Are We Too Quick to Accept PIAAC Findings at Face Value?

Ralf St. Clair comments on last week’s PIAAC research conference:

At this meeting, lots of findings were discussed, but very little time was spent on methodology. The papers written by presenters were not available in advance (and mostly not at the meeting). One of the problems with PIAAC data is that it is not complete…

In many cases such data gaps are tackled through synthetic data, where the existing data is used to estimate what the missing data should be. One of the problems with this, of course, is that the missing data is essentially assumed to fit with what we have, and unexpected results will never arise.

Without understanding the details of how these types are issues are tackled it is difficult to assess the implications of some of the correlations found, which are often quite weak. Would they exist at all if we had the missing data? Would they run in different directions? What sorts of assumptions are being made throughout the research process that generates the results?

Yet throughout the meeting the findings were accepted at face value and the issues of the data set never fully discussed, even though it was a room full of people who could understand and even work out how to deal with them. As in so much of the activity that surrounds international surveys, the will to believe overwhelms the skepticism we must bring to these exercises. (my emphasis)

I would just add that critical scrutiny is particularly important with PIAAC since it appears that the adult education field (in the U.S. at least, can’t speak for other countries) has decided to embrace PIAAC as our primary foundational data source for policy decisions going forward.

I recommend reading the entire post.

Study: Poverty Reduces Brainpower Needed for Things Like Education and Job Training

(Updated Below)

New research out of Princeton University suggests that the stress of poverty requires so much mental energy that poor people have significant less brainpower left in the tank to devote to learning:

A person’s cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping with the immediate effects of having little money, such as scrounging to pay bills and cut costs. Thusly, a person is left with fewer “mental resources” to focus on complicated, indirectly related matters such as education, job training and even managing their time. (my emphasis)

Anyone who has experienced financial difficulties knows how stressful and all-consuming worrying about money can be, but this is one of the few studies I’ve seen that links the stress of financial insecurity to cognitive function. The researchers found that subjects consumed with financial insecurity dropped an average of 13 IQ points—the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep.

The researchers go on to suggest that services for the poor should be designed to accommodate this cognition loss:

The researchers suggest that services for the poor should accommodate the dominance that poverty has on a persons time and thinking. Such steps would include simpler aid forms and more guidance in receiving assistance, or training and educational programs structured to be more forgiving of unexpected absences, so that a person who has stumbled can more easily try again.

I would take this even further and suggest that this research supports the argument that, overall, we’d see better retention and greater learning gains in adult literacy and adult education among the poor if we alleviated the highly stressful conditions associated with poverty before they enrolled in a program of study or training, instead of just trying to accommodate those stressful conditions as they go along—somewhat analogous to the “housing first” approach to combating homelessness, in which providing stable, permanent housing is viewed as a critical first step before a homeless individual or family can be expected to address the issues that led to homelessness.

Adult education policy is based in large part on the premise that increasing educational opportunity will provide people with the skills they need to lift themselves out of poverty, which in turn is based on the premise (presumably) that a poor person’s lack of education is the primary reason (or at least one of the major reasons) that they are poor to begin with (as opposed to a lack of jobs, a decent wage, child care, health insurance, etc.)

Increasing funding for adult education is a strategy that seems primarily aimed at increasing access to adult education, but if our policy goal is to help people living in poverty  become successful adult learners, this study suggests that removing the highly stressful conditions of poverty for poor individuals before they embark on a course of study is an equally important strategy, instead of relying on adult education to lift them out of poverty after they have achieved some measure of academic success and confidence.

If so, then perhaps advocating for strong anti-poverty measures, such as living wage bills, or against proposals to cut SNAP benefits, needs to become part of the adult education field’s legislative strategy.

h/t Smithsonian SmartNews

UPDATE 9/3/13: The paragraph above that begins “I would take this even further” has been edited a bit so that it would read a little bit better.

Also, it occurred to me this afternoon that this program, which provides low-income single mothers enrolled in college with subsidized housing in residential communities with on-site child care, is a good example of an approach to adult education (in this case, in a community college context), that provides learners with initial and ongoing economic stability (in the form of housing and childcare). Perhaps, in addition to the broad-based antipoverty measures suggested above, policies that encourage the adoption and expansion of program models like this one should also be in the mix.

Study: Diabetes Patients Who Don’t Understand Basic Health Information Significantly Less Likely To Adhere To Prescribed Treatment

Something new today to add to the list of health problems associated with low literacy: in a recent study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research and the University of Washington School of Medicine, a big majority (72%) of the 1,366 study participants turned out to have limited health literacy and significantly poorer adherence to newly prescribed antidepressants compared to other patients.

According to Kaiser Permanente, depression occurs twice as frequently among adults with diabetes compared to adults without diabetes.

Although poor adherence to antidepressant medications has been a known issue with some diabetes patients, what’s new here is the evidence that diabetes patients with limited health literacy were much less likely to refill their antidepressant medications in a timely fashion than patients without such limitations.

Dr. Amy Bauer of the University of Washington School of Medicine, notes that “patients with limited health literacy may require more intensive counseling and clearer explanations about use of antidepressant medications and closer follow-up.” Considering the high number of participants in this study who were found to have low health literacy, I suspect that most doctors should, in fact, be prepared to deal with this issue.

But as a matter of public policy, we could also address this by working on improving the literacy skills of adults in this country to begin with, which would lessen the need for such interventions. Does anyone think it’s likely our health care system can really support the cost of more intensive counseling and closer followup what is likely millions of patients with low literacy/health literacy?

This study isn’t the first report to draw a connection between literacy/health literacy and public health (see link above). Shouldn’t improving adult literacy in the U.S. be a major component of our overall strategy to improve public health and lower health care costs in this country?

Community College Enrollments (and College Enrollments in General) Are Down

From Inside Higher Ed:

Data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on Tuesday—in the first of what the center says will be twice-a-year snapshots of up-to-date enrollment statistics—show that college enrollments declined by 1.8 percent in fall 2012, driven by larger drops for for-profit colleges -7.2 percent and community colleges -3.1 percent. Enrollment fell by 0.6 percent at four-year public colleges and universities, and rose by half a percentage point at four-year private nonprofit colleges(my emphasis)

The declines, which follow on a very small decline in fall 2011, as reported in federal government data in recent months, are unsurprising, given that college enrollments typically rise and fall with the unemployment rate. So the fact that the enrollment boom that colleges enjoyed as the economy tanked in 2008 and 2009 has begun to reverse itself is in many ways to be expected.

But that suggests that the philanthropic and government efforts to get significant numbers of adults to go to college or to return there to pursue President Obamas goal of driving up the number of Americans with a postsecondary credential may not be bearing much fruit(my emphasis)

Here is a link to the report itself: Term Enrollment Estimates, Fall 2012.

h/t @edfunding