A Quick Word With: Stephanie Cronen on the National Study of the Implementation of Adult Education

“Adult education” is a term that covers a lot of territory: Students range from U.S.-born adults who need to improve their basic literacy or employability skills, to adults from other countries who often lack formal education, to those who hold a college degree but need to improve their English.

As required by Title II of the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences commissioned a national study to evaluate how adult education operates at the state and local level, including who adult education providers are, the services they provide, and the challenges they face. AIR will conduct this implementation study, which will primarily involve collecting and tabulating data from state director and local provider surveys.

AIR Managing Researcher Stephanie Cronen, the study’s director, answered some questions about adult education and what the study aims to accomplish.

Q. Why is this study so important for adult education and literacy in the United States?

Cronen: Recent statistics show that approximately 21% of adults in the U.S., or 43 million, have low English literacy skills. These individuals may be able to read, but they struggle to understand, evaluate, use, and engage with written texts on a deeper level to participate in society or achieve their goals. These adults are more likely to be unemployed compared with their counterparts who have higher-level skills; even those who are employed earn relatively lower wages. On top of that, 25 million people in the United States self-identify as speaking English 'less than very well.'

"By participating in this study, local education providers will contribute to this field of knowledge. They'll be able to compare what they know about their student populations, challenges, and practices with those of other providers ... and that will help them understand their own programs better."

This is an issue that deeply affects huge swaths of the country, and yet the last national study of adult education took place in 2003. With the data from the 2019-20 study’s surveys, we’ll be able to conduct in-depth analyses on the types of instructional and support services being provided through the adult education system and describe the ways in which community and state partners are contributing. The study will also allow us to describe the challenges that local and state providers of adult education have experienced under the federal legislation that was re-authorized to fund adult education.

The hope is that understanding these challenges can lead to discussions about technical assistance needs at the local and state levels and inform decisions about policy changes that may be needed.

Q. How does the federal government support adult education?

Cronen: This federal program supports adult education by providing funding to states for three main instructional programs:

  • Adult Basic Education, which is intended to help adults with literacy and/or numeracy skills that are below the high school level;
  • Adult Secondary Education, which is actually the top two levels of Adult Basic Education, but is geared toward helping students attain a secondary credential; and
  • English as a Second Language, which is growing under the new legislation.

Adult education services are authorized by the federal government but provided at the local level. States receive federal grants, and then states allocate funding to local organizations. These local providers are diverse—they include school districts, community colleges, community-based organizations and non-profits, correctional institutions, and others.

The recently reauthorized Adult Education and Family Literacy Act has a stronger focus on occupational skills training. With this increased emphasis on job- and career-readiness, adult education programs can use their funding to provide basic skills instruction in combination with occupational education—for example, a nursing program with an English-language learning component. A lot of our survey questions revolve around this new aspect of adult education, to understand how the new provision affects programming.

Q. What can adult education providers gain by participating in this study?

Cronen: There is so little current research on adult education, and there’s a real desire to understand what other practitioners are doing and how. By participating, local education providers will contribute to this field of knowledge. They’ll be able to compare what they know about their student populations, challenges, and practices with those of other providers in their state and nationally—and that will help them understand their own program better and consider other options that are being implemented by similar providers.

At the federal and state level, this detailed information will help stakeholders understand what their grantees need around technical assistance and professional development, and provide information on the extent to which specific aspects of state and federal policies are working. We’ll use the survey information to create a national snapshot, as well as state snapshots, which will be made publicly available on the websites of the U.S. Department of Education and AIR once the study is complete.