ERIC Identifier: ED308402
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Adult Literacy Issues: An Update. ERIC Digest No. 89.
During the 1980s, increasing the literacy rate of adult Americans has been
the focus of national attention. President Reagan's announcement of the Adult
Literacy Initiative in September 1983 stimulated a number of new initiatives in
adult literacy education, many of which focused on strengthening literacy
education programs through the recruitment of volunteers. Several issues related
to the adult literacy movement surfaced during the early part of the decade
including the definition of adult literacy, characteristics of illiterate
adults, the purposes of literacy education, the use of volunteers in literacy
education programs, the impact of changing technology on literacy skills needed
to function in the workplace, the need for more effective evaluation mechanisms,
and the need for better linkages and communication within the field of adult
literacy education (Fingeret 1984; Miller and Imel 1987).
As the decade draws to a close, several new emphases related to adult
literacy education have emerged. These include efforts to influence the
development of policy, and the evolution of new types of programs including
family or intergenerational literacy; workplace literacy; and literacy for
immigrants, for the homeless, for women, and for welfare recipients (Imel 1988).
A majority of the issues that surfaced earlier are still unresolved, but new
issues have surfaced and debates about some older issues have intensified as a
result of the new emphases.
A previous ERIC Digest (Imel and Grieve 1984) describes some of the early
issues enumerated by Fingeret (1984) and later by Miller and Imel (1987). This
ERIC Digest examines the following three issues that are the focus of debate in
the current context: the appropriate focus for adult literacy education,
professionalization of the field, and program evaluation.
PURPOSE AND GOALS
The economic climate of the 1980s has
established a connection between literacy and economic development and "provided
the framework within which we see the current attention to literacy education" (Fingeret 1988, p. 2). Concern about the nation's ability to maintain its
competitiveness in a changing world market and an increasingly technological
environment has exacerbated the debate about the goals and purposes of adult
literacy education. The debate centers around whether the adult literacy
education should serve economic development goals or whether it should be an
empowering process that takes into account adult learner social backgrounds,
needs, and purposes.
JUMP START (Chisman 1989), the highly publicized report recommending policy
directions for adult literacy, strongly emphasizes the need for literacy to
support economic development. According to the report, "the problem of adult
basic skills" in the nation is so severe that the goal should clearly be to
"ensure that by the year 2000, or soon thereafter, every adult has the skills
needed to perform effectively the tasks required by a high-productivity economy,
to the best of his or her ability" (p. 3).
Fingeret (1988) and Kazemek (1988) argue that highlighting the role of
literacy in economic development places the blame for the nation's economic
problems on illiterate or low-literate adults. The literacy for economic
development perspective overlooks the fact that "structural inequalities such as
unemployment are built into our social and economic systems" (Kazemek 1988, p.
According to Kazemek (ibid.), too narrow a goal for literacy education
ignores the perspective that literacy should have as its goal "the liberation of
people for intelligent, meaningful and humane action upon the world" (p. 466).
It also disregards the results of outcome studies revealing that the majority of
participants enroll in adult basic education programs for educational rather
than employment reasons (Fingeret 1985).
In order to reconcile these two opposing perspectives about the goal and
purposes of literacy education, Fingeret (1988) suggests that "we must work
together to promote a broad notion of literacy that embraces the growth of the
human spirit, recognizing that full participation in the economy will accompany
such personal growth" (p. 5).
PROFESSIONALIZATION OF THE FIELD
The issue of how and why
the field of adult literacy education should professionalize is currently under
discussion. Although this issue has been debated by the larger field of adult
education for more than two decades, developments in adult literacy education
during the 1980s have sharpened the deliberations. A number of factors have
converged to direct attention to the professionalization issue. These include
the use of volunteer tutors, the need for an integrated system to support
professional development, and a lack of consensus on what level of education and
training is necessary for effective performance (Foster 1988; Kazemek 1988).
Adult illiteracy's status as a national issue has forced public
acknowledgement that there are inadequate institutional and financial resources
to support the development of professionals in the field. Although most adult
literacy personnel have been aware of this situation for years, they now have an
opportunity to participate in determining which direction professionalization of
the field should take. If they do not choose to take advantage of this
opportunity, standards may be imposed externally (Imel 1988).
An unresolved question, however, is how the field should professionalize.
Cervero (1987) suggests that rather than professionalize like other professions,
adult education should develop a model of professionalization that is consistent
with its underlying belief structure. Foster (1988) expresses a similar belief:
"[U]nlike some other professions...the professional activities associated with
adult literacy should not revolve around certification or restricting entry into
the profession. Instead, the profession will have to be more experimental and
open to innovation" (p. 21).
EVALUATION OF ADULT LITERACY PROGRAMS
The need for better,
more effective evaluation of adult literacy programs and practices has been
recognized for some time. Because adult literacy programs are different from the
traditional school programs that teach children to read and write, they cannot
be evaluated in the same way (Foster 1988; "Myth #7: Literacy Programs Are
Fail-Safe" 1988). However, it is not clear how programs should be evaluated.
Related to this are questions about the purposes and goals of evaluation.
Because of the connection of adult literacy to economic development goals,
many evaluation studies have focused on outcomes. Fingeret (1985) feels that
outcome studies are limited because they assume that the goal of literacy is
employment when, in fact, participants frequently cite other kinds of goals. She
suggests that the goal of literacy program evaluation should be broadened to
include information about "the internal processes and dynamics of programs" (p.
13). Broadening the approach to evaluation will help teachers and administrators
acquire a better perspective on learners and their potential (Jones and Lowe
The pressure for better, more effective evaluation procedures is coming from
both internal and external sources. Although adult literacy educators are
dissatisfied with current efforts, the heightened awareness of the extent of
adult illiteracy has increased demand from the public for greater
accountability. Just as they should in the area of professionalization, adult
literacy professionals, who know and understand the field, need to determine the
purposes and goals of evaluation.
Although discussed separately, there are similarities among the three issues
treated in this Digest. All have been debated by the profession for some time,
but each has intensified as a result of the increased visibility of adult
literacy education. By being proactive, rather than reactive, individuals within
the profession can do much to determine the eventual resolution of each of the
Cervero, R. M. "Professionalization as an Issue
for Continuing Education." In CONTINUING EDUCATION IN THE YEAR 2000. NEW
DIRECTIONS FOR CONTINUING EDUCATION no. 36, edited by R. G. Brockett. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Winter 1987. (ERIC No. EJ 377 207).
Chisman, F. P. JUMP START: THE FEDERAL ROLE IN ADULT LITERACY. FINAL REPORT OF THE PROJECT ON ADULT LITERACY. Southport, CT: Southport
Institute for Policy Analysis, January 1989. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
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Fingeret, A. ADULT LITERACY EDUCATION: CURRENT AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS.
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the National Urban Literacy Conference, Washington, DC, January 22, 1988. (ERIC
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Jones, E. V., and Lowe, J. H. "Point of View. Statewide Evaluation: Some
Reflections." ABE NEWSLETTER: THE NEWSLETTER FOR ADULT BASIC EDUCATION IN
VIRGINIA 10, no. 5 (November-December 1986): 4, 6.
Kazemek, F. E. "Necessary Changes: Professional Involvement in Adult Literacy
Programs." HARVARD EDUCATIONAL REVIEW 58, no. 4 (November 1988): 464-488. (ERIC
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Miller, J. V., and Imel, S. "Some Current Issues in Adult, Career, and
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"Myth #7: Literacy Programs Are Fail-Safe." THE LITERACY BEAT, 2, no. 7
(August-September 1988): 1-4.