Adult Education in the U.S. Department of Education’s Draft Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2014-2018

Every four years, the U.S. Department of Education releases a new strategic plan. A draft is released first in order to get input from the general public and key stakeholders. The draft plan for 2014-18 was released last Friday. You can take a look at it here.

I’ve pulled out the language that most directly relates to adult education. Most of it, unsurprisingly, is under the one goal that explicitly references adult education: “Goal One: Postsecondary Education, Career and Technical Education, and Adult Education.”

Under this section, the Department says it must “ensure that all students—recent high school graduates and adult learners alike—are well prepared for college and careers, help more of them enroll in postsecondary education, and increase the number of those who complete programs of study with a degree or certificate.” (my emphasis)

In the very next paragraph, in a discussion that seems aimed more at higher education, the Department asserts that “students deserve to know that, whether they enter a college, university, postsecondary career training program, or adult education program, the credential they earn will be affordable and its value will be recognized as an indication that they possess the necessary knowledge and skills for success in the workplace and in life. (my emphasis) However, I didn’t see anything later on that describes what they mean by an “affordable credential” in an adult education context, or how to ensure that the value of such a credential is recognized.

This section also notes the need for the reauthorization of key federal legislation, including the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), (the largest source of federal adult education funding), “in order to support the implementation of more rigorous high school standards and postsecondary and adult education reforms that will increase student achievement and career and civic success.”  (my emphasis)

Weirdly, there are no “indicators of success” for adult education under this goal. Increasing degree attainment among 25-34 year olds comes closest, but this wouldn’t be a particularly accurate indicator of success for adult education specifically, since this cohort wouldn’t necessarily all be products of the adult education system.

Moving on to the objectives under Goal One: under Strategic Objective 1.1, the plan proposes to “close the opportunity gap” by increasing access to college and/or workforce training, “especially for underrepresented and/or underprepared populations (e.g., low-income and first-generation students, English learners, individuals with disabilities, adults without high school diplomas, etc.).”  (my emphasis) It notes that many students are ill-prepared for the “academic rigor” required for postsecondary success—and then turns specifically to discuss the adult education population, and adult education programs:

The Department is… concerned about the sizable number of adults who lack foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Because of this, too many adults cannot enter or complete a postsecondary education or training program. Data on educational attainment and skills show that there are at least 30 million Americans without basic literacy skills in need of educational credentials for work. The social and economic consequences are severe for these adults and their families, as well as for their communities, where large numbers of low-skilled adults can limit economic development. The current adult education system is not equipped to handle this challenge, serving less than 3 percent of the need. The Department will work to transform this system and create an adult learning infrastructure that better meets the demand for high-quality English language, literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills. This infrastructure must accommodate the increased demand for skills from industry and business, as well as for services that may result from comprehensive immigration reform. (my emphasis)

Interestingly, there is no discussion as to how or whether such infrastructure should accommodate the needs articulated by the customers of these services, or a strategy to identify those needs.

The discussion then turns to standards, proposing the adoption of internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready standards so that high school students “graduate with the competencies needed for postsecondary success.” But there is no suggestion that adult education standards should be adopted in order to achieve similar competencies for students coming out of adult education, despite the fact that postsecondary success is clearly articulated earlier as a critical outcome for adult education students.

Adult literacy is also discussed under Strategic Objective 1.3:

The success of the American economy and culture—as well as our national security—depends on the talent of all Americans. The President is committed to increasing the number of students earning degrees and credentials through postsecondary education and has encouraged every American to complete at least one year of education or workforce training beyond high school. One-third of postsecondary students drop out within four years without completing a degree or certificate, and more than 30 million adults function at low literacy levels that inhibit their ability to succeed in college and the workforce. Ensuring that all Americans have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college and in the workforce will require higher standards of educational excellence, leading to dramatically improved high school and adult education outcomes, which, in turn, will lead to postsecondary outcomes that produce more graduates with certificates and degrees. (my emphasis)

Here again, adult education—in this case adult education outcomes—is framed as an element of an overall objective related to college access/completion.

Adult education doesn’t really come up again until Goal 4, which concerns equity:

The Department is committed to pursuing equity at all stages of education, from birth through adulthood, in institutions of early learning, K–12 schools, career and technical and postsecondary education, as well as in adult education, and workforce development programs. The Department’s goal is to ensure that all—not just a subset—of the nation’s children, youths, and adults graduate high school and obtain the skills necessary to succeed in college and/or to pursue a meaningful career. (my emphasis)

And that’s basically it. Surprisingly, there is no mention of adult education under the section concerning technology, and nothing in the plan at all related to parental involvement/engagement, let alone family literacy or strategies to strengthen the role of parents in preparing their children to be school-ready. It’s conceivable I missed something because I read it through pretty quickly, but I don’t think so.

It’s hard to read the plan and not come away with the impression that the Department views adult education primarily in terms of how it relates to postsecondary attainment. Even here, however, there are places where adult education isn’t particularly well-integrated into the plan. For example, under Strategic Objective 1.3, the plan pledges support for programs that increase postsecondary persistence and completion, with a commitment to “provide funding for and disseminate information on strategies that foster successful transitions, including transitions between secondary and postsecondary education, two-year and four-year colleges and universities, postsecondary education and employment, and/or postsecondary pathways within or across career fields.(my emphasis). Note that there is no specific mention her of the transition from adult education to postsecondary, or career pathways strategies in adult education contexts.

If you or your organization are interested in submitting a comment on the draft, you have until Friday, October 4th, 2013 at 5pm (EDT) to do so. Send your comments to