ISTE Advocacy Platform Now Includes Support for Adult Education

I’m not sure when this was officially unveiled but I thought it was worth noting here that ISTE’s Advocacy Platform now includes support for adult education:

“ISTE supports adult education policy that leverages digital tools to support adult learners and assist them in acquiring the skills and knowledge they need to work and participate successfully in today’s high-tech society.”

Obviously that’s very broadly worded so as to include adult learners at all levels, (which makes sense) but taken together with ISTE’s digital equity position, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to envision an emphasis on low-income, lower-skilled, and underserved populations. This is new and potentially significant, as ISTE has significant advocacy influence in the ed-tech policy space.

The Wrong Message on PIAAC

(Updated Below)

Americans_are_dumber_than_average_at_math__vocabulary__and_technology_-_Quartz

US_adults_are_dumber_than_the_average_human___New_York_Post

The initial of set of PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) survey data released yesterday by OECD received a reasonable amount of attention from major U.S. news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the AP. I’ve nitpicked a little about the coverage, but by in large it’s been decent. (My biggest criticism is the lack of voices from the U.S. adult education field. The study is, after all, primarily concerned with adult literacy and numeracy skills, so one would think that one of our national adult literacy organizations would be good for a quote. Or maybe even an actual adult learner or two.)

But today I came across two stories (pictured above) that are accompanied by some pretty distasteful and misleading headlines and graphics, implying that those Americans OECD believes fall below average in literacy skill are, essentially, dunces. So let’s take a moment to explain why this is not only wrong, but also damaging.

Americans with poor literacy skills are not stupid. Many have struggled with reading and writing due to a disability, (including both physical disabilities and learning disabilities), and were never afforded the proper accommodation they needed to compensate for the disability. Some are refugees or immigrants from other countries with poor education systems or where English is not the native language. Others simply were not afforded the same educational opportunities that other Americans have been fortunate enough to have received. I knew an individual enrolled in an adult literacy program in Washington D.C., for example, who grew up black and poor, with an alcoholic father, in a rural area of a southern state in the days before the Civil Rights movement. He dropped out of school at a very young age to take care of his family and never learned to read much beyond a basic level. Worked as a laborer most of his life—but a bright and articulate guy, who just didn’t have the same kind of opportunities that I had growing up. That’s the kind of story that more often than not is behind your typical adult with below average literacy skills. It infuriates me when people label such individuals as “dumb.”

Moreover, employing such labels makes the problem worse. It’s embarrassing to admit that you have difficulty reading and writing. Many people who have struggled with reading all of their lives really do feel like they are stupid, and that makes it challenging for them to come forward and get the help they need.  I used to operate an  adult literacy hotline in Washington, and we used to get dozens of calls every day. I know what I’m talking about. The stories were often heartbreaking. The callers weren’t stupid people, but people who had struggled for one reason or another—usually it had a lot to do with being poor. Not due to some innate lack of intelligence. (Not that all adult learners are blameless—there are plenty of people enrolled in adult education programs who would own up to being serious f*ck-ups when they were younger—making mistakes that led them to failing, dropping out, or getting kicked out of school—but making a mistake, even a serious one, doesn’t mean you are incapable of learning.)

Labeling people as dumb also perpetuates the idea that policies designed to improve adult skills are doomed to failure—if these adults are just “dumb,” after all, then there really is nothing that can be done for them, right? Low literacy in this country exists largely because we let it happen. As the OECD report(s) make clear, there are policies we can put into place to change this. It’s not a question of whether low-skilled adults can learn, but whether we will provide them with the opportunity.

As the Speaker of the House said the other day about the government shutdown, this isn’t a damn game. Thankfully, most of the media isn’t treating it like one.

UPDATE 10/10/13: The Atlantic picked up the Quartz story above. (Apparently Quartz is a “sister site.”) However, for The Atlantic version, the headline was changed from “Americans Are Dumber Than Average in Math, Vocabulary, and Technology” to “Americans Are Way Behind in Math, Vocabulary, and Technology.” It appears from scanning the comments that they might have originally used the Quartz headline, but I’m not certain. Thankfully, The Atlantic version does not include the picture of the boy in the dunce cap either. Instead they opted for a less offensive—but far more inexplicable—screen shot from the movie Legally Blonde, which makes absolutely no sense at all. (If I remember correctly, the main character in that film is perceived as dumb, but is actually quite intelligent, despite appearances. This is pretty much the opposite of what the study is telling us—that a nation, we are not as skilled as people may believe.)

I also want to say one other thing about the media coverage. More disturbing, really, than the thoughtless headlines above (which, as I mentioned, aren’t typical of the coverage), is the fact that from what I’ve seen, none of the major media outlets reporting on this story have mentioned or seem to even be aware of the fact that there is an adult education system in the United States. My hope was that as a field we could use this opportunity to not just point out the the problem, but to highlight the success stories in adult education that demonstrate that the problem is solvable. Maybe I’ve missed something. If you know of any good examples, let me know in the comments.

Steal This Speech

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was at the South Baltimore Learning Center yesterday for a press event to kick off Adult Education and Family Literacy (AEFL) Week in Maryland. As is my usual habit, I wrote a short speech and then mainly just spoke ad hoc when it came time for me to actually talk. The speakers in front of me were all terrific and covered a lot of what I wanted to say—and better than I would have.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d go ahead and post my written speech in case it’s of interest to anyone. If you think any of the points here are useful, feel free to use or adapt.

I just want to talk to you a little bit about why this week is important and why speaking out about your work—whether you are staff, a volunteer, or a student—is so important.

Of course, as you’ve heard today, there is a lot of good news in adult education. But part of my sad duty this morning is to report to you that, in general, public support for programs like this one is not as strong as it was just a few years ago, and is still on a downward trend:

  • Federal funding for adult literacy and adult education is lower in terms of real dollars than it’s been in over a decade. For years we used to say that federal funding for adult education covered just 3% of the need. Now it’s 2%.
  • State funding also took a significant hit during the Great Recession. Historically, state and local funding for adult education was significantly higher than the federal share, now it’s just a little more than half. It’s great that there was an increase in the adult education budget here in Maryland this year, but in the aggregate, across the country, state investment is below pre-recession levels.
  • Meanwhile, the most significant source of federal funding, the Workforce Investment Act, is a decade overdue for reauthorization.

It’s not just adult education—many of you are probably aware that there have been significant cuts to what’s known as the discretionary side of the federal budget over the last several years. Federal funding for education, in particular, has taken a substantial hit. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, at least in terms of the traditional source of federal funding for adult education . It’s really hard to imagine, in the current political environment, that any of us are going to be seeing substantial increases to the budget for WIA, for example. More likely our advocacy work will be focused on protecting the funding we have from further cuts.

Nonetheless, in my view it remains critically important to stay connected with what’s going on with federal legislation, and to remain ready to engage federal policymakers when opportunities arise, even in this crazy environment. Because they do arise.

I’ll give you an example from this past year: immigration reform. Although the chances for comprehensive immigration reform seem to be dimming, the bill passed by the Senate early last summer contained significant resources to implement an immigrant integration strategy, including additional money for adult English instruction. I actually worked on a proposal last spring with the National Skills Coalition that would go even further, providing hundreds of millions of additional dollars for English language instruction without increasing the cost of the bill.

Again, while prospects for comprehensive immigration reform are not looking so hot right now, last March it seemed quite possible that it might actually happen. It was important that adult education was at the table during this process. We did in fact have an influence in shaping that legislation.

So, again, it’s very important not to entirely give up on the federal side. Opportunities do arise, and sometimes it’s difficult to predict when they will occur.

My second point is related to the first, and that is, in order to seize on such opportunities when they occur, we have to be able to demonstrate to policymakers that there is a sizable constituency for these services and that our students are successful.

With limited resources available, it probably makes sense to focus most of your outreach and advocacy efforts right here in Baltimore, and statewide. The opportunities to influence public policy on this issue are probably greater right now at the local and state level than at the federal level. But even if your focus is local,  you are actually helping us strengthen our hand up on the Hill and with the administration—by documenting those success stories and supporting student leadership—so we’ll be ready when the opportunities in Washington do arise.

It’s important to remember adult education is actually one of the great success stories of our education systems. Programs like this one and other around the country get results that should be the envy by K-12 and higher education. And I know that many of you students have overcome significant obstacles in order achieve that success. We need you to tell your story. With each success story that finds its way to the Hill, we build our influence and strength with policymakers.

We’ve heard the return on investment argument and that’s good. There is clearly a big potential return on a greater public investment in adult education. But remember that every group that receives funding from the federal government is making a return on investment argument. Legislative staff probably hear this argument from constituents about one program or another every day. So simply making the theoretical return on investment argument is probably not going to be enough. I think real change is only going to happen when we can also demonstrate, in very large numbers, that the people in adult education are, in fact, successful. Lawmakers are most interested in investing in actual success, not in theoretical returns.

That to me is one of the reasons why it’s so important that we continue to ask Congress to recognize Adult and Family Literacy week, and to continue to do things like grow the House adult literacy caucus, and continue to build relationships with staff who work on this issue. They need to hear from you—and about you—in greater numbers than ever before.

National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week Begins Today

I’m heading to Baltimore today to join Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) for an event at the South Baltimore Learning Center in recognition of National Adult Education and Family Literacy (AEFL) Week.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) recently introduced, for the fifth year in a row, a House resolution designating the week of September 23-29, 2013 as AEFL Week. (Rep. Sarbanes is a supporter.) Meanwhile, in the Senate, for the third year in a row, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) have introduced a bipartisan resolution that does the same.

Programs and state/local governments around the country have also passed resolutions recognizing AEFL week, and there will be events all week to recognize the work of adult and family literacy programs and students nationwide.