Guide for Managers of Adult Education Programs


Program Design and Delivery


Adult education programs vary tremendously across New York State. Instruction is offered in one-on-one settings at various community locations; in classrooms at BOCES, school districts, community colleges, community-based organizations, correctional facilities, and migrant camps; and through distance learning.

Some locations operate full-time and provide a full array of programs and services including academic instruction, vocational training, job readiness training, and support services such as career counseling and child care. Other locations operate part-time and provide academic instruction alone.

With the implementation of the Workforce Investment Act, all program providers are required to connect to their respective local workforce investment boards. Regardless of the setting and program offerings, the common denominator is a focus on the learner and on continuous improvement.

A Customer Service Philosophy

Whether a new adult education program is being designed or an existing program is seeking to make improvements, a customer service orientation must drive programmatic decisions. There are many customers of an adult education program: learners, partner agencies, and funders. Each has similar and sometimes competing expectations. Balancing these interests is essential for the success of the adult education program.

Learners as Customers

Programs that focus on learners as customers are better able to design their programs to learner needs and interests. This will result in more motivated learners and more relevant programs. It will also increase the likelihood of success in attracting, retaining, and succeeding with learners.

Partners as Customers

Partners, such as collaborating and referral agencies, are other key customers to consider when designing or redesigning the program. These customers include:

schools local workforce investment boards

family literacy providers

libraries local departments of labor and social services
the justice system post-secondary institutions

These agencies may provide learners with support services necessary to ensure success, offer complementing programs and services not available at the primary agency, or simply serve as a source of referrals. Being responsive to the needs of these customers will assist the program in gaining the community support needed for program success. (See Section 6: Collaboration, Cooperation, and Partnerships for more information about working with the broader community.)

Funders as Customers

The funding agency designates specific program activities, program outcomes, and participant outcomes that must be achieved to receive continued funding. Emphasis is on ensuring accountability (discussed in Section 7: Program Evaluation and Accountability).

Assessment of Needs

The basis of design or redesign must begin with a clear understanding of customer needs. This data will drive the program-planning, decision-making process.

In considering the needs, expectations, and requirements of learners, two levels of data should be analyzed: the community as a whole and the specific learner's. Community data will impact decisions concerning program offerings and target populations. Data may include:

  • adults without a high school diploma or equivalent
  • non-English speaking adults with degrees
  • non-English speaking adults without formal education
  • future growth occupations in the area
  • individuals who did not complete high school
  • TANF recipients.

Some of these data can be accessed through public records, surveys, and federal statistics, such as the census.

Once these background data are collected and analyzed, the next step is to talk with potential or actual adult learners to find out their needs, hopes, and expectations. Questions can focus on:

  • life/career goals
  • barriers to meeting these goals and how education can help
  • learning priorities
  • ability to physically get to an education program on a regular basis
  • other demands on their schedules
  • how much time can be put into learning outside of class time
  • access to the Internet
  • hopes about education: what would excite them?
  • fears about education: what would turn them off?
  • past educational experiences.

The third level of data that will help guide design or redesign efforts should be collected from other service providers. These service providers may become future partners, collaborators, or referral sources. The data collected through this effort should help to determine what programs and services are available and where gaps exist (services are not available in a particular community or not available at all).

Finally, individual agencies should also consider agency strengths, weaknesses, and gaps. Existing agencies may survey current and former students to assess learner perceptions of the agency. This information will be useful during the recruitment phase of program design and delivery.

Once the data have been collected, it should be aggregated. This information will be critical for the program design phase.

Program Design

Program design is an opportunity for program staff and administrators to review the aggregate data and set program goals and objectives that address the most critical community needs for adult education. Goals should be broad statements of desired, long-range outcomes. Objectives are more specific, measurable statements of short-term, desired outcomes. Goals can stretch over a three- to five-year period. Objectives are generally set for a year or less and will form the basis for the program's on-going assessment.

The design or redesign of an educational program includes seven key functions, all of which are described below:

  1. student recruitment
  2. intake and orientation
  3. instruction
  4. support services/referrals
  5. transition
  6. learner assessment
  7. learner retention.

The agency's design or redesign team should consider the role of the agency, the role of partner agencies, and the role of the community in each of these functions. In designing the program, it is often very useful to collaborate with other agencies in the community to avoid duplication or gaps in service. If there are agencies providing the support services needed by the learners, a referral mechanism can be developed to connect the learners with the existing services, rather than replicating the services. Community agencies already working with the potential learners can serve as recruitment feeders for the educational program, limiting the need for extensive recruitment efforts.

In addition, program administrators and staff need to understand the regulatory requirements under which they must operate before they begin designing the program. (See links listed under Resources at the end of this section to access the latest state and federal rules and regulations.) Staff should also be fully aware of and able to utilize best practices in their design. (Some resources for researching best practices are also listed at the end of this section.) Finally, budget considerations will set parameters for the organization as to how extensive an educational program it can develop.

The program design or redesign should be sufficiently flexible to allow for easy adaptation as needed. In addition, the program design should include appropriate professional development for program staff (see previous section) and mechanisms for continuous improvement (see discussion of learner assessment later in this section and of program assessment in Section 7: Program Effectiveness and Accountability).

  1. Student Recruitment

    During the assessment phase of the program design process, learner needs are identified. In the recruitment phase, these needs are converted to answer the complex question "What's in it for me?". A program that can provide a meaningful and legitimate answer easily attracts enough eligible students to maintain program operation.

    The first step in the recruitment process is identifying what the program has to offer: services, the method in which they are provided, physical location, the nature of the staff, resources available, etc. The next step is to show how these elements address the needs, wants, goals, and expectations of individual customers. Be sure to take into account the life situation of the customers, the assets they bring to education, barriers they face, and their language, culture, and values.

    Remember, the recruitment message has to quickly and convincingly answer "What's in it for me?" for each potential adult learner. It is important to be realistic and not promise more than can be delivered. This tactic will only bring a lot of students to the door who will quickly leave when their needs are not being met as promised. This will result in a great deal of negative advertising. It is important to recognize that word-of-mouth advertising is very effective in disseminating negative or positive messages. Keep in mind learners' concerns and needs as well as their goals: fear of failure, lack of easy access, need for transportation, childcare and/or flexible schedules, etc. The message should be positive, supportive, and inviting.

    Recruiting can be addressed in several ways. Marketing professionals, teachers, counselors, learners, or members of the advisory board can conduct formal advertising and recruitment. The easiest way to recruit students is to have them referred by an agency that is already providing other services to them. Look for other natural partners in the community, such as previous program participants, K-12 school staff (who can reach parents in need of educational services), religious organizations, cultural programs, and employers.

    There are many other ways to get the word out about the program. Program representatives can attend important community events and speak at churches, neighborhood/cultural centers, community gatherings, and meetings of clubs and other organizations. Programs may also conduct an occasional open house for community members, community leaders, and staff of other agencies. Graduation ceremonies are a nice way of recognizing the achievements of the learners as well as promoting the program.

    The media may also be used. Remember that many of the potential customers cannot read well, so do not rely on print alone. Try to access radio and television, in addition to newspapers. Personal appearances can be as effective as printed flyers and brochures. Also keep in mind that some potential customers cannot understand English, so prepare materials in other languages. Media can be used by:

    • sending out periodic press releases announcing new offerings and reporting on program success.
    • inviting reporters to visit the program to talk to the learners for "human interest" stories.
    • tapping into media coverage of related public policy initiatives, such as welfare reform, changes in immigration law, etc. Show how the program is helping address client needs and/or helping that initiative move forward.
    • creating media image. Flyers, posters, and brochures can be developed for distribution in community agencies, neighborhood shops, and cultural centers frequented by potential participants. Taped video or audio presentations can be distributed as well.

    The above activities will help bring potential participants to the door. But, recruitment does not stop here. It moves to participants registering and attending. Take time to meet with individual learners; discuss their individual goals, expectations and needs; and show them how the program can help them achieve their goals (remember to be optimistic and realistic). Take them on a tour of the program and encourage them to sit in on a beginning class before making a final decision. Another option is for current learners to meet with prospective students over coffee or to take them on a tour. Ask what services are needed to support their participation and make arrangements for appropriate resources or referrals.

    It is important to develop, implement, and continually reassess a systematic recruitment program. Savvy companies do not wait until their product or service is not doing well to assess their marketing efforts. Additional information about recruitment and marketing can be found in Marketing Your Adult Literacy Program: A How To Manual.

  2. Intake and Orientation

    Intake and orientation begin during the recruitment process. From the beginning, it is important to develop a positive relationship with the new learner, helping reduce anxiety and promote a motivated attitude.

    The reception area and intake/registration process should be welcoming and comfortable. Paperwork should be kept to a minimum and as unobtrusive as possible. Ask only for critical information at this time: name, contact information, anything needed for establishing eligibility, and information to set some initial goals. Any screening that needs to take place for a learning disability can be scheduled at this time. Waiting time should be limited: interacting with customers should take top priority.

    The intake process should pick up where recruitment left off in terms of refining learner goals and needs and connecting them to the individual learning program. Whenever possible, the person who first met with the learner during the recruitment process should handle intake so the learner does not have to repeat his/her life story. Initial assessments should be as limited as possible - just get basic information to establish the initial learning program. If extensive pre-testing is needed to establish baseline data for assessments, try to fold some of this into the opening days of class, so the learner's first experience with the program is not a long time sitting with paper and pencil. (If the intake process is onerous for the learner, they probably will not return.)

    Orientation should take place as quickly after intake as possible. It is important that learners feel valued and appreciated, not shuffled off into limbo. Orientation should include:

    • the school schedule
    • an explanation of services the program staff can offer as well as limits on those services
    • what to do with questions and concerns
    • expectations in terms of homework
    • likely timeline for completion of a program
    • a tour of the facility
    • introductions to key staff
    • phone numbers for contacting program staff
    • program rules or regulations regarding lateness, absence, and other student-related issues.


  3. Instruction

    Instruction is the heart of the adult education program. Instructional services can include work in traditional classroom settings, self-paced learning with a workbook or computer, one-on-one tutoring (with staff, volunteers, or other learners), individual work with a mentor, on-the-job learning, and distance learning via the Internet. In each of these contexts, the responsibilities of the instructor will vary greatly.

    In some programs, teachers only have classroom teaching responsibilities (including lesson plan preparation and correcting student work). In other programs, teachers also provide one-on-one assistance outside of class time. Teachers can be responsible for coordinating volunteer tutors and mentors, doing career counseling with learners, coordinating and monitoring referrals to other services, and handling recruitment, intake and assessment. Teachers need time outside of student-contact time in which to handle these additional responsibilities. Staffing design will depend a great deal on the resources available to the program and the nature of the teaching staff.

    There are different types of adult education programs, each focusing on different instructional areas. The three most common areas in adult education are:

    • ABE - Adult Basic Education (reading levels 0 - 8)
    • GED - Preparation for the Tests of General Educational Development leading to a high school equivalency (HSE) diploma (reading levels 9 - 12+)
    • ELL - English Language Learners

    Some programs also offer life skills, family literacy (involving both parents and children in intergenerational activities), occupational education, and training for specific careers. Successful adult education programs design their instruction to address the needs of the adult learners they will be serving and to align with adult education learning principles (noted in Section 3: Working With Adult Learners). Instructional materials, classrooms, and other learning environments need to be designed with these principles in mind as well. It is crucial that instructors clearly understand the difference between teaching children and adults.

    Learners should feel welcomed and respected as adults; feel that their cultural background is appreciated; see the connections between their life situation, their goals, and the educational program; and have confidence that the negative experiences of their previous schooling will not be repeated in this program. Books and other learning resources need to be appropriate to the culture and context of adult learners.

    Instructional programs for adults need to be scheduled with the needs of the learners in mind. Since many adults work and/or have children, classes may need to be in the evenings, in early mornings, on weekends, or over lunch. Classes held on-site at work may be more convenient for adult learners. Besides the time of day when classes are held, the whole concept of designing and scheduling an adult education program is very different from a K-12 approach. Many adults attend for a short time to achieve a specific goal or milestone and then stop for awhile. Learners may set their initial goal as mastering the math component of the GED. Once that goal is reached, they may stop coming and later return for another section. Other learners may sign on for the whole program in one course.

    Adult education programs need to design their instructional programs with outcomes in mind. Adult learners are often in a hurry to complete their education. They need to know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they are going to use it. Students can be valuable partners in the learning process - from setting objectives to assessing how they best learn and assessing their actual performance.

    The curriculum should be aligned to standards - the NYS Learning Standards (see the Adult Education Resource Guide and Learning Standards), the NRS benchmark standards, and the learning standards outlined in Equipped for the Future. Periodic individual assessments based on these standards offer teachers and learners the opportunity to reflect on what has been learned and what more remains to be accomplished.

    Appropriate placement is essential to delivering quality educational services. Students should be informally assessed at intake. There is no reason for paper and pencil tests at this point. More formal assessments can take place periodically as the learners become more comfortable in the program.

    Once assessed, students can be placed in the most appropriate program - one that will build on their current skills, provide appropriate challenges to them, and ensure they leave with the set of skills they need to succeed. In the classroom, team-oriented projects, cooperative learning, and using more advanced students in one-on-on situations to help those with less skills master a lesson all address the challenge of diverse abilities.

  4. Support Services/Referrals

    Adult learners often have a great range of needs that become barriers to learning. These range from lack of transportation, childcare, and funds for educational supplies to serious health or addiction problems, homelessness, or severe emotional problems. Some educational programs are able to offer direct counseling and other support services to respond to these needs. Others respond by providing information, assisting with referrals, and advocating for learners. Educational programs may also offer training on career development, life skills, and employment readiness.

    As noted earlier, the welfare reform process and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) have created additional pressures for many adult learners. WIA, with its emphasis on partnerships, also brings new resources to help adult education programs meet many of the non-educational needs of learners. This allows education programs to focus on their specialty - adult education. Section 6: Collaboration, Cooperation, and Partnership explores partnering as a way to help learners address the full range of their needs.

    All adult literacy programs are required to make individual and group counseling available to enrolled adult learners. Counseling deals with feelings and attitudes as well as information and skills. Counseling needs to be handled carefully, with great sensitivity and confidentiality. Counseling is not giving advice or guidance, but is drawing out thoughts and feelings from the learner. Certain aspects of counseling are best provided by counseling professionals.

    Educational counseling is not therapeutic counseling. Educational counseling focuses primarily on helping learners identify and understand their learning needs and design a program to best meet these needs. Generally, this takes place initially in the intake session when the learner's background and skills are discussed and an educational plan of action is developed. In this session, other problem areas or needs are often identified and appropriate referrals can be offered.

    The intake session should be updated periodically through brief individual counseling sessions to explore the learner's progress, update his/her goals, and identify any emerging concerns. In later sessions, information on finding employment, or accessing community resources such as libraries and health services can be offered to learners. Life skills as problem solving, communication, parenting skills, financial management, etc. can also be addressed during these counseling sessions.

    Carefully managed referrals often make the difference as to whether adult learners are successful in meeting their needs. The teacher or counselor making the referral can call ahead to alert the agency that a client will be coming in, and, without violating confidentiality, summarize the nature of the concern. It is important to follow up with the learner and/or the agency to be sure the learner followed through on the referral and that his/her needs were met. In some cases, a learner may be accessing the services of several agencies. If one of those agencies provides case management services, that agency can handle the coordination of the referrals. If none of the agencies offer this service, the adult education program, in which the learner is a regular participant, may want to take on the case management function to increase the learner's likelihood of success.

    Teachers often have limited time to make and receive phone calls. If a program does not have designated counseling staff, the program manager may be in the best position to develop linkages with other agencies, share this information with the teaching staff, and assist in the case management function.

    In addition to the more formal counseling described above, a key support service is to provide a caring, supportive environment for all learners in which their abilities, accomplishments, needs, and differences are respected.

  5. Transition

    Adult learners are generally in transition - from home/public assistance to work; from incarceration to independence; from no career direction to a career focus. Teachers, counselors, and managers need to be sensitive to learners' needs during times of transition. They will often require additional personal support to help plan for and manage the changes. They may also need to be connected with support services related to their new environment. Helping them connect to new supports will promote their successful transition.

  6. Learner Assessment

    Assessment of learner skills, abilities, and knowledge is another factor in successful education programs. The assessment process begins at intake to help design the individual learning program and to place the student at the correct starting point. Ongoing assessment measures learner progress and pinpoints areas in need of additional attention. Learner assessments also inform teachers and program managers of the areas in which they are doing well and areas in which they need to develop more effective strategies.

    Assessment can serve as a motivator for both students and staff. Learners need to see that they are making regular progress. Structured assessments are a good way to document this progress. The assessment process can reinforce learning since it requires learners to apply the skills they have been taught. Positive feedback gained through assessment further promotes learning by reinforcing the motivation to learn. Likewise, staff stay more motivated when they see they are being effective.

    Finally, assessment can help guide the overall program design and answer concerns about program accountability. Positive assessments can support requests for additional funding. (These topics are addressed in more detail in Sections 7 and 8.)

    The assessment process need not be formal, foreboding, or complex. In fact, a complex or threatening intake assessment is a major factor in why students drop out at the start of programs. (Sixty percent of learners who will drop out make that decision in the first six hours.) Many adult learners are students who have failed standardized tests in the traditional elementary and secondary educational systems. Being asked to take a similar test at the start of the program can remind them of their previous failure and sap their motivation to give education another try.

    An initial assessment can be as simple as having a conversation with a learner who wants to improve English language skills. A discussion about mathematics can also tell a teacher much about the learner's level of math skill. For students with very limited skills and a limited motivation to participate in an educational program, it may be best to defer more formal assessments until after the student has developed a stronger commitment to the program.

    At some point early on in the program, the learner's skill level needs to be documented to establish a baseline against which progress can be made. The traditional way to do this is to give norm-referenced or criterion-referenced standardized tests.1

    Norm-referenced tests compare an individual's performance to the performance of groups of people and shows whether a student knows more or less than other people in this group. Scores are presented in terms of percentiles or grade levels. The General Education Development test (GED) is an example of this kind of test.

    Criterion-referenced measures evaluate student performance against skills they are expected to achieve. Their performance is assessed against specific criteria, such as skills needed to master a specific job, specific life skills, etc. The Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) is an example of a standardized criterion-referenced assessment. Programs can also develop their own criterion-based assessments focusing on established standards and using teacher observance of learner performance of a task as the means to document competency. This avoids the negative associations with paper and pencil tests and can be a more authentic assessment than standardized tests.

    During the course of the program, there are many forms of assessment that can be used as alternatives to the more traditional standardized test. These include the performance-based assessment noted above in which learners are observed on the job or in the classroom performing a specific task. Their performance is measured against a set of criteria developed to define competency in the task. Rubrics are often used to define the criteria. Another version of this is an end-product assessment in which the learner's work is assessed after it is completed. This can involve an on-going portfolio development and assessment or be a final project assessment.

    These alternative assessments can measure several different standards at once. A student presentation on a science project can measure competency in the area of scientific knowledge, scientific processes, English language arts skills, public speaking skills, and organizational skills. Assessments can be worked into the educational process, further reducing learner anxiety about testing. Finally, the form of assessment should take into account the individual learner's learning style and predominant intelligences. Some learners prefer written assessments, while others prefer behavior-based assessments.

    Some criteria for effective alternative assessments are that they provide information on:

    • learner achievement that is useful to the learner and the teacher throughout the instructional process
    • learner capabilities that is credible to employers, educational institutions, and funders
    • overall program effectiveness and areas needing improvement.2


  7. Learner Retention

    There are many barriers to successful completion of an adult education program including other demands on learner time (family and work), serious unmet needs (housing, health, mental health), apprehension related to formal learning, and negative peer pressure. As a result, adult education programs suffer high drop-out rates. Program managers need to design and manage their programs carefully to promote student retention and successful completion.

    Careful design starts with the recruitment, intake, and orientation process. Recruitment must target real, priority needs of learners while helping overcome their anxiety about formal education. Promises must be realistic. The intake process and first days of instruction are when the majority of dropouts occur. Intake needs to be user friendly, not cold and overwhelming.

    Intake staff, from the receptionist to the counselor, must be welcoming, supportive and helpful. They need to listen to the learner and let the learner know the staff are there to help. Learners need to quickly understand that the educational program will be designed with their needs, goals, and expectations in mind, and that the schedule is flexible and responsive to their individual situation. Initial assessments should be non-threatening, brief, and presented to the learner as a way to help design the appropriate program for them, not as a test to see how smart they are.

    The instructional program needs to be geared to the individual styles of the learners and follow the key principles of adult education. Teachers, counselors, and managers should regularly monitor learner satisfaction with the educational program, related support services, communication, and complaint resolution. Early problems that are not addressed can quickly expand and result in learners leaving the program. Many adult learners with limited communication skills will not bring their concerns to staff. Therefore, it is important to monitor how learners are feeling about the program and to quickly identify and resolve areas of concern.

    One other important tool for promoting overall student retention is to conduct exit interviews with all students when they leave the program. Sometimes learners will be more forthcoming with negative feedback once they know they are leaving. Previously unidentified issues may be brought up, giving the program an opportunity to make corrections for current and future students.

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Hudson River Center for Program Development, Inc.