New Urgency Around Adult Education

New Urgency Around Adult Education


Just before Memorial Day Weekend, a group of food service workers on Cape Cod gathered together during their off hours to play video games –and improve their English.

Mostly Brazilian-born immigrants, they’d been asked to participate in a pilot version of the new English language games created by Skylab Learning, a startup that’s developed several new gaming apps with “snackable” (5- 10- minute) units with vocabulary specifically tailored for the food service industry.

The games work on laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.

Image via Skylab

Skylab Learning’s job-specific English language apps and other efforts like it are part of a small but growing push to bring attention, innovation and increased effectiveness to adult education – and to help an estimated 36 million low-skill adults improve their employability and long-term economic chances.

As we’ve noted previously, this population is neither incarcerated, unemployed (some two-thirds have work), nor behind the times (one-third are under age 35). They work as food service workers, retail employees, temporary workers, and home health care employees. But their chances of long-term employment or advancement to higher wage levels are severely limited.

Helping millions of low-skill adults and updating and improving the long-ignored adult education sector is a daunting challenge. One in six American adults has low literacy skills, and one in three has low numeracy skills. An additional 60 million Americans “lack the credentials and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education,” according to the New America Foundation.

But rebooting adult education is an extremely laudable goal and – for high-risk, high-reward policymakers and entrepreneurs – could be a very rewarding one, too.

A Recent Surge

Long overshadowed by other education priorities – early childhood education, K-12 schooling, and postsecondary education – adult education[i] has in recent months been the subject of increasing attention from state and federal agencies, private funders, and even edtech entrepreneurs like Skylab:

  • Following up on a January summit at the White House, the USDE’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education (OCTAE) has been holding a series of meetings around the country, gathering and evaluating some of the most promising models and solutions that have been developed.
  • In February, the New America Foundation began publishing adult education data for every state, as well as background information about their funding.
  • Halfway through May, the USDE unveiled a preliminary response to the OECD report at the annual meeting of State Adult Education Directors in Washington (Making Skills Everyone’s Business).
  • With support from the Gates Foundation and others, Jobs For the Future’s Accelerating Opportunities initiative is working with a number of states on revamping and expanding programs.

In its May update, the USDE highlighted seven key strategies including "joint ownership of solutions" and a focus on career pathways (one of adult education’s many buzzwords). However, the Department of Education also warned that succeeding at improving the quality of adult education would “require the collaboration of funders, service providers, businesses, and educational entrepreneurs to bring promising models to scale."

Why Now?

Increased interest in adult education has been prompted in part by growing awareness of the so-called “skills gap” between what employers are looking for and the skill levels of many adult workers seeking employment. Current and projected job requirements suggest that low-literacy adults may have an increasingly difficult time supporting themselves and their families in the future.

For example, low-skill retail and food service jobs can pay less than $10 per hour, but someone trained as a Certified Nurse’s Aide can make more like $20 an hour in places like Chicago.

But the main motivation may be the October 2013 release of stark new numbers suggesting a large, significantly under-served population of low-literacy, low-numeracy adults. There are an estimated 36 million adults who score Level 2 or below on the 2013 PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) study (Time for the US to Reskill?) – roughly 15% of the US adult population. See descriptions of the various proficiency levels here.

The October 2013 OECD report found that the U.S. average performance is “significantly lower than the international average” in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in a technology-rich environment -- and has remained stagnant for the past 20 years.

Nearly one in six Americans lack basic academic skills, compared to one-in-twenty Japanese, according to the report. “The United States is one of only two countries in the OECD where immigrants actually lose literacy skills after having been in the country for more than five years,” notes the New America Foundation.

These new numbers – the first national data since the National Assessment of Adult Literacy report was issued over a decade ago –highlighted the scale of the need, focused the conversation about the skills gap between what employers are looking for and what they are finding, and emphasized connections between adult learning and job preparedness that was missing in the past.

How'd We Get Here?

One obvious reason for the large numbers of low-skill adults in the US is the relative lack of adult basic education services that are being provided. Federal and state adult education programs currently serve just 2 million individuals. State adult education directors reported waiting lists of over 150,000 on a 2010 survey.

Only about 5 percent of adults in need of training are being served in brick and mortar settings, according to Project IDEAL’s Jerome Johnston –partly due to lack of seats, and also due to work and family responsibilities.

Federal funding –currently $575 million– has declined by 20 percent over the past decade, and state funding has decreased nearly 8 percent, according to the New America Foundation. Overall spending on adult education is estimated at $2.2 billion, with about a third being provided by Washington.

European nations spend 0.6 percent of GDP per year on job counseling services, adult training and adult employment subsidies for the unemployed, which is six times what the US spends, according to Tony Carnevale of Georgetown University. Most of what the US spends goes to unemployment insurance.

Other key obstacles include the complicated life circumstances in which many adult learners are attempting to upgrade their skills. They often have limited or uncertain hours, and fewer experiences with formal education than higher-skill adults. They’re not already all clustered in schools like K-12 or postsecondary students. Their learning needs are extremely diverse.

As a result of these obstacles, adult education is characterized by highly varied program quality, lack of persistence from learners, disappointing outcomes, and a highly decentralized, almost ad hoc system of training. Instruction varies from trained full-time professionals to part-time volunteers. Methods of instruction and materials can be antiquated.

Adult education is still very classroom based –“too much so,” according to New America’s Mary Alice McCarthy, formerly of the USDE. Outcome data can be hard to come by. Her bottom line? “We need to find much better ways to reach adults.”

Room for Growth

However, there are at least a handful of opportunities hidden in the adult education area:

The playing field is relatively open, without any single dominant provider, program, or product being used nationwide. There are a few big companies –Pearson, McGraw– who sell materials and software into adult education programs along with a number of smaller companies like WIN and PLATO. But what’s available – workbooks, teacher guides, easy reader binders – pales in comparison to the glut of materials being sold into the K12 and higher education sectors. “Content is under-developed,” notes McCarthy. There is both existing and potential funding for high-quality adult education products. “It’s a very unstructured environment.”

Another potential advantage is that adult education services are generally governed by federal guidelines and states rather than the 15,000 autonomous local school boards who oversee K-12 education (and control the purse strings). As such, the adult education market can be much less decentralized than it is in K-12 education, theoretically making it easier –if smaller– to sell into.

There are several other positives: Data are getting better. (Starting two years ago, states began tracking and reporting these outcomes independently.) And the market is growing thanks to moves by community colleges in big states like Texas and Florida that have begun referring developmental (i.e., remedial) students to adult education rather than serving them in a community college setting. More money is coming in from states like California where the Governor proposed a $100 million increase.

Mirroring the K-12 and postsecondary sectors, innovations in adult learning include accelerated / dual certification programs, mobile apps, game-based software, blended and flipped classrooms.

Key trends particular to adult education include the idea of contextualizing learning in a specific job or industry rather than teaching skills in isolation or without any particular goal in mind, “bridging” adult learning with community college programs, and accelerating learning by teaching basic skills and job-specific information at the same time (sort of like dual enrollment for high school students).

Notable Efforts in Adult Learning

The role for edtech is clear to many, including Skylab’s Chisholm, who notes the popularity of mobile devices among immigrant and minority groups compared to “limited and expensive location-based training programs.”

In addition to mobile game-based products like those from Skylab Learning, some of the innovative and promising programs and products we’ll be describing in the coming weeks include:

  • A Washington State pilot to help immigrants learn English “quickly and in practical ways" by combining English language instruction with skills relevant to jobs, "flipped" teaching, and 1:1 computer availability.
  • A Philadelphia-based effort to replace long wait lists and phone-only information with online courses, additional support staff, waiting list updates for face to face classes, and one-time assessments.
  • A citywide effort in Chicago to create “bridge” programs in nursing, IT, manufacturing, culinary arts, and business services in which adult education students can learn literacy and numeracy while at the same time learning job-specific skills.

While adult education has long been a “hidden” market, its programs often “shoved off in a corner,” all that seems to be changing, says to Pearson SVP Jason Jordan. “Suddenly it’s becoming a much more interesting marketplace."

[i] Under federal rules, adult education students must be at least 16 years old, cannot be enrolled in secondary school, and must lack basic educational skills necessary to function effectively in society or a high school diploma or its equivalent, or be unable to speak, read, or write English.

EdSurge has received a grant from the Joyce Foundation to bring more awareness to young adult learning. This article is the first of a three-part series from Mr. Russo highlighting challenges, opportunities, and trends in the adult learning market.

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