Overview of Adult Education
Adult education is significantly different from K-12 education. First, education for adults is usually not mandatory. Nor is it a full-time endeavor since most adult learners are juggling competing demands, such as family and employment, to make time for achieving their educational goals. And, these goals are diverse, ranging from being able to read to a child to securing employment.
In New York State, program participants range from native-born to new immigrants, from English proficient to no English proficiency, and from trained to unskilled. For those with prior education, too often the experience was negative. To fully appreciate the complexity of adult education, consider the pressing need to move ahead combined with a great deal of life experiences.
The complexity doesn't stop there. Adult educators are working to serve and balance the needs of several masters: the learner, employers, public assistance agencies, and the State Education Department. Additionally, new government initiatives place pressure on adult education programs to produce measurable and substantial results in less time than before.
Challenges and Trends
Assessment and accountability are becoming more public and more pressing, particularly with the advent of welfare reform and workforce development efforts. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) requires each state to establish benchmarks for performance. The National Reporting System for Adult Education (NRS) will be implemented to collect data on Title 2 of WIA. Local Workforce Investment Boards will add to these expectations based on the needs of the local workforce.
In the current labor market, employers are hiring more people without basic literacy skills. This makes recruiting and retaining students difficult for education programs since students know they can earn a living at their current level of education. Furthermore, those students whose skills are so weak that they are currently unemployable have, not surprisingly, a great range of needs - needs that must be addressed to not only promote employability, but to actually allow learning to take place. For example, it may be more difficult to secure employment for those who struggle with substance abuse or for those with no employment experience whatsoever. Another group with a similar high level of need is the incarcerated population.
Other public policy decisions impact adult education just as heavily. As many legal immigrants lose eligibility for federal assistance due to immigration reform, adult educators feel pressure to focus on citizenship preparation. The current national valuing of family literacy, as evidenced by its inclusion in the Workforce Investment Act, the Reading Excellence Act, and the Head Start Act Amendments, prompts efforts to integrate such programming at the local level.
In addition to what might be termed "external" factors, professionals in adult education must also address issues that are within their programs. First, and as noted earlier, adult learners must juggle family responsibilities and work demands with educational aspirations. This leads to requests for adult education programs to operate outside of typical school or business hours. It is often difficult to find teachers interested in working evenings and weekends.
Attracting and retaining qualified staff is difficult at best. The limited funding available to support adult education, combined with the part-time nature of some teaching positions, limits staff member's access to adequate benefits, including professional development. This also limits participation in staff meetings, weakening program communication, planning, and evaluation. A tight labor market and upcoming teacher shortage will only lessen the availability of quality staff. Considering that students in New York State's adult education programs collectively speak over 100 different languages, the importance of having a large and varied pool of qualified instructors from which to pull is underscored.
Despite the diversity of adult education students, many of them do share memories of very negative experiences with the education system. Coupled with the pressing day-to-day problems they face, this negativity is a major challenge to adult education programs in retaining students long enough for them to develop the skills necessary for achieving their goals. According to Fellenz and Conti, as many as 60% of new students leave a program within the first six contact hours.1
The lure of technology - e.g., working with and learning from computers - can attract students. However, the promise of increased efficiency and effectiveness offered by new technology is contrasted with the challenges of acquiring funding to purchase the necessary equipment and related materials, of training students and staff, and of continuously upgrading the technology which becomes obsolete at an ever faster pace. Programs may need to overcome staff and, paradoxically, student fears about learning and using new technology.
Adult education programs have limited resources. Therefore, it is essential that these programs collaborate and network with a wide variety of community programs to ensure students get the services they need.
The key to facilitating a successful transition from the adult education program to next steps in a learner's life path is to maintain a clear focus on the individual learner's needs, current skills, and goals. Program planning and design should be based on an aggregate of these needs and goals. Recruitment and intake should quickly tap into these goals and help the learners see how this program will help them further their personal life plans. Instruction needs to be individually tailored and delivery must accommodate the learner's needs. Support services must be provided to help learners overcome barriers to attaining their educational goals.
The adult education system has gained credibility in the past several decades, and has become a recognized and valued component of the educational and workforce development systems. However, due to recent changes in focus resulting from welfare reform and the Workforce Investment Act, development of educational skills and abilities has become an outcome secondary to obtaining and retaining employment. Individuals enter the labor market without the skills needed to advance beyond entry-level employment. The challenge for program managers is to continue to advocate for the role of education in workforce development systems and at the local workforce investment boards to ensure that individuals gain the skills needed to move beyond entry-level employment.
The challenges growing out of workforce development efforts, welfare reform, and other factors previously detailed prompted the development of this guide, which will assist managers of adult education programs in the design of appropriate programs and development of problem-solving strategies.