No One Left Behind: Re-Considering Adult Basic Education

No One Left Behind: Re-Considering Adult Basic Education

This year's presidential primaries have been marked by a surprising lack of discussion about education. While candidates of both parties have occasionally addressed the topic, usually focusing on K-12, with rare mention of post-secondary education, adult education has simply not been an issue for serious consideration. Given recent trends in the economy, the labor force, and education overall, overlooking the importance of adult education could prove to be a terrible oversight.

While there are many causes of poverty, the lack of basic and advanced educational skills is a major factor, if not the most important one. Half the U.S. workforce has no more than a high school education, while twenty-five million workers lack a high school diploma or GED. Educational credential attainment is only half the story, however. According to a 2003 report from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, more than half of all adults lack adequate literacy skills for the modern workplace, regardless of their educational credentials.

And the challenges are becoming more complex. For example, over the past two decades, Massachusetts would have experienced a net workforce decline if not for the influx of immigrants. Clearly, the immigrant population was beneficial to the Massachusetts workforce, but 29 percent of arriving adult immigrants had no high school diploma or GED, while a quarter of the immigrant labor force in the state speaks English poorly if at all.

These education levels are reflected directly in wages. College educated workers earn 75 percent more than those with only a high school diploma, a wage premium that has nearly doubled in the past twenty years. And workers with limited basic literacy skills are often stuck working one or more jobs for relatively low wages, with little opportunity for increasing their skills or advancing at work.

Moreover, few low-skilled adults participate in any kind of basic education programs, and the results for those who do are disappointing. Of the approximately 6 percent of low-skilled adults who participate in adult basic or secondary education courses, or English for Speakers of Other Languages, few earn a GED or even advance a grade or English-ability level. Given the magnitude of the problem, such findings are shocking.

In order to address these problems, we must address four challenges. First, the steady decline in funding from all levels of government must be reversed. U.S. Department of Education funding for adult basic education (which includes ESOL) has declined steadily over the past decade, and that in turn has created long waiting lists for ABE and ESOL programs that are only getting longer.

Second, adult education programs need to do a better job of directly and effectively preparing students for occupationally specific training and post-secondary education. Remedying this problem will require changes in funding for and the policies under which the programs work. The relatively weak capacity of the adult education field poses a third challenge. Teachers are poorly compensated, many work part-time, and innovations in adult learning and occupational and post-secondary preparation are rare.

The final challenge is one that many of us can relate to: life gets in the way. For most low-skilled adults, having multiple jobs, family responsibilities, poor transportation options, and financial limitations seriously limits their opportunities to improve their education, skills, and employment and earning prospects.

What can be done to address these challenges? While a commitment to increasing public investment in adult basic education is critically important, it is not the only answer to the resource problem. Private employers represent the largest source of investment in worker education and training, but resources tend to go to better-skilled and higher-paid employees, while most public funding is designed for traditional community-based, class-room adult education and lacks the flexibility or incentives needed to encourage matching private investment. Instead, public investment in adult basic education should be structured to provide incentives for private investment in basic education for low-skilled workers at the workplace. Well-designed public funding can and will unlock enormous private investment in workplace education.

Categorical funding restrictions and limited program innovation have historically discouraged adult education programs from providing easy transitions to occupational training and post-secondary education for their students. Yet this is precisely what adults with low literacy skills need to succeed in the labor market. Reforms at the federal and state level can help transform traditional adult basic education to create these incentives, and the U.S. Department of Education and some states have begun such efforts.

In the meantime, several national philanthropies, including the Mott, Lumina, and Nellie Mae Education foundations, as well as organizations such as the Aspen Institute and Jobs for the Future, have begun to invest in innovative programs that provide connections to occupational training and post-secondary education and have the potential to achieve significant scale. The best of these programs build in broad supports for their adult students, including mentoring and coaching, emergency stipends, and help in navigating family challenges.

Improving the capacity of our adult basic education infrastructure will take many years of smart, consistent investment and support for innovative approaches. If public investment can spur private investment in adult basic education, there may be opportunities to begin to transition more adult educators to full-time positions with more competitive salaries. Philanthropy can play a major role in helping to build capacity through innovation grants, support for instructor training, and the development of new curricula, teaching methods, and technologies.

Investing in adult basic education is critically important in terms of both equity and economic growth, as declining adult skills relative to industry demand will certainly lead to depressed wages and growing income inequality while weakening our global competitiveness. It is time for us to come together to devise and fund solutions to the problem before it's too late.

Jerry Rubin is president and CEO of Jewish Vocational Service, a Boston-based provider of adult workplace and classroom education and training.