A small contingent of adult learners attending the National Adult Learner Leadership Institute here in Washington paid a visit this afternoon to the U.S. Department of Education to meet with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and the Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education, Brenda Dann Messier. I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along.
Looking over my notes from the discussion, I am struck by how often the discussion turned to (1) what I’d call non-academic issues that nonetheless make adult education a challenge for many adults (especially low-income adults): busy work schedules, raising children, transportation, etc.; and (2) the impact that prior trauma and/or existing disabilities can have on learning, and the need for more resources that are appropriate for these learners.
This isn’t surprising, really—and these issues are well-known by people in the field—but it occurred to me that from a public policy perspective, our efforts to think about and address these issues are a bit underdeveloped. Adult education policy leans a bit more in the direction of what I think of as academic issues (teacher quality, professional development, standards, assessment, etc.) and less on the non-academic issues that can have as much of an impact on adult learner success as anything else. The best instruction in the world can’t do much for a mother who can’t come to class because she can’t find a childcare provider. This is why adult education advocacy can’t begin and end with the number in the line-item for adult education—a cut to housing services or childcare in the state or local budget can have every bit as much of a destructive impact on adult education enrollment and success as a cut to adult education itself.
As for special needs: again, it’s not that adult education policymakers (or programs) ignore these populations, but outside of what are commonly thought of as learning disabilities (such as dyslexia), it’s fair to say that few adult education programs or teachers specialize in serving those with physical/sensory/cognitive disabilities or mental health issues, and I don’t think there is much policy-oriented research available on how best to meet their needs. (This is yet another case where I’d really love to be wrong, so please correct me if I am—but I’ve been in many, many big-picture adult education policy meetings in my life and rarely—if at all—are mental health or disability issues discussed. But these issues come up often, one way or another, when you discuss policy with adult learners.)
Not surprisingly, many of the best programs in adult education do provide or arrange for other support services, including counseling, child care, health and mental health services (including drug and alcohol treatment), service coordination (case management), homelessness and housing services, and other social services. But again I’d say that programs offering a full range of wrap-around services are still pretty rare.
A lot of things have to be in place in order for some adult learners to succeed. If we agree that it makes good public policy sense to provide all adults with limited skills and/or lacking academic credentials with the opportunity to be successful adult learners, we need to look more carefully at what it takes—not only inside the classroom but outside of it—and advocate for policies that support those conditions.
UPDATE 5/10/13: Right after I wrote this post, I learned that World Education is offering an online course this summer for teachers interested in learning more about how chronic stress, trauma, and other adverse life experiences can affect learning. More information here.
UPDATE 5/23/13: The Department of Education has published a blog post about the visit with Secretary Duncan. The post includes a great video of one of the meeting participants, Shamika Hall, talking about her experience going back to school as an adult: