The Problem With Defining Adult Education Outcomes Too Narrowly

Nice article in the Stamford Advocate on an ESL program based at a Stamford, CT elementary school that includes a weekly family literacy night:

“Its wonderful,” said Stark Principal Mark Bonasera who stopped by to attend the event. He said the program has really helped the school, kids and families. It brings the parents into the school and really makes them part of the community, he said, and it also helps parents help their children with work.

Elsa Martinez, 47, said this is the first time she’s really had a chance to learn the language. She and her husband came to America from Peru 18 years ago and started a family. Both had jobs and she didn’t have time to learn to write the language. She said as a house cleaner, she didn’t have to speak the language very well, but did know it well enough to understand people.

Shortly after her daughter Emily Soruluz was born about five years ago, Martinez, who is married but kept her maiden name, said she stopped working. And when Emily entered kindergarten this year, Martinez entered school, too.

Neither spoke English, but on Wednesday they were both doing well. “Absolutely,” Martinez said, when asked if the program was also a help to her daughter. “I’m available to help her.

“She said she wasn’t able to do that for her son, who is 17.

And Emily is doing well, she entered kindergarten unable to read or speak English, but on Wednesday she was reading her part with a strong voice and eagerly answering questions, much like the other students. (my emphasis)

You’ll note that Elsa Martinez appears to no longer the in the workforce. But surely no one would argue that the outcomes here—a parent fully engaged and able to assist in their child’s education, improved reading and classroom engagement on the part of the child—aren’t desirable public policy goals. Yet, in my experience, many policymakers (and funders) continue to insist that the goal of adult education should be exclusively measured in terms of occupational outcomes.

Thankfully, such narrow framing is not embedded in the law that governs most federal adult education spending (Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA), but if you think siloing off adult education from children’s education is a bad idea, you’ll want to monitor current WIA reauthorization efforts for changes that would force communities to break off the connections they are building between federally funded adult literacy education and (especially) early childhood education, and encourage them to seek ways to better leverage WIA Title II with other federal education investments and goals. Washington’s current infatuation with pre-K education is a good place to start. If the goal for pre-K is to ensure that more kids are ready for K-12, then why wouldn’t you want to look at the primary source of federal support for programs that help low-skilled parents improve their literacy for ways to leverage those efforts? I’ve never understood why you can’t do that kind of cross-generational leveraging while at the same time strengthening the linkages between WIA Title II programs and workforce development for those adult learners in the workforce.*

Granted, I have no idea if the program in the story above received any federal support, but the point is still the same, from a broad public policy perspective—why shouldn’t it?

*An alternative would be to find another place in federal legislation for adult literacy funding that is not directly related to occupational outcomes, but I’m not sure how that would work—either politically or in practice.