Economic Argument for Adult Education Still Has Some Life in Maryland

On Wednesday night, during his annual State of the County address, Montgomery Maryland County Executive Leggett announced something that sort of sounded like a big push to expand adult English literacy services in Montgomery County, which he called “English Language on Demand.” It’s not clear what exactly this initiative will include—in particular, whether there will be significant new funding involved. (One thing for sure, there is excellent umbrella organization—Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy—that does a tremendous job supporting local adult English literacy programs in Montgomery County. They would surely do great things with more funding should it become available.)

But I wanted to highlight a statistic that he cited during this announcement, because it’s a rare example where an old report—you know, those reports that usually just gather dust on a shelf somewhere—actually seems to have resurrected itself (at least one small piece of it). And the fact that the piece in question is an economic return-on-investment argument is encouraging.

The report I’m thinking of is Stepping Up to the Future, a 2005 report by a panel put together by the Maryland Schools Superintendent to make recommendations on improving adult education throughout the state. Leggett cited a nugget of economic data that I’ve only seen in that report—I’ve never been able to get a hold of the original source of the data. Specifically, when he said during the speech that “every dollar we invest in adult English language training… brings us three dollars in higher productivity,” that appears to be derived from an analysis, commissioned by the panel, of adult education and wage data by a group called ORC Macro. They found, among other things, that “every dollar invested in adult education [in Maryland] yields a return of $3.15.” That’s not exactly what Leggett said—he was talking specifically about English language training, and not in the whole state but just in the county—but I’ll bet that’s where that statistic  comes from. And if it’s sort of a sloppy appropriation of it (assuming I’m right), it doesn’t matter. The important thing here is the suggestion that policymakers in Maryland accept the notion that investing in adult education has positive economic returns.

Anyway, it’s always great to hear support for adult education in one of these annual speeches, and credit is due to Leggett for proposing it. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Here are Leggett’s comments on his “English on Demand” proposal in full:

My second initiative is English Language on Demand. In Montgomery, our residents speak many different languages – and that’s good. But here, and increasingly around the world, mastering English is the ticket to opportunity and success. When you speak English, you not only learn another language, you also improve your chances of getting a good job – and then getting a better one. It is the ticket to growing your business and to building a better future for your family — which increases the County’s overall tax base.

I recommend as a goal that every adult in this County who wants to learn English – no matter where they come from – has the opportunity to do so. For every dollar we invest in adult English language training, it brings us three dollars in higher productivity. So, let’s invest the necessary resources to help shorten and, in time, eliminate the long waiting lists for individuals seeking the opportunity to learn English. And, we should also encourage County residents to become “teaching volunteers” in our County English language learning network.

MA Secretary of Education: Return on Investment for Adult Literacy “Huge”

Massachusetts Secretary of Education Secretary Paul Reville, in a blog post from last week:

We know that parents and families are a student’s primary teacher and play an indispensible role in the development of children’s cognitive, social and emotional development. Programs like this one equip families with the skills they need to help children succeed in school and go beyond that to increase adults’ competitiveness in the job market so they can earn a living and support their familyThe return on investment here is huge, yet there are over 450 families still on the waiting list for this program alone because of a lack of resources for Adult Basic Education.

I cannot emphasize enough the enormous difference that effective adult education programs can make in the lives of families.  I felt it in the emotion of the parent testimonies that day and saw tangible results of this program in doors now opened to adults and families through it.  There are currently an estimated 1.1 million adults in Massachusetts in need of Adult Basic Education Services and less than 5% of that population is having those needs met.  We can and should do better. (my emphasis)

It’s encouraging that an education official at this level is arguing for adult education’s return on investment so forcefully. It’s also refreshing—and from a policy perspective, I think this is ultimately going to prove to be more effective—that he views adult education as an investment in families and communities, and not just “workers.” I think this puts job skills, as an outcome of adult education, in the proper context, as one of several outcomes of adult education that work together to strengthen families and the communities they live in.

One other really critical point: Reville’s post was inspired after a visit to a family literacy program in Chelsea, Mass. This is why it’s really important to invite public officials to visit programs so that they can see the impact for themselves. I’d like to believe that every cabinet-level state education official makes a visit to an adult or family literacy program at least once a year. If that’s not the case, it’s something we need to work on.

Read his entire post here. It’s really excellent.

h/t @WorldEdUS