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Adult Education and Literacy in the United States:  The Need for Services, What the Current Delivery System  Looks Like, And What Improvements Are Needed




A number of factors dictate this long-term need:

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL):  Although the percentage of adults without a high school diploma has declined according to the most recent decennial census, a nationwide study conducted in 2003 by the federal Institute of Educational Sciences’ National Center for Educational Statistics revealed that 34 million adults function at the lowest level of a four-tiered performance scale in reading.  This group’s basic skills (or ability to speak the English language if foreign born) put them at severe risk of being able to achieve or sustain self-sufficiency.  The study showed strong correlations between low basic skills, low income, and dependence upon public assistance.  Equally disturbing was the existence of a second group of 63 million that could function at a higher level than those at the bottom but whose skills fell short of what is increasingly needed in a global economy in which America’s relatively higher wages can only be sustained by increases in productivity.  When adults were also assessed for quantitative abilities those numbers increased to 52 million in the lowest category and 71 million in the second lowest category (Goldstein, Arnold, Kolstad, Andrew J. and White, Sheida, 2003, slides 8-9).

The Tightening Spiral of Change;  In the early days of the last century an elementary school education qualified most Americans to discharge their obligations on the job, in the community and to their families. Beginning around the middle of the twentieth century a high school education was needed.  In the twenty-first Century not only are more adults seeking some level of postsecondary education, the demands of job performance involve new applications of basic skills to an ever changing workplace.  Businesses need to work hand-in-hand with adult education and literacy programs to meet these challenges.  They cannot wait for school reform to upgrade their workforce at a worker replacement rate of two (2) percent per year. Eighty percent of today’s workers will still be in the workforce 10 years from now.

The Welfare Challenge:  There can be no arguing that welfare reform in our nation has met with impressive success, but there is still much work to be done.  The approximately one-third of the welfare population that remains unemployed (Leavitt, M. 2006) poses a need for different strategies. The great majority of this population did not complete high school or has limited proficiency in English.  Their prospects of getting and holding a job are severely compromised by this lack of education or language proficiency. Yet, education should not replace work for this population; programs are needed to combine education and work, not only for those just entering the workforce, but also for those who may have found employment in the initial years of welfare reform but whose salaries in their current positions are insufficient to raise them out of poverty.

Our Changing Demography:  According to an analysis by the National Institute for Literacy of the 2000 Current Population Survey, 28.4 million foreign-born resided in the United States, representing 10 percent of the total U.S. population. Among the foreign born in 2000, 51 percent were born in Latin America, 25.percent were born in Asia, 15.3 percent were born in Europe, and 8.1 percent were born in other regions of the world. Seventy-nine percent of the foreign born were 18 to 64 years of age, compared to 59.7 percent of natives (Lollick, L., 2001).  Aside from a relatively small number who have been given special visas by our government to fill strategic high-skill labor shortages, the majority come from countries where the native language is other than English and, in many cases, where opportunity for a basic education in the native language is limited.  Adults in this group need instruction in the English language to be able to function in the economy and society.  This population displays extraordinary interest in acquiring this instruction; despite their small 10 percent share of the total population, almost one half of all current enrollments in adult education and family literacy programs are persons with limited proficiency in English.

Effect On School Reform:  The single greatest predictor of the educational success of children is the level of education of the mother. Reaching the national goal of leaving no child behind is highly dependent upon having parents read to their children.  Parents whose own reading skills are limited may be unable to, or reluctant to, perform this essential service.  Family literacy programs are available that not only to help adults to improve their own reading skills but also give them valuable practice in techniques of supporting their children’s education through Parent and Children Together (PACT) time.  Dollars spent on these programs are often referred to as “double duty dollars” because of the beneficial effect they may have on both generations.

Public Health Concerns:  The National Institutes for Health reports that the deleterious effect of under education on preventive health measures and health care costs the United States $75 billion annually in unnecessary expenditures.  The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, mentioned above, also provided an assessment of the health literacy of the nation’s adults by assessing respondents’ ability to respond to questions dealing with how adults should relate to health care providers, what preventive health measures they should take, and how well they are able to negotiate health care systems. The study found that 49 percent of adults who either had never attended, or never completed high school (the adult population most in need of instruction) scored at the lowest health literacy level (Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., Jin, Y., and Paulsen, C., 2006, p.4, executive summary).  This group was certainly challenged by recent legislation that called for adults to select the health insurance coverage that best met their needs from a variety of complicated options. The adverse effects of low literacy on maintaining a healthy lifestyle are also felt by businesses in the form of protracted absenteeism and the increasing cost of employer-provided health benefits

Crime and Recidivism:  Seventy percent of prisoners in correctional institutions in the United States scored in the two lowest levels in the National Adult Literacy Survey.  Various studies have found that raising education levels reduces recidivism. A Virginia study found that out of a sample of 3000 inmates, 49 percent of those who did not participate in correctional education programs were re-incarcerated compared to 20 percent of those who did participate.


            The Adult Education and Literacy System in the United States is guided by three purposes contained in Title II of the 1998 Workforce Investment Act. (This Act is soon to be reauthorized, but at present it is still the law of the land.)  Title II is also known by the “short title” given it in Section 201 - the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act.  This legislation was enacted to “create a partnership among the Federal Government, States and localities to provide, on a voluntary basis, adult education and literacy services, in order to –

(1) assist adults to become literate and obtain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment and self sufficiency;

(2) assist adults who are parents to obtain the educational skills necessary to become full partners in the education of their children; and

(3) assist adults in the completion of a secondary school diploma.

Adult education is defined in the Act as “services or instruction below the postsecondary level for individuals—

          (A)   have attained 16 years of age


          (B)   who are not enrolled or  required to be enrolled     

                 secondary school under State law; and


          (C)   who

                 (i) lack sufficient mastery of basic educational skills

                 to enable the individuals to function effectively

                 in society;

                 (ii) do not have a secondary school diploma or

                 its recognized equivalent, and have not achieved an     

                 equivalent level of education; or

                 (iii) are unable to read, speak, or write the English


Although the program purposes and definition do not limit instruction to that which is workforce-related, so many enrollees come to adult education and family literacy to qualify for jobs or better jobs that the Congress placed the program in the Workforce Investment Act.

The “Partners”:  (1)  At the National Level: The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act is administered by the United States Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy.  The primary functions of the Department are to call for and review State plans, negotiate performance targets with states to be reported to the Department via a “National Reporting System”, distribute most of the funding by formula to the States  The Department is allowed to keep a small amount for the aforementioned negotiation and distribution responsibilities and for national leadership activities – including commissioning research activities, collecting and analyzing accountability data, monitoring State operations for compliance, and providing technical assistance and professional development opportunities to the States.

There is also the National Institute for Literacy that was established as part of the National Literacy Act of 1991.  The Institute was set up to provide a national focal point for literacy within and outside of the Federal government, but it is federally funded.  It conducts basic and applied research in the development of policies regarding literacy goals, objectives and strategies, provides coordination assistance; assists in policy analysis and evaluation; provides program and technical assistance to State and local groups, including staff training; collects and disseminates information; and coordinates and tracks the literacy programs of federal agencies.  The Institute has also been given major responsibility for research on children’s reading programs.  The Director of the Institute reports to an interagency team comprised of the Secretaries of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services.

Other entities also function at the national level.  The State Directors of Adult Education maintain a national presence by operating both a National Council (their advocacy arm) and a National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium (their professional development and policy analysis arm).  Also very active are Proliteracy Worldwide (created by a merger of the former Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy International), The Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE), and the American Association of Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE).  In addition there are TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), The American Library Association, The National Center for Family Literacy, the Correctional Education Association, Literacy USA ( formerly the National Alliance of Urban Literacy Coalitions) and the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL)  . CAAL (Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy), a relative newcomer on the national scene, has made its mark by the formation of the new National Commission on Adult Literacy sponsored by Dollar General Corporation.  All of the above (including the State Directors’ Council), and approximately 25 other organizations, belong to the National Coalition for Literacy, the field’s collective advocacy structure.

(2)  At the State Level: Each State must assign responsibility for the program to an “eligible State agency for adult education and literacy.”  In most cases the agency is the one that operates public schools or community colleges.  Some States have created departments of workforce development and placed the responsibility for adult education therein.  The “eligible State agency for adult education and literacy” is responsible to carry out the approved State plan and to distribute AEFLA and matching funds to ensure that all sections of the State receive a fair share. Some States generously overmatch the 25 percent required (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 2004); others provide only what is required – often as “in-kind” rather than as additional funding for local programs.  Funds flow from the “eligible State agency” to a diverse set of local service providers via a competitive process in the form of multi-year subgrants or contracts.  Providers may be schools, colleges, vocational centers, libraries, not for profit community based organizations (including faith-based groups), and volunteer agencies.  All eligible agencies must have “direct and equitable access” to apply for subgrants or contracts.  The adult education field was years ahead of other educational sectors in diversifying its delivery system.

States are also given funds that may be used to provide technical assistance, professional and curriculum development (especially in the use of technology), monitoring and administration, negotiating performance levels with local agencies, and delivering technical assistance as indicated by local provider performance.  A critical responsibility of eligible state agencies for adult education and literacy is the operation of a statewide database that yields data that the state may use for program evaluation and which provides performance data required by the National Reporting System.

           (3) At the Local Level:  Local provider agencies have the responsibility to recruit adult learners, organize and deliver instruction, assess student performance at entry and measure improvement, prepare accountability reports and submit them to the State and to One-Stop Career Centers, strive for continuous improvement, and collaborate with other community agencies that can provide needed concurrent and post-program services to enrolled adults. Approximately 80 percent of instructors work part-time, and there is considerable turnover - creating a constant need for staff development (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 2006).


Services: Adult education and literacy providers generally offer three primary types of services.  Adult Basic Education (ABE) provides instruction to adults with low literacy skills.  Adult Secondary Education (ASE) provides instruction that leads to a high school diploma or its equivalent, such as a GED certificate.  English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provides instruction in speaking, reading, and writing English. 

ABE, ASE, and ESOL programs also take place in specific contexts.  Two major contexts  have been family and workplace; others are corrections and workforce preparation..

Family literacy provides integrated educational services for families, including adult education for parents in conjunction with early childhood education for their children.  Services also focus on developing parents’ knowledge and skills as their children’s first teachers and encouraging active involvement in their children’s schooling.  Workplace literacy provides basic skills instruction for incumbent workers either at work sites or in community settings.  Developed in partnership with employers, these programs often provide customized instruction focused on job performance.  Corrections programs emphasize preparation for employment for prisoners nearing release.  Workforce preparation programs combine education with other employment-related services to prepare the unemployed and under-employed for work that leads to self-sufficiency.

Enrollments:  Approximately 2.6 million adults were reported as being enrolled in 2004-2005, according to information submitted to the  National Reporting System. Of these, approximately 1 million were enrolled in adult basic education, 421 thousand in adult secondary education, and 1.14 million in English as a second language instruction (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 2006).

Categories of Learners;   Adult literacy providers serve a diverse group of learners with a variety of needs.  Among the participants are the working poor, immigrants, high school dropouts, people with disabilities, One-Stop enrollees, and welfare recipients. The majority of participants are either young adults or adults in their prime employment yearsAccording to the federal Office of Vocational and Adult Education, in 2004-2005 over 39 percent of individuals reported enrolled in adult education and literacy programs were ages 16 to 24.  Another 44 percent were ages 25-44.  Almost 13 percent were ages 45-59, and 3.5 percent were age 60 and older.  In addition to being relatively young, the majority of participants were either Hispanic or white. Over 43 percent of adult learners were Hispanic, 27 percent were white, almost 20 percent were African-American, 7 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1.4 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native.  Almost fifty-five percent of enrollees were female and just over 45 percent male. (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 2006). The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that as many as one half of adult education students may have physical or learning disabilities.


Research, Improvement and Accountability:  Over the life of the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act both the Congress and the Administration have sent a clear message that the instruction offered by education programs should be based upon sound research, that instructors should be qualified and given the professional development needed to ensure quality, and that programs should be held accountable for results.  In response to that message the field has:

Worked with the Administration to put in place an accountability system whereby all programs will track and report annually on learning gains, placement and retention in employment (for those who indicated that securing or retaining employment was a goal), and success in pursuing a high school diploma or GED and/or acceptance into further training or postsecondary education.  Each local provider agency’s performance is available to the public.  States may earn incentive awards if statewide performance in adult education, vocational education and employment and training exceeds expectations.  The National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium works regularly with both new and experienced state staff to improve practice, but a number of issues have arisen. With respect to research the state directors have taken the position that so little “gold standard”  (experimental/control – double blind) research has been done in adult education that adult educators should be allowed to use the “best research available” as a basis for their programs.  The directors have also taken the position that reporting on retention in work, job training or postsecondary education is beyond the capacity of local programs and should be dropped.


          The needs of the system are best described in a publication entitled “From the Margins to the Mainstream: An Action Agenda for Literacy.” that was released in September 2000 by the National Coalition for Literacy.  The publication describes in detail the resources needed to increase access to the system and improve the quality of its services.  In brief, resources are needed, not only through the appropriation for the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, but through policy accommodations in welfare, technology, student aid, and tax incentive legislation:

To Increase Access: by securing additional funding that will allow the system to serve more than the approximately 2.5 percent of the 97 million that the NAAL estimates to be the population in need; by ensuring that support services are available to reduce barriers to participation, including assistive technology for students with disabilities; by reaching out through technology to those unable to participate in conventional learning venues; by establishing strong information and referral systems and by public information campaigns that make all potential students aware that instruction is available; by making computer technology available to students who otherwise would not have access to it; by instituting instructional programs at times and locations convenient to potential learners; and by promoting cross-system collaboration – especially with businesses to augment employability, and with postsecondary institutions in order to foster more transitions from adult education to postsecondary education or training.

To Improve Quality: by training State and local programs to install and maintain accountability systems; by adoption of content standards and curriculum frameworks that focus on the knowledge adults need to carry out life roles and meet community needs; by instituting or expanding professional development programs for State and local staff; by investing in a strong research and development capacity – especially in light of the federal Administration’s insistence that practice be based upon research findings; and by developing and improving assessment tools that accurately reflect how well program components are performing. 

Unfortunately, one of the major research arms of the field, the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) at Harvard University, is closing up.  Established as one of the research “Centers” of the federal Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), NCSALL has completed its 10 year contract with IES.  IES has not solicited proposals for a new adult literacy center. It has permitted adult literacy involvement in two other competitions, but this is still a net loss for adult literacy research.  Help is needed to support the continuation of NCSALL’s work and to expand adult literacy research activity. 


References Cited

Goldstein, Arnold, Kolstad, Andrew, J., White, Sheida. (2003). The national institute for literacy provides leadership on literacy issues across the lifespan. National Institute for Literacy. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., Jin, Y., and Paulsen, C. (2006).  The health literacy of america’s adults: Results from the 2003 national assessment of adult literacy (NCES 2006-483). National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Leavitt, Michael, Honorable. (2006). An event commemorating the tenth anniversary of welfare reform: Marriage and the welfare of America. Washington, DC.

Lollick, Lisa. (2001). The foreign-born population in the united states: March 2000. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

 Office of Vocational and Adult Education (2006). State-Administered Adult Education Programs (tables). Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

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