How Concerned Should We Be About the 2014 GED Numbers?

From an Inside Higher Education article published today on the reportedly dramatic drop in GED test takers and passers in 2014, after a new, more expensive, computer-only test was put into place:

Lennox McLendon, executive director of the [National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium], said he plans to ask about each state’s testing and pass rates, and whether there are differences between the three high school equivalency tests. So far, he’s not concerned by the lower number of test-takers and passers this year.

“That’s just the way the cycle goes,” McLendon said. “It’ll pick back up and a year from now, and we’ll be going full speed again.”

I hope this turns out to be the case. Here are Rhode Island’s reported pass numbers:

2013: 2,363
2014: 225

That is about a 95% drop.

It’s always nerve-wracking to highlight any numbers that suggest something in adult education is not working—it’s one of the unfortunate by-products of working in a field that is constantly fighting for its life—but from my vantage point there is no evidence to suggest that our teachers, administrators, or state directors are directly at fault for these numbers*, and thus it would be wise, I think, to examine these numbers carefully, rapidly assess exactly what might be going wrong, and determine whether the situation really will simply resolve itself without some kind of intervention. Otherwise, if the numbers don’t bounce back, the whole system is likely going to be blamed anyway—I wouldn’t count on everyone outside the field agreeing to simply pin the blame on the new test.

In my opinion, this is potentially a very dangerous moment for our field. If those numbers don’t go up in 2015 and 2016, it leaves the field open to claims of ineffectiveness. There is also danger in reflexively placing blame on the GED Testing Service. It might make some folks feel better, but we need to work with them to get this right, and I don’t see how completely alienating them helps. (Even if you are highly critical of the transfer of the GED to the Pearson/ACE for-profit, that’s what we are going to have to live with for the foreseeable future.) I’m curious as to what others think. Am I overly concerned?

*Here is what I mean by directly. It could be, for example, (not saying it is) that one of the problems has something to do with teachers not being sufficiently trained to teach the new test. But my guess is that if that’s true, that would prove to have more to do with the clumsy roll out of the new test and/or the general lack of funding for the field, which results in limited professional development opportunities.

A Fundamental Difference

(Updated Below)

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.”

More on the Federal FY 2014 Appropriations and Adult Education

A week ago I mentioned that the final FY 2014 federal appropriations bill passed by Congress in January didn’t include an increase to the line item that is the primary federal funding source for adult education programs in the U.S.: the state grant program that is authorized by AELFA, otherwise known as Title II of the Workforce Investment Act.

Over the weekend I planned to post something about the President’s FY 2015 budget proposal but I realized that I never actually completely summarized what was in the FY 2014 appropriations package. By now, most federal budget analysts have moved on to the President’s proposal, but before I do that, let’s finish up with a few more points about how things shook out for adult education in FY 2014. I think it’s important in order to properly assess what the President has proposed for FY 2015.

First, by way of background, remember that the Bipartisan Budget Act, which passed in December, eliminated sequestration for FY 2014 and 2015 and set funding levels for each year at $1.012 trillion and $1.014 trillion respectively. That’s going to be important to keep in mind for the discussion below, and also when analyzing the FY 2015 budget proposed later on. The BBA provided $63 billion toward sequester replacement: $45 billion for FY 2014 and $18 billion for FY 2015. In other words, for FY 2014, Congress had $45 billion dollars to restore to discretionary programs that had been cut by sequestration in FY 2013.

However, while the bill did in fact boost funding for some programs compared to what these programs would have received under sequestration, Congress did not restore any of the AEFLA state grant funds lost to sequestration in FY 2013. That left the final appropriation for state grants at exactly the same level as Fy 2013, which was $31,038,000 less than the amount requested by President Obama ($594,993,000) in his FY 2014 budget. And, as you may recall, the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee had originally recommended $593,803 in their appropriations bill last spring, which was close to the President’s request. (All of which is also going to be worth keeping in mind when evaluating the President’s FY 2015 request for adult education.)

The bill did include, however, a $3,000,000 restoration for National Leadership Activities, a 28.0% increase above the FY 2013 sequestered amount. As noted in this post, these funds are used by the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) for a variety of national projects: standards development, curriculum material, and research—but not, generally speaking, to support local program services.

Some other interesting provisions related to adult education accompanied the bill (page numbers below refer to the bill as originally introduced):

  • It renamed the Office of Vocational and Adult Education to the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. (Page 79)
  • It “urges” the Department of Education to strengthen adult education programs by “increas[ing] the focus on adults with the lowest literacy and numeracy skills.” Authorizers also want the Department to “work with national adult literacy organizations to identify and promote new capacity building initiatives on adult learner leadership and advisory roles in local programs and assist in evaluating program effectiveness.” (Page 74) (Again, this language will be interesting to revisit when looking at the President’s FY 2015 request.)
  • It sets aside $3,000,000 from the National Leadership Activities line item to support new awards for prisoner re-entry education models as described in Senate Report 113-71. (1)

A lot of folks in the education community were disappointed that more programs weren’t fully restored to their pre sequestered levels. Part of the reason was due to the fact that in the end there wasn’t as much money to work with after all, after certain programs had to be prioritized for a variety of reason I won’t into here.

But one of them is important to keep in mind for future years: millions had to be added on the discretionary side for nonprofit (NFP) student loan servicers, because the BBA eliminated it as a mandatory funding programNext year, the NFP loan servicer amount will grow to $300-400 million, which will contain appropriators even further.

Recall from above that the BBA provided just another $18 billion for sequester replacement in FY 2015. So even without that the additional NFP loan servicer expense, there would be little reason to expect much upward movement in any of the education programs that didn’t see all of their pre-sequester level budgets restored in FY 2014 (or any of it, as in the case of adult education state grants). As we’ll see, the President’s FY 2015 budget proposal stays under that cap, and even if Congress rejects some of what he has proposed (well, not if—they most certainly will not go along with everything he’s requested), Congress will be similarly constrained.

(1) From Senate Report 113-71: “National Leadership Activities.—The Committee recommends $14,302,000 for national leadership activities, including $3,000,000 to support new awards for prisoner reentry education models that build on the success of the Promoting Reentry Success through Continuity of Education Opportunities [PRSCEO] competition. PRSCEO was funded in fiscal year 2013 with funds transferred from the Department of Justice under an interagency agreement.

The Committee recommendation will support projects that develop evidence of reentry education’s effectiveness and align with the model described in ‘‘A Reentry Education Model: Supporting Education and Career Advancement for Low-Skill Individuals in Corrections,’’ published by the Department in August 2012.”

Here’s How the Budget Deal Will Impact Adult Education

(Updated below)

I have no idea.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 set overall discretionary federal spending for FY 2014 and 2015, ($1.012 trillion and $1.014 trillion, respectively), but we won’t know how this will specifically impact federal adult education spending—most importantly, the primary source of federal adult education spending, Title II of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA)—until the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 appropriations process plays itself out over the next several weeks.

But I do know  it’s going to work (based on reports from various sources): The agreement provides $63 billion towards sequester replacement: $45 billion for FY 2014 and $18 billion for FY 2015. In other words, the sequester level-spending limits that were going to be in effect for the next two years have been bumped up by $63 billion in FY 2014 and $18 billion in FY 2015.

Once the agreement is signed into law by the President, Senate and House appropriators have to figure out—pretty quickly—how they want to actually spend this money in FY 2014, (which actually began back in October). So they are getting ready to embark on something of a normal—if very abbreviated—appropriations process over the next several weeks (they have to finish by January 15th).

What’s interesting (if you can describe any of this as actually interesting) is that the new $1.012 trillion top line for FY 2014 presents a starkly different set of challenges for Senate and House appropriators as they put together their bills:

  • House appropriators are facing the task of adding money to the appropriations bills they wrote earlier that assumed a top line of just $967 billion. (Note that the House never produced a Labor-HHS-ED bill, so we never learned what they were planning to cut in terms of any education programs.)
  • The Senate, on the other hand, will have to trim spending back from the $1.058 trillion top line that Senate Democrats had used in their original FY 2014 budget. Unlike the House, the Senate did pass all 12 of their appropriations bills, including a Labor-HHS-ED bill at $164.33 billion, which proposed adult education funding of $594 million for FY 2014 (about $30 million over FY 2013 sequestered levels). That doesn’t mean Senate appropriators will propose an increase again this time around, but it’s possibly a clue into what they are inclined to do.

It’s possible that appropriators will simply propose a proportional increase for adult education relative to the overall increase in spending in the budget agreement—more or less putting adult education back to where it was before the 2013 sequester cut. But they could go for more—or less. So stay tuned. But also, you might want to consider contacting members of Congress and letting them know how important this funding is—particularly if they are on one of the House or Senate Labor-HHS-ED appropriations subcommittees.

Also—and I feel like I need to insert this reminder every time I write about the budget—remember that not all federal adult education spending comes out of Title II of WIA. Community Development Block Grants, AmeriCorps funding, funding for immigration programs, and some other pots of education money are also source of funding for some programs. So, if you care about adult education spending, remember that there will be several places in those appropriations bills you need to look at. I’m only paid to track WIA these days, so I don’t know how closely I’ll be following the allocations for these other programs.

Side Note: The budget deal did not include an extension of the longer term unemployment insurance benefits, which expire December 28th. Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are saying they plan to take up a one-year extension of the emergency unemployment program when Congress returns in January and something of a strategy to make it happen. This is worth keeping an eye on because two years ago during debate over extending UI, Republicans tried to insert several conditions to the extension, including a requirement that benefits be restricted to those who had passed the GED (or equivalent) or, if they had not, were enrolled in a course of study towards such a credential. I really don’t expect this to happen this time… but still, worth watching.

UPDATE: 12/20/13: Patrick Caldwell of Mother Jones quoting Joel Friedman of CBPP on the challenges facing appropriators over the next several weeks:

“It will be difficult,” says Joel Friedman, vice president for federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “They’ve added back some, but not the full amount of the sequester cuts. There will continue to be unmet needs. Not everybody is going to get the level of funding that they would like out of this.”