Education in the U.S. has improved greatly in recent years, and I’m convinced that it continues to improve in most respects.  Unfortunately, I’m hard pressed to think of how to prove this.

On average, are students learning more, better, faster? Are they staying in programs longer and benefitting in tangible ways from what they learn?  Do programs provide more time on task than they once did, more contextualized instruction, more case management to accommodate individual needs and learning styles?  Is basic skills instruction better articulated with vocational training, the requirements of employment, and transitions to postsecondary programs?  These are only some of the more obvious indicators of progress that come to mind when reflecting on discussions of system improvement over the last decade or so.

Like many people, I can cite individual programs that are doing better on all of these counts, but where is the evidence of progress on a larger scale?  If anyone has it, I wish they would put it on the table, because it’s important to document progress.  Not only would this legitimize public and private investments in the field, but it would effectively establish benchmarks for everyone in it.  What do we do well, and why aren’t we doing some things better?

It may be that the best way to soak out evidence of progress is to put some discipline around the endeavor.  The idea is a cliché, but “report cards” on education can be useful tools to focus information–if they are thoughtfully constructed.  It might be worth spending some time on how to specify what form a national Adult Education Report Card would take and how to judge the data it would produce.  (Forrest Chisman, Vice President)



3 thoughts on “Thinking Out Loud

  1. I agree with Gail Spangenberg’s point that our field has generated lots of valuable research but that busy practitioners often have limited time to learn from and and incorporate it into their practice. Our field has access to useful on-line mechanisms for sharing ideas and research, and some states have created state level adult education resource centers, but we need more mechanisms for moving good ideas into practice. In the area of work-related basic education, in particular, I’ve seen a glaring tendency to re-invent the wheel, as projects and agencies struggle to find answers to questions that were researched and documented previously. (Examples include recurring efforts to define “workforce readiness” skills; develop effective, contextualized instruction; and build partnerships with employers and other stakeholders.) The fact that we constantly revisit these issues is a sign that we haven’t invested adequately in developing and sustaining the professional expertise of our field. I suggest each state create something like a “workforce learning resource system” supported by teams of specialists (perhaps the change agents that Gail Spangenberg refers to) who can build the capacity of adult educators and other stakeholders to carry out such a myriad tasks–e.g., defining the work-related learning needs of specific learner populations and industries; identifying, developing, and sharing effective curricula; selecting and supporting professional staff; and building partnerships among the various stakeholders who need to be involved if work-related basic education efforts are to really succeed. Without such an infrastructure of supports, work-related basic skills efforts will be unnecessarily slow, keep struggling to re-invent the wheel, and miss out on good practices already developed.

  2. If we want teachers to use research, it needs to be organized so that those who have a concern, issue, or problem they want to solve can find research that bears on it. We need to systematically ask teachers what challenges they face with which research could help them, and then index research results to those challenges. Some are obvious, like teaching reading, math, or perhaps now science. Some may be less obvious, having to do with learners who are not making good progress, or how to use technology effectively. Having a database that allows teachers–and others–to search by relevant challenges (from teachers’ perspectives) might also reveal that we don’t have enough research, or in some cases any, to address certain very important problems. For example, a persistent question asked by professional developers and funders is what the most effective professional development is, what PD interventions make an important difference in improving learning outcomes that can be measured. We have little research to answer that question. One explanation may be that we do not have an independent national adult literacy education research center which might conduct this kind of research and put together a database so that teachers (and others) could find research that addresses their burning challenges. More adult education teachers might welcome and use research if they knew there were a way to easily and quickly find resources that address their issues.

  3. The adult education report card concept is long overdue. We are currently engaged in a regional adult literacy partnership with cross sector representation in the Greater Hartford, CT area and have begun to work toward identifying regional goals and benchmarks for our work. At Leadership Board meetings, inquiries are made such as “how are we doing” and “are we better off in 2012 than in 2000?” Well, we really don’t know, do we? We will be identifying specific targets which require more in-depth data and consistent quality in the services delivered by local providers. Everyone needs feedback in order to improve. Everyone needs to step back and take stock. Everyone needs to be aware of what is working. A little bit of a “report card” approach would help. Improvement in services can only happen by motivated programs, staff, and students. We all need a little motivation that a clearer picture of success could provide.

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