Changing the Odds: Informing Policy with Research on How Adult Learners Succeed

This report summarizes a 2009 symposium hosted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) whose purpose was to explore and identify promising program practices and models in adult education in light of changing demographics and economic conditions.  

L. Condelli
R. Kirshstein
H. Silver-Pacuilla
S. Reder
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
American Institutes for Research: Portland State University
Literacy Work International, Inc.
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

Key areas discussed during the symposium and in the publication include impending demographic and immigration trends; the need for alignment and contextualized learning opportunities among WIA Title I and Title II programs; identifying and developing innovative practices to reach adults not currently served by adult education programs; and the use of model demonstration programs.

The authors provide an overview of key adult education research studies conducted by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL).  For improving adult education and workforce development systems and programs, the studies recommend that innovative strategies and approaches be developed and implemented in the following areas:

  • building persistence in adult learners,
  • using longer-term outcomes to strengthen accountability processes and systems,
  • establishing and strengthening public-private partnerships among educational providers to result in community-based learning support systems, and
  • increasing system capacity, coordination, and effectiveness with innovative technologies.

Additional research suggests that promising practices be explored and evaluated in areas including contextualized basic skills instruction, differentiated instruction, flexible career pathways, and innovative partnerships.  Based on discussions held throughout the symposium, the publication identifies challenges and opportunities for structure and systems change at a national level and highlights program practices to improve the operation and delivery of local-level adult education programs.

What the experts say

Expert 1:  I consider this resource to be of significant value both within and beyond the field of adult education. While my comments here will focus on the “within”, I also want to commend the authors for producing an accessible and interesting document that outlines the issues, challenges and promises in a way that could be instructive to those new to the field. While the quite extensive data analysis supporting a need for expanded and improved adult education services that this report provides may not yield anything surprising to adult education practitioners, it will certainly be informative to anyone with even passing interest from outside our ranks!

I was especially impressed by the initial framing of the report as a call to the field for a widespread commitment to raising everyone up – as opposed to depending on individual “student success stories” – in our efforts to inform policy and secure greater support for promising practice. The various presenters then went on to articulate a number of worthwhile ideas for moving us in that direction. I think what they have shared is worth consideration and reflection.

Expert 2:  This report provides an overview of current thinking about approaches to learning and also connects this state of adult education to policy papers and thinking – that which is currently in place and that which is yet to come.

The report gives the informed reader a sense of what’s being said, who’s working on what and how this information can assist education practitioners in advocating for change, and for being accountable to funders and constituents.  For many adult practitioners who lack the time for broader reading and research, this document provides an excellent overview of what is at stake, what has worked,  and what is needed in order to move the field forward.

The resource also takes into account the broad demographic range comprising the adult education constituency and acknowledges the range of needs and strengths inherent within the varying constituent groups and ways in which education providers – and policy makers – need to take these elements into account in developing an effective and efficient system.  In calling for contextualized learning, useful pedagogy (compression and chunking) and blended learning (p. 19), the report reminds educators of what good teaching practice is and highlights to policy makers why this knowledge matters in the first place.

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