NCL Blog

Adult Foundational Education

Adult Foundational Education

The Evolution of a New Name for Our Field

David J. Rosen, Steering Committee Member, Open Door Collective  
Deborah Kennedy, Executive Director, National Coalition for Literacy

Our field has a variety of names. Some are confusing to those who work in the field, and several are especially puzzling to those outside it, including stakeholders, policymakers, well-wishers, and the general public. These names include, among others, Adult Education, Adult Literacy, Adult Education and Literacy, and Adult Basic Education (ABE).

  • Adult Education, the broadest of these, may be clear to those in our field but frequently confuses those outside it. They may assume it means Higher Education or Continuing Education in higher education that is not offered for credit (also sometimes known as Developmental or Remedial Education), or the non-credit courses offered by local community education centers and other entities that are designed for personal development and sometimes labeled as Lifelong Learning.
  • The term Adult Literacy is ambiguous within our field because it is sometimes used to describe adults learning to read, or read and write, and sometimes used to describe the whole field, from adult beginning literacy and English language learning for immigrants to preparation for post-secondary education.
  • Adult Education and Family Literacy, the name currently used in Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), is not always recognized by those within and outside our field as including the full range of services the field offers, especially to immigrants, refugees, and others who may need education services at beginning levels.
  • Adult Basic Education is especially confusing because it has two different meanings that are not always clear from context. One refers to learning levels ranging from beginning reading and writing up to adult secondary education (ASE); the other refers to the entire range of levels and kinds of education services our field provides.

Why does this matter? It matters because, without a name that is understood clearly and consistently by those inside and outside the field, our ability to advocate successfully for our work and those we serve is severely limited.

To address this problem, members of the Open Door Collective (ODC), a national program of Literacy Minnesota, set out in 2021 to find a new name and definition for our field that could do several things.

First, the name should distinguish our field clearly from the better-known fields of PreK-12 education, credit-bearing higher education, and postsecondary developmental education. It might also distinguish our field from occupational education, although definition boundaries here may be somewhat unclear because of the emergence of Integrated Education and Training (IET), pre-apprenticeships, and other approaches to offering job and career training in conjunction with adult education services.

Second, the definition of the name should:

  • Make clear the breadth and boundaries of the field’s education services for adults
  • Describe the field in a way that is worthy of serious and sustained public investment and research
  • Be short enough to include in a footnote
  • Be written in plain language that most people can understand, avoiding jargon and spelling out acronyms
  • Allow the inclusion of emerging or newly-recognized areas and services, such as digital literacy skills, integrated education and training (IET), and digital navigation services
  • Avoid excluding types of providers of those services
  • Avoid descriptions of the differing approaches used in the field, the different kinds of supportive services needed, the field’s history and needs, major contributing organizations, and other aspects that, while interesting and important, would make the definition long or complicated.

Initially the ODC Steering Committee chose the name Adult Foundational Skills because it distinguishes our field from credit-bearing higher education and PreK-12 education; it suggests a range of learning that might, once acquired, be built upon for postsecondary education and training; and it is respectful to adult learners, some of whom have said that Adult Basic Skills or Adult Basic Education are demeaning terms if “basic” is interpreted to mean the lowest tier, not “top of the line” service.

Responses to the name Adult Foundational Skills were then requested from members of the LINCS Community’s Teaching and Learning Group and the AAACE-NLA Google group. These discussions and further conversations with members of the field led to the name Adult Foundational Education (AFE) and to the definition below.

The change to Adult Foundational Education from Adult Foundational Skills was suggested in the LINCS discussion by Duren Thompson, who wrote, “I feel that Adult Foundational Education… avoids many of the issues of each of the more common names you listed… and yet serves as a flexible ‘umbrella term’ for current and future change and growth in the field.”  She added, “I think including ‘skills’ in the name for what we do… sends the wrong message to learners, employers, and the public at large. Every AFE professional developer I know recognizes that a focus on only out-of-context ‘skills’-based learning is a disservice to our adult learners. While a skills-based focus can create easily measurable gains, a more problem-solving or project-based (or even entrepreneurial) approach provides a more holistic and long-lasting educational foundation for the adults we serve.”

ODC Steering Committee members also weighed in positively on the change from “skills” to “education.” One commented that “foundational skills” has been in wide use for some time in various research, policy, and program arenas in the United States and around the world, so using that term might elicit the same problem of varying meanings that ”basic skills” has run into. Another commented that Adult Foundational Skills represents what adults can do with what they have learned, while Adult Foundational Education represents the field of education that helps adults attain those skills.

The ODC Steering Committee therefore has adopted the name Adult Foundational Education. Here is its current definition:

Adult Foundational Education refers to the core skills and knowledge that adults need for work, further education, supporting their families, and participating effectively in their communities and as citizens in a representative democracy. It includes:

  • English language skills for immigrants and refugees (ESL/ESOL)
  • Beginning literacy for adults who cannot read and write well, or at all
  • Numeracy
  • Adult basic education
  • Adult secondary education leading to an adult high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate
  • U.S. citizenship preparation
  • Preparation for postsecondary education and occupational training or apprenticeships
  • Employability skills
  • Family/intergenerational literacy
  • Integrated Education and Training (IET)
  • Other foundational education and skills that are needed throughout the adult life span but are not necessarily related to work or career, such as digital literacy, financial literacy, health literacy, native language literacy, and literacy for self-advocacy, civic engagement, and social justice.

Adult Foundational Education may be offered by community-based programs, public schools, community colleges, volunteer tutoring programs, public libraries, corrections institutions, adult public charter schools, employers, labor unions, faith-based organizations and other kinds of organizations and institutions.

Recently, some members of our field, recognizing that Adult Foundational Education is clearer than the current names for the field, have begun to use it in their presentations and writings. The ODC Steering Committee urges them to also include the definition, possibly as a footnote, when they use the term in writing. It may also be that awareness of the need for a new name and definition, and a preference for the words “foundational” and “education,” are emerging in other places; that, as one ODC colleague put it, Adult Foundational Education is “in the water now.” We hope so.

The definition of Adult Foundational Education continues to evolve with input from ODC members. To stay up to date on its status, visit

Update: WIOA Reauthorization in the House

Update: WIOA Reauthorization in the House

The House Education and Labor Committee will mark up the WIOA reauthorization bill on Tuesday, April 5, 2022 at 10:15 AM eastern time.

  • Watch the markup session at this link
  • Download and read the text of the draft legislation (H.R. 7309, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2022) at this link

The committee has also issued a draft section-by-section summary of the legislation. Here are items of note in the summary.

Section 101 (pages 1-2) lists changes to definitions.

  • Section 101 changes “basic skills deficient” to “has foundational skill needs.” NCL has advocated for this change for several years.
  • Section 101 does *not* include definitions for “concurrent enrollment” and “digital literacy skills,” two other changes for which NCL has advocated. In particular, NCL has suggested the need for a statement that the term “digital literacy skills” has the meaning given to it in Section 202 of the Museum and Library Services Act, to ensure coherence across related legislation.

Sections 301 and following (pages 9-10) pertain to the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (Title II of WIOA).

  • Section 303, Definitions, adds “digital literacy activities” and “digital skills” to the definitions for “adult education and literacy activities” and “family literacy activities,” and provides important amendments to the definitions for “integrated education and training” and IELCE. In particular, the IELCE definition is clarified to include a broader list of the types of activities that characterize the daily lives of adults. NCL has been advocating these changes for over two years.
  • Section 304 provides the draft authorization levels. The level for 2023 is $785 million, $46 million more than the President’s 2023 budget request ($739 million) and $81 million more than the enacted amount for 2022 ($704 million). The authorized amounts go up year by year, reaching $1 billion in 2028. Note that this is the authorization, not the appropriation, and that the amounts are subject to change during the markup process. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see that the committee has heard what NCL and many of its member organizations have been saying about the need for increased funding.
  • Section 305 institutes a demonstration program for development of new performance measures “that better capture the efficacy of adult education and literacy programs, compared to the existing performance measures required under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.” This provision also reflects the extensive advocacy work that NCL and its member organizations have been doing for quite some time.

Thank you to all who have worked so hard and so continuously to advocate for changes that will make federal law more responsive to the realities of the adult education field. The bill will undoubtedly change somewhat during markup, but know that your voices have been heard.

And remember: adult education transforms lives.

More Innovation and Opportunity Through WIOA

More Innovation and Opportunity Through WIOA

A key focus for advocacy in 2022 will be reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), including Title II, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA). At the request of Members of Congress, NCL and several of its member organizations have provided recommendations for changes that will make the law more responsive to the current operating context for adult education. In this post, the Coalition on Adult Basic Education (COABE) outlines its recommendations and the reasons for them.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is a critical law that supports adult learners and adult education programs. Since WIOA was enacted in 2014, there have been significant changes in the economy and the workforce, as well as innovations in how we best serve and support adult learners. Congress is calling for recommendations on how to strengthen and modernize the law. The Coalition on Adult Basic Education (COABE) has actively engaged with adult educators, adult learners, and adult education programs leaders on the following recommendations to improve supports and outcomes for adult learners.

COABE’s WIOA Recommendations:

Increase the supply of high-quality adult educators and promote the development and adoption of full-time staffing models. Demand for adult learning opportunities is growing and is expected to continue to grow. We must support growth in the supply of high-quality educators. To meet the supply needs, we must increase opportunities for adult educators to work full time. Full-time positions improve recruitment and provide adult learners more access to high-quality educational opportunities.

Support certification policies for adult educators to improve career pathways. Certification policies ensure that teachers have the necessary subject-matter knowledge and teaching skills to effectively provide learners with skills that match the demands of the workforce. Such policies also contribute to the professionalization of the adult educator profession, which can attract more high-quality teachers. 

Ensure that adult educators are represented on workforce and other boards and are part of workforce planning processes. Adult Education representatives need to have a seat at the table in any discussions where they may be affected to ensure that policy and funding decisions will meet the needs of adult learners.

Authorize a pilot performance accountability system to allow innovation to lead the modernization of the accountability system. The current system doesn’t allow for experimentation or innovation, and the current metrics do not capture all that programs do. Because there is not yet consensus on the best way to revamp the system, the creation of a pilot accountability authorization will allow states to capture data on additional or different metrics that better reflect the experiences of, and outcomes experienced by, adult learners.

Ensure that data on adult education program outcomes is consistent, accessible, and reported in a timely manner. Having access to high-quality, consistent outcomes data allows adult education programs to make well-informed, continuous improvements to their programs and practices.

Support professional development as a separate line item for adult educators and technical assistance for adult education programs. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed how we work and learn, from in-person, to virtual, to hybrid settings. Educators need to be equipped to help learners address the digital literacy and digital skills demands of today’s workforce. Professional development provides adult educators with the proper tools to teach the skills that learners desire. 

Support the development of voluntary state certification and accreditation programs for adult education. Voluntary State certification and accreditation programs allow for adult education programs to have clear, attainable and measurable quality standards that programs should meet. With attainable goals, programs can retool to best attain the standards recommended by the state.

Encourage collaboration between state and local workforce boards and adult education programs to support the hiring of college and career navigators. College and career navigators are integral to a learner’s success. Navigators provide guidance, support and resources that learners may otherwise not receive. With more college and career navigators, more adult learners will have access to the supports and guidance that increase their chances of completion.

Incentivize states to maximize funding for adult education and ensure transparency regarding matching funds. Adult education is an underfunded, but important and effective, program in post-secondary education. In order to incentivize states to invest more in adult education, the federal government should provide a financial incentive to States that maximize funding for adult education programs.

Encourage the provision of integrated education and training (IET) concurrently with other adult education activities and services. IET is a proven, effective investment operating three programs in one comprehensive service: adult basic education, workforce preparation, and workforce training. We should encourage more funding for wider adoption of IET to ensure improved outcomes for adult learners. 

The above recommendations will modernize federal support for adult education and will help adult learners develop the skills that the current and future workforce demand. COABE will continue to lead advocacy efforts for the field, including funding and reauthorization efforts. We will continue to reach out directly to Members of Congress, OCTAE, and related organizations.

We invite you to learn more about COABE’s mission and work at our website, and we hope that you will plan to join us for our National Conference, which will be held in a hybrid format so attendees can attend in person, virtually, or both. The conference will deliver more than 400 concurrent session over 3 days and is hosted by COABE in partnership with more than 36 national partnerships to deliver 15 conference strands including those highlighting advocacy and workforce development. Registration is open here.

COABE Advocacy Survey

We want to continue to do our important advocacy work, but we would also like to make sure we are advocating for the things that you (the field) want us to advocate for and/or prioritize.
We are asking you to take this short five-minute survey, and also to send it around to your colleagues and networks. We will report the results at the COABE Conference in April. We do ask participants if they are COABE members, but anyone can take the survey.

Year in Review 2021

Year in Review 2021

As the new year begins, the NCL Board is looking back over the successes of 2021 and considering how to build on them for the important advocacy and awareness work that lies ahead. Here are some highlights of our advocacy initiatives from the past year.

Accomplishments in 2021

Hill Briefing

In April, NCL partnered with VALUEUSA and ProLiteracy to provide a virtual Hill briefing entitled Literacy to Leadership: Policies That Promote Adult Student Success. Introductory remarks were provided by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI); Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA-03), Chairman, Committee on Education and Labor; and Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY-03), Co-Chair, House Adult Literacy Caucus. The briefing speakers, including Kim Ford (CEO, Martha’s Table), Rachel DeVaughan (Deputy Executive Director, Mississippi Community College Board), Carlos Vasquez (Adult Education Instructor, Catholic Charities NM), and HollyAnn Fresa-Moore (Principal, Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School), stressed the many ways that policy decisions can make a transformative difference in the lives of adult learners. The briefing elicited a lively chat exchange among the 200+ attendees; a video recording is available at

Senate HELP Committee and WIOA Reauthorization

In April, NCL submitted a memo to Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) in response to the HELP Committee’s request for comments on workforce development and WIOA programs. NCL’s memo contained six recommendations:

  • Recognize the centrality of adult basic education to the success of workforce training and economic recovery efforts
  • Recognize that full and effective participation in the workforce requires the application of broader life skills
  • Amend deficit-based language that leads to deficit-based programming
  • Reorient adult basic education accountability and outcomes reporting toward a competency-based approach
  • Provide support for remote instruction models and the use of technology in adult education
  • Invest in research on evidence-based AEFLA program models

In providing these recommendations, NCL noted that they were designed to “improve the legislation so that it more fully realizes its essential purpose of ensuring equitable access to quality education and training for all adults.” NCL has continued to promote these recommendations throughout 2021 in its work with Senator Reed’s office on revised language for the WIOA legislation.

Digital Equity Act

In June, NCL endorsed the bipartisan Digital Equity Act of 2021, which was introduced by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rob Portman (R-OH). The Act, which provides for a five-year federal investment in digital equity, was passed as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was enacted by the 117th Congress and signed into law by the President on November 15. NCL had previously endorsed the Act in 2020 and has worked actively in support of its passage since then.

OCTAE and Department of Education Interactions

NCL participated in a series of invitation-only information-gathering sessions with OCTAE staff throughout the year. These sessions allowed NCL and other participants to update OCTAE on developments and activities in the field; the final session of the year was a face-to-face one-on-one meeting with Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal.

National Reporting System

In November 2020, NCL submitted comments on proposed changes to the National Reporting System. Our comments, which stressed the need to allow adult education programs to report outcomes for all learners across all types of measurable skill gains, aligned with those expressed by a number of our colleague organizations. OCTAE responded positively to these concerns, and in early 2021 issued a program memo providing revised guidance on outcome reporting in the pandemic environment.

Naturalization Civics Test

In December 2020, NCL submitted a letter to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to express concerns about the development process, administration procedures, and preparation requirements for the revised naturalization civics test that USCIS released in November 2020. Similar concerns were expressed by many of our colleague organizations. USCIS responded positively, and in early 2021 announced that it would continue to use the prior version of the civics test.

Civil Rights

Throughout the year, NCL continued its collaboration with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights as the Hub for adult education, addressing concerns related to finalization of data from the 2020 Decennial Census and signing on to several other civil rights and human rights related communications throughout the year.

Conference Presentations

NCL Board members provided advocacy-related presentations at major conferences throughout the year, including the annual conventions of TESOL International, COABE, AAACE, and the National Literacy Summit hosted by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in October.

Adult Education and Family Literacy Week

NCL’s 2021 National AEFL Week activities in September focused on the foundational role of adult education in solutions to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession and unemployment. In 2022, National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week will be observed from September 18 to September 24.

Organizational Growth

NCL completed its first full year with an Executive Director supporting the Board in its leadership role.

Plans for 2022

Every year, NCL actively pursues opportunities to promote adult education in policy-related matters. In 2022, we will

  • Improve adult education’s visibility and messaging as a key influencer to ensure our purpose and contributions to the U.S. education system are understood by policy makers, stakeholders, and the field
  • Increase awareness of the role adult education plays in digital equity, inclusive economic recovery, counteracting systemic racism, and social justice
  • Promote broadening of the options for accountability in adult education
  • Continue to work on organizational sustainability by increasing NCL’s membership base and securing external funding for our work

As always, we will conduct national public policy advocacy with Congress and keep our members connected with developments on Capitol Hill. NCL member organizations and individual friends will have opportunities to be involved in the national conversation on public policy through NCL’s semi-annual meetings, monthly public policy calls, conference panel discussions, and task groups.

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