Today the National Coalition for Literacy celebrates the inauguration of President Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. and Vice President Kamala Devi Harris!
Throughout his career, President Biden has been a consistent advocate for adult education, most notably in his promotion of adult career pathways innovation in the White House report Ready to Work: Job-Driven Training and American Opportunity that accompanied the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act authorization in 2014. In that report he spoke of adult education programs as “particularly important to those hardest hit by the twists and turns of global competition, technological changes, economic isolation, or inadequate education opportunities.”
As the Biden Administration begins to address the economic fallout of the global pandemic and the systemic inequities that it has both revealed and exacerbated, adult education will continue to play a pivotal role. Adult education programs seek to counteract systemic inequities in education that disproportionately affect Black, Brown, Indigenous, and immigrant/refugee community members by providing instruction in foundational literacy and numeracy skills, high school equivalency, and workforce/college readiness. As recent Survey of Adult Skills data shows, in the United States, 19 percent of adults are profoundly in need of literacy skills development and 29 percent lack critical numeracy skills. These adults are overrepresented in communities of color—the same communities that have been most adversely affected by the COVID-induced health and economic challenges that are rooted in systemic inequity.
Adult education in the United States has deep roots in social justice efforts that recognize and promote literacy and learning as central to access, voice, and action for all. The very first adult schools – Massachusetts in 1842; California in 1856 – were community-level efforts focused on immigrant integration through English language and civics instruction, and basic literacy for adults with limited formal education. During the civil rights protests of the 1960s, a federal investment in adult education was recommended as one strategy for mitigating the effects of structural and systemic racism. Over the decades since then, adult education has continued its mission of opening the doors to economic opportunity and full participation in society through education. While the recent Survey of Adult Skills data demonstrates the persistence of inequities, the power of adult education to address them and promote social justice is documented in studies such as The Case for Investment in Adult Education. As the Education Strategy Group has noted, “education holds the key to economic revitalization and must play a central role in addressing systemic inequities.”
During the months of the pandemic, adult education programs have turned to remote teaching to continue providing services. Yet this instruction has been inaccessible to many in adult education’s learner population due to limitations on digital access in rural and low-income areas of the country. Educational inclusion and digital inclusion now go hand in hand, and adult education’s ability to counter the effects of educational inequity and systemic racism increasingly depend on complementary investments in digital infrastructure and access to internet-enabled devices and digital skills instruction.
In states and communities across the country, adult education’s power lies in its ability to meet the moment and rise to the challenge. The National Coalition for Literacy welcomes President Biden and Vice President Harris and encourages them to build on the nation’s commitment to educational equity by recognizing adult education’s critical work, investing in it, and rewarding it.