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Access and Inclusion: Adult Education and Literacy Priorities for 2021 and Beyond

Access and Inclusion: Adult Education and Literacy Priorities for 2021 and Beyond

Memo submitted to the Biden-Harris Transition Team by the National Coalition for Literacy and the Open Door Collective, December 2020

With its theme of “build back better,” the incoming Biden-Harris administration has named economic recovery and racial equity among its top priorities—and a spectrum of advocacy organizations have noted that “education holds the key to economic revitalization and must play a central role in addressing systemic inequities” (Education Strategy Group, 2020). An adult career and technical education system that promotes attainment of postsecondary credentials, including certificates with labor market value and associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, is the foundation for a society that ensures access to family-sustaining employment and the skills required for full participation in community life for all of its members.

However, if building back better is to include all individuals in American society, it must also open opportunities for those adults who are not yet ready to participate fully in postsecondary credentialing and education programs. That is, it must include adult basic education, which gives youth and adults ages 16 and older essential skills in literacy, numeracy, English language acquisition, and digital technology use within the context of high school equivalency, workforce preparation, family literacy, and transition-to-employment and postsecondary education programming (Minnesota State, 2020; OCTAE, 2020; Open Door Collective, 2020). In the United States, 19 percent of adults are profoundly in need of literacy skills development and 29 percent lack critical numeracy skills (NCES, 2018). 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 basic education plays a critical role in a community’s overall education continuum, and all adults must have equitable access to educational opportunity. We offer three overarching recommendations for a powerful federal investment in adult education and literacy that will enable all of America’s people to participate in building back better.

1. Integrate adult basic education into an intentionally coordinated lifelong formal education and training system that spans childhood through adult years and works at every level to disconnect the far-too-predictable links between race/ethnicity, English language proficiency, socioeconomic status, and education outcomes. A fully integrated education structure would provide clear, well-articulated paths and benchmarks for development of the skills and knowledge needed to obtain and retain quality employment, support family well-being, and participate fully in their communities, and it would make these services available to all adults who need them. Many of the pieces of such a system are already in place, and the field has good models of how coordination among those pieces can work. Federal investment in a sustained effort to bring the system together in locally appropriate ways throughout the country will increase the effectiveness of all of its parts.

2. Implement national infrastructure projects that will empower adults to participate in adult basic education, career development, and postsecondary programs.

  • Digital inclusion. Lack of access to high-speed internet connections, home computers, and digital skills training disproportionately affects low-income adults and members of minority communities. As adult basic education has transitioned almost completely to online instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, programs have discovered that this type of delivery can mitigate some of the traditional barriers to participation, including transportation and child care. However, major obstacles remain for adults who do not have the digital access or skills to take advantage on online learning. A federal commitment to extend high-speed broadband access to all regions of the country, provide the basic digital skills training that will enable all adults to take advantage of that access, and provide professional development for adult educators in the most effective ways of using online tools for education will transform educational opportunity for adults and children in low-income and minority communities.
  • Community infrastructure. Inadequate access to transportation, stable and affordable housing, child care, and health care is characteristic of communities experiencing systemic inequity, and these deficiencies are among the top reasons cited for nonparticipation in in-person adult education (Patterson, 2018). Conversely, consistent participation in adult education correlates highly with achievement of educational goals and increased earnings potential (Morgan, Waite, & Diecuch, 2017). “To engage in education and training for a family supporting job, a person’s basic needs – food, housing, medical care, and childcare – must be met. That means our nation’s safety net programs have a transformative opportunity: To help millions of individuals who can and want to train for a family-sustaining career but need supports along the way” (National Skills Coalition, 2020). By increasing adults’ ability to persist in pursuing educational goals, a federal investment in infrastructure will build community strength and resilience, directly addressing the effects of systemic inequity (Open Door Collective, 2020).

3. Reorient adult basic education accountability and outcomes reporting toward a competency-based approach that promotes and demonstrates progress toward the full spectrum of adults’ learning and self-development objectives. The accountability system currently in place through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) allows only for outcome measures related to increased scores on standardized tests, attainment of high school equivalency, entry into/completion of workforce training or postsecondary education, and entry into the workforce. These measures reflect some of the important goals and motivations of adult basic education participants, but they ignore other essential ones, such as “assisting their children with schoolwork, understanding and addressing their own health issues or those of family members, or participating in civic affairs” (Reder, 2020). Adult basic education programs have extensive insight into the variety of outcomes that their adult learners are able to achieve, but the limits imposed by the current compliance-focused system prevent them from encouraging pursuit of or reporting on those outcomes. A federal initiative that decouples accountability from a narrow focus on assessment and encourages a broader perspective on results would more equitably and appropriately support the potential of adult basic education programs and the learners they serve. A multiple measures, competency-based approach that is valued by all stakeholders, valid, equitable, and aligned with the goals of the individual and the community will modernize the adult education accountability system to meet its larger role in advancing an inclusive recovery.

The National Coalition for Literacy and the Open Door Collective appreciate the opportunity to provide input on education to the Biden transition team. We offer these recommendations in hopes that they will help the incoming administration address educational inequities in our country. We welcome opportunities to work with new and continuing Education Department staff to promote educational equity for all.

About the Submitters

The National Coalition for Literacy (NCL) is an alliance of the leading national and regional organizations dedicated to advancing adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the United States. NCL’s mission is to advance adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the United States by increasing public awareness of the need to increase programs and funding; by promoting effective public policy; and by serving as an authoritative resource on national adult education issues. Through collaborative efforts with other advocacy organizations and individuals, NCL ensures that leaders and legislators at the national level make informed decisions about policies, regulations, and funding for adult education and family literacy. We envision a nation in which all adults are able to fulfill their potential and meet their goals through accessing high quality adult education and literacy services provided by an integrated and well-developed system.

The Open Door Collective (ODC) is dedicated to reshaping U.S. society to have dramatically less poverty and economic inequality and more civic engagement and participation in all our society has to offer. As professionals working in adult education, social services and poverty reduction, ODC members believe that adult basic skills education and lifelong learning programs can help open the doors of opportunity for everyone to healthier, more prosperous and satisfying lives.  ODC members have expertise in connecting adult basic skills education to employment and training, health care, and family and social services.  We believe that helping all adults to acquire and use English language, basic literacy, numeracy, high school equivalency, college readiness, and technology skills will improve everyone’s economic outcomes, broaden social participation and move us much closer to the kind of society in which we all want to live.

References

Education Strategy Group. (2020). A return to leadership: Education priorities for he Biden administration. Retrieved from http://edstrategy.org/a-return-to-leadership-education-priorities-for-the-biden-administration/.

Minnesota State Careerwise. (2020). Adult basic education. Retrieved from https://careerwise.minnstate.edu/education/abe.html.

Morgan, K., Waite, P., & Diecuch, M. (2017). The case for investment in adult basic education. Retrieved from https://www.proliteracy.org/Portals/0/Reder%20Research.pdf?ver=2017-03-24-151533-647.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). PIAAC Results. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp.

National Skills Coalition. (2020). Skills for an inclusive economic recovery: An agenda for President Biden and Congress. Retrieved from https://www.nationalskillscoalition.org/resources/publications/file/Skills-for-IER-Federal-Agenda.pdf.

Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy. (2020). Adult education and literacy. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/AdultEd/index.html.

Open Door Collective. (2020). An open door out of poverty. Retrieved from https://www.opendoorcollective.org/uploads/1/4/3/8/14381196/an_open_door_out_of_poverty_sep_12.pdf.

Patterson, M. (2018). Critiquing adult participation in education, report 2: Motivation around adult education. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/560d5789e4b015789104a87e/t/5b252a26f950b7fedffb4b18/1529162279757/CAPE+Report+2+Motivation+around+adult+education.pdf.

Reder, S. (2020). A lifelong and life-wide framework for adult literacy education. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1249006.pdf.

An AEFL Week Opportunity

An AEFL Week Opportunity

National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week has begun!

How will you take advantage of this opportunity?

AEFL Week raises public awareness about the need for and value of adult education and family literacy. Its goal is to increase financial and societal support for access to basic education programs for U.S. adults with low literacy, numeracy, and digital skills. Advocates across the country use this opportunity to elevate adult education and family literacy nationwide with policymakers, the media, and the community.

What are some ways to participate this week?

  • Start with toolkits and other resources for planning advocacy around AEFL week
  • Customize and share NCL’s AEFL Week social media messaging for direct service providers, policy makers, and donors
  • Host an online event to raise awareness of adult education and family literacy

What about next week, next month, next spring?

AEFL Week is also a great opportunity to plan out your advocacy strategy for the next 6 months or more.

  • Who are your federal and state legislators? What are their positions on adult education, family literacy, digital equity? Plan out a schedule for when you will contact them over the next few months and what you will say.
  • What information about literacy and numeracy levels in your specific community or locale can you obtain from the PIAAC Skills Map? How can you use that information to explain the importance of adult education?
  • What information about digital access in your community can you obtain from the National Broadband Map? How can you use that information to support your points about digital literacy and digital inclusion?
  • What are some of the strengths and successes of your program and your adult learners? How can you use those to illustrate the value (and return on investment) of adult education?

This AEFL Week, take the opportunity to become a more informed, more creative, and more persistent advocate. And let us know how we can help!

National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week was established when the National Coalition for Literacy worked with Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Lamar Alexander (R-PA) and then-Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) to create a Congressionally-recognized designation that would draw attention to the importance of adult education and family literacy. Since then, NCL has sponsored AEFL Week in September each year on behalf of its members and the field as a whole, and has worked with Members of Congress to have the week recognized through resolutions in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

ICYMI: Virtual Forum on Adult Learners and Covid-19

ICYMI: Virtual Forum on Adult Learners and Covid-19

On June 4, National Skills Coalition, the National Coalition for Literacy (NCL), and the Coalition for Adult Basic Education (COABE) collaborated to provide a virtual forum on the challenges that the pandemic environment and related policy decisions are creating for adult learners. The forum focused on adult educators’ ideas and concerns and introduced ways they could connect with policy makers and others to advocate for their learners and their programs.

Presenters were Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, Jessica Cardott, and Katie Spiker from NSC; Sharon Bonney from COABE; and Deborah Kennedy from NCL. Read a summary of the forum content on NSC’s blog, or listen to the entire forum on NSC’s Youtube channel here. The forum is part of NSC’s #SkillstoRecover series.

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.

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