The Problem With Defining Adult Education Outcomes Too Narrowly

Nice article in the Stamford Advocate on an ESL program based at a Stamford, CT elementary school that includes a weekly family literacy night:

“Its wonderful,” said Stark Principal Mark Bonasera who stopped by to attend the event. He said the program has really helped the school, kids and families. It brings the parents into the school and really makes them part of the community, he said, and it also helps parents help their children with work.

Elsa Martinez, 47, said this is the first time she’s really had a chance to learn the language. She and her husband came to America from Peru 18 years ago and started a family. Both had jobs and she didn’t have time to learn to write the language. She said as a house cleaner, she didn’t have to speak the language very well, but did know it well enough to understand people.

Shortly after her daughter Emily Soruluz was born about five years ago, Martinez, who is married but kept her maiden name, said she stopped working. And when Emily entered kindergarten this year, Martinez entered school, too.

Neither spoke English, but on Wednesday they were both doing well. “Absolutely,” Martinez said, when asked if the program was also a help to her daughter. “I’m available to help her.

“She said she wasn’t able to do that for her son, who is 17.

And Emily is doing well, she entered kindergarten unable to read or speak English, but on Wednesday she was reading her part with a strong voice and eagerly answering questions, much like the other students. (my emphasis)

You’ll note that Elsa Martinez appears to no longer the in the workforce. But surely no one would argue that the outcomes here—a parent fully engaged and able to assist in their child’s education, improved reading and classroom engagement on the part of the child—aren’t desirable public policy goals. Yet, in my experience, many policymakers (and funders) continue to insist that the goal of adult education should be exclusively measured in terms of occupational outcomes.

Thankfully, such narrow framing is not embedded in the law that governs most federal adult education spending (Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA), but if you think siloing off adult education from children’s education is a bad idea, you’ll want to monitor current WIA reauthorization efforts for changes that would force communities to break off the connections they are building between federally funded adult literacy education and (especially) early childhood education, and encourage them to seek ways to better leverage WIA Title II with other federal education investments and goals. Washington’s current infatuation with pre-K education is a good place to start. If the goal for pre-K is to ensure that more kids are ready for K-12, then why wouldn’t you want to look at the primary source of federal support for programs that help low-skilled parents improve their literacy for ways to leverage those efforts? I’ve never understood why you can’t do that kind of cross-generational leveraging while at the same time strengthening the linkages between WIA Title II programs and workforce development for those adult learners in the workforce.*

Granted, I have no idea if the program in the story above received any federal support, but the point is still the same, from a broad public policy perspective—why shouldn’t it?

*An alternative would be to find another place in federal legislation for adult literacy funding that is not directly related to occupational outcomes, but I’m not sure how that would work—either politically or in practice.

Senate Workforce Investment Act of 2013 To Be Marked Up Today

NCL Letter of Support - Senate WIA 2013

(Updated Below)

Just a reminder that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will mark up legislation to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) today at 10:00am. The National Skills Coalition has published a nice summary that provides some good background on this bill.

The National Coalition for Literacy has sent the committee a letter of support for the bill.

There is still apparently some disagreement in the disability community about the title on vocational rehabilitation negotiated separately from the rest of the bill by HELP committee Chairman Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Alexander (R-TN). Their plan establishes new requirements that must be met before individuals with disabilities could be allowed to work for less than the federal minimum wage, but some advocates are concerned it does not go far enough.

UPDATE 11:05 AM: Well, that was quick. The Committee passed the bill quickly and uneventfully about 20 minutes into the session, by a vote of 18-3. Voting no were Sens. Burr, Scott, and Roberts. Sen. Paul not voting.

UPDATE 2:30 PM: In a piece published in The Hill this morning, Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder, former commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Clinton and a vice president at the National Federation of the Blind, explains his concerns about the vocational rehabilitation changes proposed by Sens. Harkin and Alexander:

Section 511 purports to permit placement in subminimum wage work only as part of training for later competitive employment, with a review of the worker’s status required every six months. But this approach would merely write subminimum wages into the Rehabilitation Act—where there has never before been any language authorizing subminimum wages. Sheltered workshops often claim that they are training their workers, but we know from sad experience and extensive study that 95 percent of the workers who enter sheltered workshops never leave them. Section 511 does nothing but require a rehabilitation counselor to certify that a worker is in “training” every six months. This proposal will simply make the rehabilitation system complicit in the exploitation of disabled workers from the time they are old enough to leave school—or possibly earlier—until they die.

Senate HELP Committee Set to Markup the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 2013 Next Week

The Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) Committee has officially announced on its Web site that it will markup the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 on Wednesday, July 31, 2013.  The bill was introduced earlier today by Sens. Murray, Isakson, Harkin and Alexander.

Important Congressional Hearings Coming Up for Adult Education Over the Next Two Weeks

(Updated Below)

Congress is getting ready to leave town for a long August recess, but not before holding two hearings—one in the House and one in the Senate—that are of significance to adult education supporters.

First, the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee is going to mark up a FY 2014 appropriations bill this Thursday morning. (When and whether this bill ever gets to the floor is another matter.) This will be an interesting hearing, to say the least. The budget adopted by the House majority establishes a $121.8 billion top-line discretionary spending level for their Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, which is $42.5 billion less than the Senate’s. (See Table 2, in this CPBB report.) That’s a big difference—almost 26% less than the Senate bill—and the widest disparity, by the way, between any of the subcommittee discretionary allocations by far.

Most observers have been saying that the House Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee will have to cut funding in their bill by about 20% from FY 2013 levels in order to stay under the budget allocation they were handed. That would be, I believe, an unprecedented reduction. That doesn’t mean, though, that each program covered by this bill (and adult education is one of them) will all be cut across-the-board by 20%, or receive 26% less than what was appropriated in the Senate bill—some could be cut more, some less—as long as the entire bill stays under that $121.8 billion cap.

A lot of education advocates I know have been urging House Reublican to produce a bill, not because they expect to like what they’ll see in it, but because at least they’ll see it–that is, they’ll finally be able to see what programs House Republican propose to cut—and by how much— in light of the budget they produced last spring. Maybe a lot of the hits will come at the expense of Obamacare, but even so, I don’t see how you get to $121.8 billion without substantial cuts to a lot of education programs. Like I said, this bill, and the hearing on Thursday, should be interesting.

Secondly, it looks like there is going to be further action on WIA in the Senate before the break. I’ll post details on this once they become publicly available.

UPDATE 7/24: No House Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee hearing after all: “Due to scheduling uncertainties surrounding the House consideration of the Defense bill and the State and Foreign Operations full committee mark-up, the Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee mark-up scheduled forThursday morning at 9:00 am has been postponed.”