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Don’t Miss This Opportunity to Build Digital Capacity

Don’t Miss This Opportunity to Build Digital Capacity

By Deborah Kennedy, president, National Coalition for Literacy

Adult education and family literacy providers throughout the country are well aware of the effects of gaps in digital capability on both their programs and their program participants. These gaps are evident at multiple levels:

  • Infrastructure: Availability of broadband has increased over time, but differences persist. The Pew Research Center notes that, in general, “roughly three-quarters of American adults have broadband internet service at home,” but “adoption gaps remain based on factors such as age, income, education and community type. …Home broadband adoption varies across demographic groups. Racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home.”
  • Individuals: Large disparities remain between those who are proficient in the use of technology and those who are not. A recent release from the National Skills Coalition connects this disparity with larger inequities. “Digital literacy includes both the capacity to use technology and the cognitive skills necessary to navigate it successfully. But a startling one-third of American workers lack these vital digital skills. …Due to longstanding inequities, workers of color are over-represented among those with limited or no digital skills. For example, Black workers comprise 12 percent of overall workers, but represent 15 percent of the subset of workers who have no digital skills and 21 percent of those with limited skills. Latino workers (who may be of any race) are 14 percent of overall workers, but represent a full 35 percent of workers with no digital skills, and 20 percent of those with limited skills.”
  • Programs: Programs vary widely in their approaches to providing digital skills training, to using distance learning to increase their reach, and to providing professional development in technology-mediated approaches to instruction for adult education practitioners. These variations stem from different states’ policies on distance learning and professional development, as well as from differences in the financial and infrastructure capacities of different program contexts (for example, community college based versus CBO based).

These disparities have gained new prominence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the nation’s workforce. As a recent paper on digital fluency from the National Skills Coalition notes,

Many laid-off workers are scrambling to identify how they can regroup and re-engage in a labor market that has shifted overnight, and one in which the traditional solution of “going back to school” for additional training has been complicated by a rapid shift to online-only learning. Many training providers are ill-equipped to match demand for remote learning, and many are not ready at all to shift to online or technology-enabled programs. Even more critically, the rapid shift to online or technology-enabled learning means that workers with no or few digital skills — already at a disadvantage in the labor market — may not be able to effectively participate in training and earn the credentials they need to reconnect to work. Similarly, those workers still employed are facing significant new demands to build technology-related skills — across all industries and sectors — as digital tools enabling remote work are the single thread tethering them to continued employment.

Notably, with the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on March 27, the adult education field gained an opportunity to begin to address these challenges. The CARES Act includes nearly $3 billion for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF), a formula grant program that allows governors to provide emergency support to any education-related entity within the state that the governor deems essential for carrying out emergency education services to students. Activities conducted under the umbrella of the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, including technology integration activities, are specifically included in the allowable uses.

The Department of Education has made the funds available to governors as of April 14, so adult education practitioners should act now to ensure that adult learners and adult education programs are included in their governor’s funding priorities, with a particular focus on building technology capacity. Here’s what to do:

  • Understand that the funds will be available through your state’s governor’s office, not directly from the Department of Education.
  • Governors are likely to appoint a committee or task force to establish priorities and processes for allocating funding. Contact your governor’s office to advocate for inclusion of a representative of the adult education community on that task force or committee. Reference the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund specifically.
  • Remind the governor and other decisionmakers that integration of technology is a key aspect of WIOA and that digital literacy is called out as an essential element of workforce preparation. Use OCTAE’s Integrating Technology in WIOA guidance to stress this.
  • Note that both Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai are strongly promoting the use of GEER funding for technology-related purposes.
  • Develop a set of priorities and plans that would work best in your context, with related cost projections. Include everything you can think of that would make technology-enabled instruction more available and accessible to your adult learners. Here are a few possibilities:
    • Internet access points such as wifi hotspots in parking lots that adult learners can use from their cars to maintain social distancing
    • Provision of electronic devices (tablets, laptops) with relevant software already loaded
    • Acquisition of software/platform licenses
    • Professional development for teachers and staff
    • Staff time for online materials and activities development
    • Teacher/staff compensation for one-on-one phone tutoring with adult learners

You want to be ready when the governor’s office invites you to submit a request!


Resources

Applying a racial equity lens to digital literacy: How workers of color are affected by digital skill gaps. National Skills Coalition, March 20, 2020.

Broadband and student performance gaps. Policy Brief 01-20. Quello Center at Michigan State University, March 23, 2020.

Mary Freeman and Vickie Choitz. Why adult foundational skills matter now more than ever. Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, April 27, 2020.

Integrating technology in WIOA. OCTAE, March 24, 2015.

Leticia Lewis and Molly Bashay. Digital fluency for a resilient economy. National Skills Coalition, April 21, 2020.

Judy Mortrude. Is your state planning for an equitable digital future? EdTech Center at World Education, February 13, 2020.

How does the Census affect health care for adult learners?

How does the Census affect health care for adult learners?

By Cynthia Macleay Campbell, Ed.D.

Why should adult learners complete the Census? Because their health may depend on it!

People who work with adult learners are all too aware of the health challenges that adult learners face. Typical examples include the need for

  • Health screenings and preventive care
  • Eyeglasses
  • Diabetes medication and education
  • Addiction treatment
  • Mental health care
  • Dental care
  • Help with quitting smoking or fighting obesity

These and other health challenges often affect adult learners’ ability to attend and persist in education programs – and research has shown that persistence for 100 hours or more is the key to achievement of educational and career goals such as high school completion and upskilling.

Adult learners are also among the people with the most difficulty in accessing health care and health information. They may encounter practitioners who are not sensitive to their culture or able to speak their language. In short, they are on the wrong side of the health disparities in the United States, where certain groups have worse health outcomes than others.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) funds multiple public health programs that bridge these disparities. They include

  • Grants to help people from minority groups and disadvantaged communities train to be health workers in their communities. This helps increase the numbers of practitioners who can relate to patients in culturally appropriate ways.
  • Medicaid and Medicare.
  • Block grants for Community Mental Health Services
  • Block Grants for the Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse
  • Health Center Programs (Community Health Centers, Migrant Health Centers, Health Care for the Homeless, and Public Housing Primary Care)
  • Telehealth services, where people can call in for health information.
  • Training in General, Pediatric, and Public Health Dentistry
  • Development and Coordination of Rural Health Services

What does the Census have to do with these health equity and public health efforts? The funding that comes to each local community to support them is determined by the Census count for that community. Without an accurate count, adult learners may have further struggles to obtain the health services and supports they need to flourish.

For further reading:

Celebrate International Literacy Day on September 8

Celebrate International Literacy Day on September 8

“Our world is rich and diverse with about 7,000 living languages. These languages are instruments for communication, engagement in lifelong learning, and participation in society and the world of work. They are also closely linked with distinctive identities, cultures, worldviews, and knowledge systems. Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy  development is therefore a key part of developing inclusive societies that  respect “diversity” and “difference,” upholding human dignity.”

Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO
Message on the occasion of International Literacy Day

UNESCO International Literacy Day 2019
The 2020 Census is Pivotal for Adult Education

The 2020 Census is Pivotal for Adult Education

NCL has made the 2020 Census its priority issue for 2019-2020. Why? Because, as our members know, an accurate and fair count is essential for adult learners, the programs that serve them, and the communities where they live and work.

Census population counts determine how Congressional districts are drawn, and thus how populations are represented. Businesses use Census data to guide decisions about where to build facilities that can provide jobs. And, according to the Census Bureau, Census data “help determine how more than $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to states and communities every year.” That funding supports hospitals, housing programs, fire departments, food and nutrition programs, road construction … and adult education, through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA, Title II of WIOA).

Why do adult learners need a particular focus?

NCL’s goal in focusing it work on the 2020 Census is to ensure as full a count as possible of adult learners and their families and codependents. Many of these residents fall into one or more of the groups that the Census Bureau has identified as “hard to count” (and therefore at risk of an undercount). “Hard to count” populations include low-income households, foreign-born persons, people of color, rural residents, and young children.

An undercount of these populations could result in reduced resource allocations and reduced political representation for their communities. By educating adult learners about the 2020 Census and encouraging them to complete it and to share information in their communities, adult education programs can support a full and fair count of the population groups their learners represent. In addition, as trusted institutions, adult education programs and libraries are well positioned to reach the communities they serve with accurate, timely information about the nature and significance of the Census and guidance that helps adults with limited literacy or English language skills avoid Census-related scams and fraud that may target them.

What are the challenges?

For 2020, the Census Bureau has made changes to its procedures for supporting Census completion. These changes are likely to have negative effects on response rates for adults with limited reading and digital literacy skills:

  • The Bureau is emphasizing online response. In most cases, the initial mailing will invite recipients to respond online. Those who lack online access or have limited digital skills will need support to follow up online, and guidance to understand that they can also respond on paper or by phone.
  • The Bureau will not provide instructional materials specifically for use in adult education programs. While the Bureau plans to release educational materials for K-12 students through its Statistics in Schools program, it has no plans to develop materials geared to adult learners as it did in 2000 and 2010. Adult educators will be on their own to adapt or create activities and materials that help their learners understand and respond to the Census and avoid potential Census-related fraud and scams.

In addition, because the Bureau does not yet have an established budget for fiscal 2020, it has had to limit its plans to provide face-to-face support for Census completion. In prior Census years, the Bureau provided for Questionnaire Assistance Centers at libraries and community centers. The American Library Association described the importance of QACs in a February 2019 letter to Bureau Director Steven Dillingham:

“Libraries hosted more than 6,000 Questionnaire Assistance Centers and Be Counted sites in the 2010 Census … Libraries offer ideal locations for Questionnaire Assistance Centers in many hard-to-count communities: 99% of Census tracts with the lowest self-response rates in 2010 are located within five miles of a public library. Furthermore, many residents with lower Internet connectivity or skills will turn to their local library to access the new Internet Self-Response option, and 98% of tracts with poor Internet access are located within five miles of a public library.”

However, for 2020 the Bureau may not be able to support QACs, given the current uncertainties about its funding for fiscal 2020. Because the Senate will not begin work on the 2020 budget until it reconvenes on September 10, passage of the final budget is not likely to happen before fiscal 2020 begins on October 1. As a result, Congress will need to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until a final budget is passed. The challenge this presents for the Census Bureau is outlined in a case memo developed by the Census Task Force:

“Most FY 2020 appropriations bills will not be finalized until later in the fall (at best), well after the October 1 start date to the fiscal year. … The Census Bureau needs to know at the start of the fiscal year how much money it will have for the entire year, so it knows what efforts it can afford to undertake. Without funding certainty at the start of the year, the Census Bureau could decide it must curtail certain important activities — from outreach and advertising to cyber-security steps to hiring a full complement of census field staff — to prevent a funding shortfall later in the fiscal year.”

The potential adverse effects of underfunding were demonstrated by the outcomes of the 2018 national census in New Zealand, where understaffing of in-person assistance, a focus on online completion, and insufficient support for paper-based responses resulted in a nearly 10 point drop in the response rate, particularly among minority populations: “one of the worst participation rates in decades, with one in seven people filing to complete it.”

What can I do? What can my program do?

You can act at both the individual and the programmatic level.

1. Advocate: Email or call your Senators and Representatives to promote inclusion in the Continuing Resolution of a full year funding anomaly for the 2020 Census of $7.5 billion, as part of Periodic Censuses and Programs account funding of $8.145 billion.

This is the stakeholder-recommended funding level that was included in the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 3055) that the House passed earlier this year. This funding anomaly, if passed, will allow the Census Bureau to plan for the full year of activities and carry out activities that ensure a fair and accurate count. For more information, read the case memo developed by the Leadership Conference’s Census Task Force and share it as part of your advocacy.

2. Participate: Become informed about how the Census is administered, who is counted, what questions are asked (and not asked), how the Census Bureau maintains information confidentiality, and more. Use Census Bureau fact sheets and infographics for information. Plan to complete the Census yourself. Here is the Census Bureau’s timeline for 2020:

3. Educate: Understand your adult learners’ concerns about the Census and preferred response method (online, paper, phone, in person). Use the NCL Census resource list to plan ways to incorporate relevant digital literacy skills and content-based instruction at individual class or wider programmatic levels. The NCL list contains links to teaching/learning materials and community outreach materials developed by a number of organizations, and is updated regularly. In addition, this fall NCL member organizations will be developing teaching materials and related activities specifically for use in ABE/ESL contexts.

4. Stay Up to Date: Throughout the 2019-2020 program year, NCL members will be providing topical webinars and conference presentations to address specific aspects of the Census process and share knowledge and resources designed for adult learners and adult education practitioners. Webinars and conference presentations will be listed here on the NCL website and announced through the NCL listserv with links to available slide decks and recordings.

As we look forward to Adult Education and Family Literacy Week later this month, please join the NCL in advocating and working for a fair and accurate count for #Census2020!

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