Serving America’s Lowest Skilled Adults

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by Gail Spangenberg and James Parker
(NCAL President & Vice President)

The “adult education and literacy” field, as traditionally defined, was on the verge of losing federal funding when the enactment of WIOA and reforms within the Adult Education & Family Literacy Act breathed new life into it in 2014.  Many of the reforms reflected urgings of Reach Higher, America, the report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy.

Staff of NCAL (then CAAL) spent considerable time walking the halls of Congress to discuss the findings of the Commission and vital WIOA provisions.[1]  As part of the process, the Commission’s overarching recommendation, a new Adult Education and Economic Growth Act (AEEGA)[2], was introduced in both the House and Senate.  It helped support the reforms of WIOA, including close attention to lowest skilled adults.

Conversations with House and Senate aides at the time often turned on the need to redefine the mission and scope of ABE programs to ensure continued future funding and relevance. Throughout the process, discussants acknowledged the importance of those at the lowest skills proficiency levels, and WIOA called upon ABE to broaden its mission to include service to more low-skilled learners in the workplace and along the path to work and college readiness. WIOA also set in place long overdue requirements for performance accountability. To help guide ABE efforts to work within the new context, CAAL carried out a number of research projects to sharpen the field’s understanding and planning, especially in the area of Return on Investment.[3]

Framers of the AEEGA, leaders throughout the field, and Education officials working within the new WIOA construct tried hard to at least double the funding, a goal still not achieved. NCAL and others regularly lament the fact that Adult Education has been asked to do so much more without a commensurate increase in funding. Even before enlarging the purposes of ABE, the enterprise was severely underfunded.

As today’s thinkers and doers consider the future, we urge that provisions in the AEEGA be revisited.  The bill contains numerous provisions that would have enhanced services to lower-skilled adults. For example:

  • Title V would have given a 50% tax credit to businesses that set up and fund education and training programs for employees (including entry-level workers).
  • Title IV provisions for independent research would have enabled the development of effective ways to reach and serve a wider range of adults, whatever their initial skills levels.
  • Title II would have funded an independent National Center for Adult Education, Literacy, and Workforce Skills, to assist the field in developing, evaluating, and funding programs for lower-skilled adults.
  • The AEEGA Performance Accountability System would have gone well beyond the current National Reporting System (NRS) to recognize and reward programs for work readiness, workplace skills, and certification initiatives that are so important to serving lower-skilled adults in ways relevant to their lives.
  • Title III would have established and funded a major new role for technology and distance learning including a web portal and an information clearinghouse.
  • Deeper attention would have been given to the lowest-skilled adults through enhancements to National Leadership activities.

Recent Adult Education listserv discussions have shown concern about whether WIOA prohibits local and state programs from providing skills development programming to the lowest-skilled adults.  It does not!  But when local providers are underfunded, their outreach to those at the lowest levels is restricted by the hard choices they must make.  It’s widely known that lowest-skilled adults usually have multiple disadvantage to begin with, and that service to those most in need is often longer-term and more intensive, and thus more costly.

PIAAC has made a powerful case for giving Adult Education a higher priority status on the national agenda, a case buttressed by an abundance of other domestic and international research.  Yet, despite deep evidence of need, funding still lags way behind. Congress and state legislatures —  every state has some form of adult education policy — just haven’t stepped up to that challenge with real commitment or intention.[4] The big question is how and whether we can change this state of affairs.

The National Commission on Adult Literacy thought the nation’s literacy problems to be so large and important that in 2008 it recommended funding on the order of the Marshall Plan. It called for $20 billion per year in near-term funding on Adult Education. That recommendation fell largely on deaf ears.  But a great deal could be accomplished across the country if federal funding were increased to just $1-2 billion a year, up from the current paltry sum of $622,286 (including national leadership activities). If well matched by state legislative and funding action, this could make a profound difference in our service capacity and outreach to the lowest-skilled adults.  We should be aiming for this  relatively modest short-term goal.

AEEGA offers action ideas that are still relevant and that should be re-considered and promoted as we go forward, but planners at all levels can also take other steps. One is to explore avenues right now for tapping into nontraditional sources of federal and state funds apart from WIOA. A few state planners have already begun to develop alternate funding sources and strategies, but most still need to. It’s surprising, when you look at the language of federal legislation (e.g., in Justice, Commerce, HHS, Labor), how many agencies and departments have some provisions that address and could be tapped for adult education.

In pressing their case, national, state, and local groups have plenty of resources at their disposal.  As suggested above, they can tap into AEEGA and the findings of the Commission’s report in communications with their own legislators.  They can give more energetic attention to the findings of PIAAC and its various topical analyses, targeting not just government groups to build understanding and funding, but also the business community and enlightened philanthropy.

CLASP, the National Skills Coalition, Jobs for the Future, NCAL, CAAL, the National Coalition for Literacy, and a few others have issued bulletins and other publications that should can be helpful to those carrying the banner. They will be easy to spot on the websites of these groups. A perusal of NCAL’s recent e-news issues will suggest many pertinent resources as well.

But these are not new ideas; we need brighter, fresher ones.  NCAL has a successful track record convening task-force meetings to provide leadership and if we could obtain the $25,000 or so in funding it would take to do this, we would open the door to new ideas and approaches in this area.  We would also gladly give our support to another group qualified and funded to do this work.

For the time being, any reader who wants to offer suggestions on how to improve service and outreach to the lowest-skilled adults is welcome to do so below. NCAL also invites suggestions about already-existing exemplary models of service. (Please indicate the name of the program, a URL address, a brief one-paragraph description of the program’s mission and service outreach, and if possible a contact name and email address). We will check them out and publicize some of them to help provide program and planning guidance. Beyond that, those engaged in innovative and productive fund raising may wish to share some of their ideas on that front.

According to PIAAC data, about 34 million adults in the U.S. are very low-skilled.  But only 1.5 million adults are presently enrolled in the WIOA Title II programs of our financially starved Adult Education enterprise.

We need a sea-change in government and philanthropic thinking about the importance of Adult Education to the current and future well being of our nation. Adult educators toil with remarkable dedication under a great hardship. They deserve better.  So do the millions of low-skilled adult Americans they could be serving.



[1] For a copy of the Commission’s report, go here:  Reach Higher, America.
[2] To peruse the Adult Education and Economic Growth Act, go to:
[3] See two CAAL ROI Reports: Invitation to a Roundtable: A Discussion of Return on Investment in Adult Education (2014) and Stepping Up to ROI In Adult Education (2013), by James Parker and Gail Spangenberg.  Also see other CAAL relevant publications and analysis in the Other Topics section at
[4] It is especially hard to fathom why the Senate has not yet acted to develop or advance its version of a bill equivalent to the House-approved HR.5587.
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2 Responses to Serving America’s Lowest Skilled Adults

  1. I have two fresh ideas to offer advocates for adult basic skills and to federal leadership: 1) federal and state legislation and funding to support more adult, including young adult, charter schools, and 2) a new federal library literacy act with funding to encourage and support local public library adult basic literacy and beginning level ESL/ESOL programs. Each of these ideas could support adults at beginning levels of literacy and English language learning. Our field has some model programs for charter schools as well as for library-sponsored basic literacy and English language programs. It is time to scale up these models.

  2. Tom Sticht says:

    Gail’s interest in programming for low-skilled adults reminded me that the WIOA of 2014 provides funds for: “ INTEGRATED EDUCATION AND TRAINING.

    The term ‘‘integrated education and training’’ means a service approach that provides adult education and literacy activities concurrently and contextually with workforce preparation activities and workforce training for a specific occupation or occupational cluster for the purpose of educational and career advancement.” This is a proven approach to developing education and training programs for lower-skilled youth and adults.

    I have prepared a 15 slide PowerPoint illustrated presentation (transformed into an Acrobat pdf file) tracing the origins of the WIOA funding of the foregoing types of programs to three R & D projects starting in 1983 and extending through 1998. These projects, The Navy’s Experimental Functional Skills Program (XFSP), the Ford Foundation-funded Cast-off Youth (COY) project, and the Hewlett Foundation-funded Consortium for Workforce Education and Lifelong Learning (CWELL) provided evidence for the initiation of the National Workplace Literacy Program; the Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Necessary Skills (SCANS) call for contextualized basic skills and vocational/academic education; over $200 million of education and training for contextualized and integrated basic skills and vocational/academic programs for adults from the U.S. Depts. Of Education and Labor; and funding from several private foundations (e.g., see Breaking Through Practice Guide (2010).

    If you are a history buff and would like a copy of the illustrated presentation on “Workplace Literacy and Functional Context Education: Origins in San Diego & Impacts Nationally” just send me an email ( with your name and email address and I’ll send it right along in the form of a pdf file with 1,930 KB of information.

    [Ed Note: This message first appeared on the Wiggio list on October 30 and is cross-posted here with permission.]

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