[Assessment 1360] Re: Misconceptions about the "Reach Higher America" report

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Adrienne Davis adrienne.davis at hclibrary.org
Sun Jul 13 11:36:55 EDT 2008

Thanks for your thoughts. I hope your reading of this report reflects the opinions of the report writers because I would hate to see improving English literacy lost as a goal in and of itself, especially for the so-called "low performing" students. In our program, we have many of these types of people and many of them are not in the workforce (because they are retired or are at home taking care of children or elderly parents) or are in the workforce but advancement or career change is not a high priority for them. What they want is to be able to read the newspaper, understand what is being discussed on tv (especially this year with a presidential election coming up in November), be able to communicate with their doctors, children's teachers, their neighbors, and read to their children. While I see the benefit of incorporating workforce readiness into ESL/AE programs, I, like so many others, do not want this to become the sole or even the predominant mission. And I worry that workforce readiness could become the mantra for "improving" our programs simply because it is easier to justify spending money on programs tied to economic development rather than personal enrichment.

Adrienne Davis
Intake Assessment Specialist
Project Literacy, Howard County Library

Building Life Skills Through Literacy. Educate. Enhance. Empower.

----- Original Message -----
From: Forrest Chisman <forrest at crosslink.net>
To:<workplace at nifl.gov> , <aaace-nla at lists.literacytent.org> , <professionaldevelopment at nifl.gov> , <assessment at nifl.gov> , <englishlangauge at nifl.gov> , <familyliteracy at nifl.gov> , <technology at nifl.gov> , 'and' <libraryl-lit at ala.org>
Date: Friday, July 11 2008 09:01 AM
Subject: [Assessment 1355] Misconceptions about the "Reach Higher America" report
Dear Colleagues,

There has been quite a bit of discussion on various Adult Education -related listservs about the recent report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy, ?Reach Higher America.? I, for one, am delighted that the report has aroused so much interest, and a robust discussion of its findings can only benefit the field, as well as anyone who may wish to act on those findings.

In some of the postings, however, I have found what I believe are a number of misconceptions about what the report says and its implications that I fear may needlessly distract the discussion. I would like to do what I can to sort those out.

In doing so, I want to make clear that, although I have been affiliated with the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy, I had very little to do with the National Commission on Adult Literacy or its report. This was partly because I had prior commitments to do a lot of ESL research that overlapped the Commission?s term, and partly because I didn?t think Gail Spangenberg, Cheryl King, and the Commissioners needed any help from me. (Too many cooks, etc.) My only input was to testify to the Commission on ESL, meet with a group of commissioners and staff to discuss (inconclusively) a few key issues for half a day, and provide advice on drafting issues (some of which was followed and some of which wasn?t). As a result, in most respects I read ?Reach Higher America? in the same way that you do ? as an informed outsider. Certainly, I can?t speak for the Commission about it or for CAAL as the Commission?s agent, nor do I wish to do so.

With that long preface, I would like to address three issues that I believe are needlessly clouding consideration of the report by members of the Adult Education field and other concerned parties.

1)The notion that the Commission is advocating converting adult education into a system that would SOLELY or primarily have the goal of workforce preparation/postsecondary transition. If this were true, I would be concerned too. But if you read the report carefully, I think you will see that this is simply NOT what it says

It is true that the report talks mainly about workforce preparation and expanding AE to place more emphasis on this goal. But there is no place in which it says that existing efforts in ABE, ASE, and ESL should be diminished, or that workforce preparation should be the EXCLUSIVE goal of the system. In fact, on page 22, it says the opposite. And it singles out family literacy, reducing waiting lists for ESL programs, increasing GED completions, and other issues that are not strictly workforce-related as priorities, and it emphasizes the importance of increased investment per student, more supportive services, and greater investment in staff training THROUGHT THE SYSTEM.

Personally, I think the best way to read the Commission?s emphasis on workforce readiness is to say that increasing, enriching, and expanding the AE system?s role in workforce readiness is the goal that should have highest priority right now ? but not the exclusive goal. (Policy should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time.) Why should workforce readiness have particularly high priority? Well, because it is the function that the AE system performs least well. The system has never been asked to do this, and so it?s no surprise (or cause for apology) that it doesn?t do much of it. We all know this. A large number of students come to AE programs with the goal of getting better jobs, but most of the programs specifically designed to help them in this regard are small and fragile. Likewise, the Commission says it considers transition to postsecondary education to be a form of workforce readiness. Again, although some programs make notable efforts to facilitate this, they do so largely in spite of existing policy and systems of funding. Only a tiny percentage of AE students make transitions.

In short, we simply have to build up the workforce readiness aspect of the system. Why? Because, as the Commission so eloquently points out, there are enormous benefits for adult learners and for the nation?s economy if we do, and enormous penalties for low-income, low skilled people, as well as economy, if we don?t. And only the AE system can take on this challenge. If it doesn?t, some other system will have to be devised to do so. That would be a terrible waste, because the existing services provided by AE are part of the pathway to workforce readiness. All we need to do is grow some additional branches on the tree ? something that many programs are trying to do, but for which they are not receiving much support.

Anyway, that?s how I read it, and I would invite you to see if it makes more sense if YOU read it that way.

In addition, there is another consideration. I personally believe that there is precious little political support for any major expansion of AE services or funding UNLESS the system can be tied to high priority national economic goals. That doesn?t mean that these must be the system?s only goals. But we?ve all beat our heads against a brick wall for decades trying to sell AE in traditional terms, and we have too little to show for it. In contrast, emphasizing the need to expand the workforce related aspects of the system appears (thus far) to have enlisted allies in business, labor, and other sectors of education we never had before.

I doubt that the Commission was primarily motivated by this political calculus. But it is important to remember that the Commissioners were a highly diverse group of ?outsiders.? Few had an expert understanding of AE, and (contrary to what has been said) most did not represent the business community in any way. (It is true that Dollar General Corporation was the largest single financial supporter of the effort, but they in no way dictated its findings.) It is, therefore, telling that this group of ?outsiders? (with a little help from Commissioners Bob Bickerton, Sherrie Claiborne, John Comings, and Sharon Darling) gravitated to an emphasis on workforce preparation as the best way to expand AE. In fact, my own research on recent major expansions of AE at the state level indicates that it has invariably come about as a result of the desire of states to improve the economic competitiveness (workforce readiness)of their workforces. And in all cases I know of, this has NOT been a zero-sum game. A rising tide has lifted all boats in the AE system.

2) The notion that strengthening the workforce readiness aspect of AE will in some way result in less emphasis on service to the lowest skilled adults. I do not see how this can possibly be true. It is precisely the lowest skilled adults who are most in need of workforce readiness services ? they are the population must likely to be locked into low-wage, low-skilled jobs. No plan to increase the workforce preparation of adults can make a dent in the problem without giving priority to their needs. It is certainly true that many programs that have added special components to increase employability by increasing transitions to postsecondary education and specialized vocational programs usually recruit students at the intermediate levels of ABE and ESL or GED graduates for those components. But that only reinforces the imperative for workforce readiness efforts to emphasize greater service to those with lower levels of skills. In the ESL field, for example, the overwhelming majority of students are at the lowest skill levels. There is no way that a stronger emphasis on workforce readiness can succeed unless we greatly enhance our efforts to help those students advance up the AE continuum. Otherwise, there simply will not be enough students to take advantage of specialized workforce components. Moreover, it is by no means clear that these kinds of specialized components are the only way to improve workforce readiness. Career counseling, teaching ?soft skills? (such as the SCANS array), and infusing more work skills (as opposed to life skills) into the curriculum can help broaden the options of students at all levels.

In short, I do not see any way in which strengthening the workforce readiness aspects of AE programs is inconsistent with serving the least skilled adult learners, and I can find no place in ?Reach Higher America? where the Commission even suggests this. The traditional goal of adult education has been to help as many students as possible ascend as far as possible up the adult learning continuum. A stronger emphasis on workforce readiness simply means offering students the opportunity to improve their employability as they ascend that continuum. Some students may not wish to take advantage of this opportunity. They will benefit from AE in other ways. AE has always tried to serve many different learner goals, and as mentioned above, ?Reach Higher America? clearly considers all of them valid. In this context, the contribution of the report is to emphasize the need to strengthen service to students who have the goal of improving their employment prospects ? whatever their initial level of skills, and without prejudice to other goals.

3)The notion that the Commission is advocating a change in the governance of AE at the state or federal levels. This is simply not true. I have read this report so many times I?m almost blind. There is NO PLACE in the report where a change of governance is advocated. In fact, there is no place in which governance is even discussed. It is not even mentioned in the discussion of state planning (pp. 26-27). As far as he report is concerned, states would be free to adopt any governance system for AE they want ? as they are now. The report simply encourages them to engage in more meaningful inter-agency planning for the role AE in their states than they do now ? a requirement in present legislation that largely honored in the breach ? as a way of acknowledging that states have different needs and can legitimately realize them in different ways. In this sense, the report reposes more responsibility at the state level than the present system does. Likewise, the issue of the governance of AE at the federal level is NOT DISCUSSED AT ALL in the report. The Commission DOES appear to believe that it would be advisable to get as many of the separate federal authorities and funding streams as possible under a single legislative framework. But it is moot about whether the existing system of divided administrative responsibility at the federal level should be continued. Personally, I think it?s too much trouble to get into the turf wars of changing it, but that?s just my view.

I hope, that this overly long note will help to take some non-issues off the table, and help you in your consideration of the report. There are a great many very real and very tough issues that need sorting out before the Commission?s recommendations can become a reality. So I don?t think we should waste time debating problems that don?t exist. The Commission will certainly try to have its recommendations embodied in legislation, and it will need the help of all of you, not only to do that but to do it right. So I hope we can set aside these differences, or at least raise areas of concern or uncertainty with Gail or others who understand the Commission?s intent better than I do, before rushing to conclusions. To encourage readership and reach people outside the AE field, the report is very brief. Unfortunately that means that some of its points may seem a bit cryptic to those who read it with expert eyes. I hope that, when in doubt, you will ask for clarification, rather than assume the worst. I know enough of the Commissioners and staff to know that these people desperately want to help the AE field in all of its aspects, and most of all the learners.

Forrest Chisman

National Institute for Literacy
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