A fundamental difference between the publicly funded adult education system in this country (to the extent that a true “system” exists) and K-12 is that the adult education system doesn’t even come close to providing the funds needed to serve all of those who would like to be served (currently estimated to be around 3 million people), let alone the total number of people who in fact may need such services, which could be as high as 36 million people, according to the latest
guess estimate front the PIAAC survey. Government-funded adult education serves only about 1.7 million and that number has dropped by almost a million over the last decade.
In other words, we don’t even attempt to fully fund an adult education system in this country. I know that many K-12 school systems are cash-strapped, and thus would undoubtedly argue that they are not in fact, “fully funded,” but at least it’s generally understood that there has to be a baseline amount of funding available to provide a seat for every school-age child. Not the case in adult education. A similar problem has existed in pre-K, although now there are calls for “universal” pre-K that also seem to be premised on the assumption that every child of pre-school age should have access to services. There has never been no call for “universal adult education” (although perhaps there should be).
Thus in adult education it’s trickier to balance the need for innovation and new ideas (which adult education certainly does need) with the reality that we’ve yet to fully fund the basic infrastructure that we need in order for new models and innovations to take root and grow. Imagine a K-12 system where we only had enough schools and teachers to educate two-fifths of our school-age kids. Would our first priority be to design new models, or would it be on building more schools and hiring more teachers? I think unquestionably it would be the latter.
I’m willing to concede that we need to be more strategic and innovative in order to create more learning opportunities for low-skilled adults, but it’s also important not to kid ourselves: the reason we are serving far fewer students than a decade ago is not because we don’t have enough models, but because we’re not investing enough in the basic infrastructure (classroom, computers, teachers, etc.) to serve them.
Lately I’ve been working on the premise that the development of new innovations (especially with regard to technology) could actually spur more investment in the basic infrastructure pieces, but, at the same time, it’s also hard to imagine anyone taking primarily responsibility for funding the basic infrastructure outside of the public sector. I think it’s important to talk about how/whether new innovation in this field actually gets the public sector spending we need moving in the right direction.
UPDATE 3/13/14: I mentioned above that to date there has been no call for “universal adult education,” but there is something close to that beginning to take shape as more states explore the possibility of providing free community college education to all students. This article in Stateline from yesterday refers to these efforts collectively as the “college-for-all movement.”