Work Force Education or Literacy Development:
Which Road Should Adult Education Take? ERIC Digest.
by Imel, Susan
The world of work continues to change rapidly. Many workers will need
to upgrade their skills and some will need to be retrained for entirely
new jobs. Providing educational opportunities to these adult workers will
lengthen their productive years and will also benefit the economy by creating
a more flexible and more highly trained workforce. (U.S. Department of
Education Strategic Plan, 1998-2002, 1997, p. 39)
Our democratic institutions depend upon and are sustained by an educated
citizenry. While moving from welfare to the workforce and creating economic
advancement are valid outcomes of education, democracy demands much more.
Democratic life requires critical inquiry, civic participation, and a commitment
to the common good. (Auchter 1998, p. 2)
During the past few years, the nation's economic needs have driven many
of the policy discussions within education. At the federal level, Congress
has considered and debated bills that would consolidate a number of educational
programs--including adult basic education and vocational education--into
omnibus work force development and training bills. Provisions for block
grants that would allow states greater autonomy and latitude in making
decisions about how the funds are used have been included in these proposed
acts. None of these education bills has passed, but the debate continues.
In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Reconciliation Act. More commonly known as the Welfare Reform Act, this
legislation not only created sweeping changes in welfare policies that
affected education and training, it also provided block grants that give
states greater flexibility (Nathan 1997). A number of states have responded
to the move at the federal level toward greater state autonomy and control
by merging education, human services, and employment service agencies to
create "super agencies" to oversee state work force development efforts,
including adult basic education, welfare reform, and vocational education
The increasing emphasis on work force development as a policy goal is
bringing to the forefront a continuing debate within the field of adult
basic education. Although adults frequently enroll in adult basic education
for job-related reasons, the programs themselves have always had broader
goals. In an effort to shed light on current perspectives about the goals
and purposes of adult basic education, this Digest reviews recent literature
and suggests solutions to what frequently becomes an "either-or" debate.
THE CURRENT CONTEXT: ITS IMPACT ON ADULT BASIC EDUCATION
The current context is shaped not only by the policy emphasis on education
for work-related reasons but also by changes brought about by the Welfare
Reform Act. The new law changes the focus of welfare reform from an approach
that invests in building basic and job skills to an approach that emphasizes
quick job placement. As a result, many states are reevaluating the role
of education and training (Strawn 1997). Although adult educators previously
may have worked closely with human services agencies to provide basic skills
training, they may now feel "out of the loop" because they are "being left
out of the bureaucratic spider web resulting from welfare reform" (Fluke
1998, p. 4).
According to Fluke, across Pennsylvania there are stories "about some
of the better-prepared, motivated adult students, forced to drop out of
literacy, numeracy, and writing classes to enter 20-hour-per week jobs"
(ibid., p. 4). In one case, because she could not manage the multiple demands
of her family, the job requirement, and college, a student dropped out
of a 2-year postsecondary training program (ibid.). In a similar vein,
Reuys (1996) reports on a Massachusetts program that previously had no
difficulty in attracting and retaining students, but is now being affected
negatively by changes in the welfare and work force development systems,
including the 20-hour per week work requirement, restrictions on funding
for education, and reductions in funding for basic and prevocational education
from sources such as the Job Training Partnership Act. Although anecdotal
in nature, these reports are indicative of how legislative and policy changes
are affecting adult learners and providers of adult basic education.
In the current context, adult educators may feel caught in the middle.
If they want to be participants in the policy discussions at the state
level and partners at the local level in providing educational services
to the broad spectrum of work force development customers, they may be
excluded by funders if their programs cannot meet the goals of work force
development. How can they defend the need for their programs to have broader
goals yet still meet the needs of funders? Evidence from adult learners
themselves and from research on welfare-to-work programs provides helpful
BROADENING THE DEBATE
Other factors in the current context can help adult educators broaden
the debate about the goals and purposes of literacy education. Two that
are discussed here are what adult learners themselves want from education
and the results of research on welfare-to-work programs.
In 1993, the National Institute for Literacy initiated an effort to
develop a "customer-driven, standards-based reform process" called Equipped
for the Future (EFF) (Stein 1997, p. 1). EFF began by asking adult learners
the following question: "What is it that adults need to know and be able
to do in order to be literate, compete in the global economy, and exercise
the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?" (ibid., p. 2). Using the
responses of more than 1,500 adults, the EFF project is currently developing
standards grouped around three major adult roles--worker, citizen, and
family member--based on four fundamental purposes for adult learning: the
ability to (1) access information, (2) express ideas and opinions confidently,
(3) take independent action, and (4) learn how to learn in order to keep
up with the changing world. The adult learners responding to the survey
clearly saw the role of education as much broader than only preparation
Increasingly, evidence demonstrates that the emphasis on just getting
people into employment will not result in employment for self-sufficiency.
Baldwin (1998) used the term "low-road strategies" (p. 60) to refer to
policies that merely focus on expanding the low-wage labor supply without
attention to raising living standards through opportunities for the development
of skills that can be transferred to multiple employment settings. A synthesis
of research on welfare-to-work programs (Strawn 1997) revealed that neither
programs emphasizing job-search strategies nor those focusing on adult
education had long-term effectiveness in increasing participants' earnings
and job tenure. Instead, "the most effective welfare-to-work programs share
a balanced approach that mixes job search, education, job training, and
paid and unpaid work experience" (ibid., p. ).
Narrowing the focus of adult basic education to job development activities
does not make sense. Although participants in programs focusing on job-search
methods may have initial success in the current labor market, in the long
term they may be stuck in dead-end jobs or become unemployed in economic
downturns. Adult educators must become advocates for programs that will
support the goals of all their customers as well as those of funders.
"EITHER/OR" OR "BOTH"
Based on the information in the literature, the question should not
be "Should adult education focus on either work force education or literacy
development?" but rather "Is it possible to combine both literacy development
and work force education?" Learners come to adult basic education and literacy
programs with many different goals. Although programs need to focus on
how they can serve these goals, they should not try to be all things to
all people (Quigley 1997). Some programs may decide, therefore, that providing
work force education does not fit with their philosophy and purpose. That
does not mean, however, that work force education is not a valid goal and
purpose for adult education. In fact, many programs successfully engage
in both literacy development and work force education.
The Goodwill Literacy Initiative (GLI) in Pittsburgh is an example of
a program that combines adult basic education with work force development.
GLI believes that for their students, "work often provides self-esteem,
and even for those who have few immediate job prospects, a job-related
curriculum and learning environment may provide intrinsic rewards and progressive
achievements that are sufficient to keep students in class until they can
find appropriate employment" (Hopkins, Aaronson, and Yenerall 1995, p.
5). Even with a mission related to work force and literacy development,
GLI implemented a number of changes that improved overall retention. These
enhancements included adding a formal orientation, assigning a case manager
to each student to provide emotional and structural support, and providing
career exploration and development services.
Philadelphia's Community Women's Education Project (CWEP) is an example
of a program whose philosophy emphasizes the questioning of existing political
and social conditions but that also provides education within the work
force education system. The CWEP program features a feminist and multicultural
ideology, emphasizes the personal and political empowerment of participants,
employs a participatory approach to teaching ad learning, and promotes
the value of postsecondary education rather than short-term skills training.
According to D'Amico (1997), "CWEP has been able to convince [its funders]
of the validity of its approach despite ideological opposition" (p. 47).
Adult education programs wishing to combine work force education and
literacy development can also learn from a study (Quint, forthcoming, cited
in D'Amico 1997) of adult education programs that provide work force development
for welfare reform clients. Among the promising practices identified were
the following: a well-defined mission; separate classes specifically for
welfare reform clients; skilled, experienced teachers; an emphasis on staff
development; varied instructional approaches that involve active learning;
frequent communication about students progress between educators and human
service staff; a stress on regular attendance, with aggressive follow-up
for absences; relatively intensive class schedules; and a high degree of
teacher-student and student-student interaction (p. 41). This study concluded
that successful programs shared the following attributes: a clear concept
of participants' education and other needs, support for teachers' efforts
to innovate and experiment in the classroom, and sufficient funding to
implement innovative ideas.
Information on programs that have successfully combined work force education
and literacy development demonstrates that adult educators can take both
roads. They do not have to choose either/or but, indeed, can do both.
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