Guide for Managers of Adult Education Programs


The Need for Adult Education


"We must prepare people in what nobody knew yesterday, 

for what nobody knows yet, but for what they will find out tomorrow." 

Margaret Mead 

(taken from Review of Research Integrated Learning  

by Castallo and White)

The National Adult Literacy Survey of 1993 showed that the skills of more than 40% of all American adults are below the New Basic Skills benchmark (level 3 on the NALS 5-level scale).1 The International Adult Literacy Survey (1995) confirmed these findings, placing the United States sixth out of seven industrialized countries.2 (Another national survey is planned for 2002.) Mirroring these national statistics, adult educators in New York State (NYS) face a tremendous challenge:

  • According to the 1994 NYS Adult Literacy Survey, approximately 25 percent of all learners served in adult basic education programs function below the sixth grade reading level. Sixty-nine percent of all learners in English for Speakers of Other Language programs function at the lowest two levels of English language proficiency.
  • Over half of adult welfare recipients in NYS do not have a high school diploma or equivalent and more than 40 percent have limited literacy skills.3
  • Almost 50,000 public assistance recipients in NYS have a disability and many of them are unable to obtain work due to disabilities resulting from abuse of alcohol or other drugs.
  • Teen parents under age 20 must enroll in an approved program leading to a high school degree or the equivalent if they want to continue to access public assistance.4

As implied by the preceding list, the needs of learners in NYS are manifold. In fact, the learners themselves are tremendously diverse. They range from native-born to new immigrants, from English proficient to no English proficiency, from trained to unskilled, and from unemployed to employed. Within this diversity, however, overall learner goals can be distilled into four categories:

  1. Access and orientation, including: physical and geographic orientation (reading maps and signs) and psychological and social orientation (knowing what is going on in the world, understanding institutions that impact on one's life, and getting needed information). This connects to typical adult learner goals of getting a job, helping children with schooling, and being an informed and capable citizen.
  2. Voice, including all aspects of communication: written and oral communication skills, why and how to speak up so one can be heard, and speaking to people of authority in all parts of one's life.
  3. Independent action, including the dual elements of independence and action, being able to: act and communicate for oneself, solve problems, make informed decisions, take actions on behalf of one's family or community, and achieve economic self-sufficiency.
  4. Bridge to the future, including: how to be ready for change, continuing life-long learning, adjusting to technological change, and improving family circumstances.5

Equipped for the Future recognized the multiple roles of adults. In addition to being a learner, an adult is also a worker, family member, and community member. These multiple roles often compete for a learner's time and attention. In order to fulfill the demands of their multiple roles, adults must develop and continually improve their basic reading and writing, speaking and listening, and functional and workplace skills.

Efforts at the national and state levels have begun to define what skills are necessary to compete in a global economy and to fully function in an ever-changing society. The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) defined the core competencies an individual needs to succeed in today's marketplace. Industry-specific national skill standards moved beyond SCANS in defining necessary competencies. Equipped for the Future defined the skills adult learners need to be successful in all aspects of their lives.

In addition to meeting these skills, learners face the challenge of achieving certain academic standards. For example, the New York State Education Department, in its mission to raise the knowledge, skill, and opportunity of all people in New York, defined learning standards. Intended for preschoolers through adult students, the standards address seven areas, including career development. The learning standards were specifically connected to adult education practice in the Adult Education Resource Guide and Learning Standards (AERG). The Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) supplement to AERG connects the learning standards to adult career and employment goals.

The WIA Challenge

Aside from the emerging emphasis on skill standards, the largest issue currently challenging adult education is welfare reform and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) is the new Title II of WIA. Title II implements a customer-oriented system requiring collaboration, coordination, and accountability at both the state and local levels to ensure the non-duplication of services and the demonstration of program effectiveness. WIA Title II focuses on providing education services to eligible individuals so they can:

  • acquire the basic skills necessary to function in society as family members, workers, and citizens.
  • continue their education through at least the completion of secondary school.
  • participate in training that will enable them to become more employable, productive, and responsible citizens.

WIA requires extensive coordination and collaboration at the local and regional levels. It includes a comprehensive student accountability system with three core indicators: educational gain; placement in employment, retention, postsecondary education, and other education and training programs; and attainment of secondary credentials (GED).

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Working with Adult Learners


Hudson River Center for Program Development, Inc.