Why no literacy programs for 30 million in U.S.?

Original Reporting | By David Noriega |

“Research with adult populations is particularly difficult to do compared to research in schools, because the programs are quite varied in their structure and organization,” said Charles MacArthur, a professor of literacy and education research at the University of Delaware. “There’s also a big problem with attrition in research. If you run a study for six months, you’re likely to lose 40 percent of your population.”


The more, the earlier, the better

Nevertheless, there was broad agreement among the educators and researchers we interviewed regarding the effectiveness of certain overarching principles in how to teach adults. Tellingly, implementing these principles would necessitate a significantly higher, more concentrated investment than is currently the norm.

For instance, basic skills improve dramatically if instruction occurs intensively and frequently over a shorter period of time, rather than provided in a drawn-out and less intense fashion, as is commonly the case in community-based programs.

“It’s a very undernourished system at both the federal level and the state level, and you can only do so much with that many dollars,” Foster said. Federal and state governments combined spend between $700 and $900 a year per adult learner, Foster observed, compared with about $10,000 per student in the K-12 system.

Geri Mulligan, director of the Center for Literacy, Education and Employment at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, compared programs that taught students for 20 hours a week in daytime classes to those that taught students for four hours a week in two sessions—the former, unsurprisingly, were far more effective, with much higher rates of progress and lower rates of attrition.

“If you’re coming in as a low-level adult [learner], and you look to the future and see that it’s going to take you the next six years to finish by doing this reading one hour a day, or twice a week, or three times a week, the chances of you persisting in that are pretty low,” Mulligan said. “You’re probably not going to make it.”

Asked to imagine a scenario in which students could pursue full-time basic skills education for 40 hours a week, Mulligan said such a program could bring even students at the lowest literacy levels to proficiency in as little as six months. “You could be definitely on course to becoming a registered nurse if you could do that for six months,” Mulligan said.

Short of teaching adults full time, several researchers and educators have said achieving enough intensity in a program requires investing heavily in financial and institutional supports for working students: child care, transportation, social services, and so forth.

Foster, of the National Coalition for Literacy, said such supports were integral to so-called “bridge” or “career pathway” programs—those that explicitly tie adult basic education to work opportunities or post-secondary education. These programs often work by simultaneously teaching career-specific job skills and basic reading, writing and math.

Again, such a coordinated approach requires a commitment far higher than a handful of hours a week, and benefits from structures more formal and demanding than the typical community-based program. Some of the more successful programs, Foster said, “look more like a community college semester or like a school year,” as compared to “coming in and out of a library or school basement as you please.” Thus, “you have a starting date and an ending date, there are clear expectations about how many hours a week students need to dedicate to the class,” and so on.

“We understand that this provides a lot of challenges to work schedules,” Foster added. “But at the same time, if the students are staying at their jobs and only devoting one or two hours a week to their education, they’re never going to make much progress.”


Individual instruction, scaled up

Much of the research that has been done into adult education emphasizes the fact that, unlike schoolchildren, adults bring an immense variety of learning levels and life experiences to a classroom—far more so than elementary school students, who tend to move through the learning process more or less as a cohesive group.

As such, a critical element to effective adult education is the rigorous assessment of any given student’s skill level and the development of a teaching plan suited to that student’s idiosyncrasies. In practice, this usually translates to a highly individualized approach: one-on-one tutors, ideally, or very small classes at the most.

This kind of individualization would create huge financial and organizational hurdles were the current system of adult education to serve more than the fraction of low-skilled adults it currently does. But several researchers and educators we interviewed agreed that it would be possible, given a much higher number of students in the system, to identify meaningful subgroups with similar skill levels, learning obstacles, and goals and intentions. That, in turn, would enable programs to create appropriate classes of students that could be taught simultaneously by a literacy instructor, a much less expensive approach per student than one-on-one tutoring or something similar.

“There’s some good research where they have given batteries of assessments to large numbers of adults, to see if there are clear profiles that emerge—and they have found that some of these profiles are fairly distinct,” said John R. Kruidenier, a private consultant and researcher in literacy and education. (Kruidenier, along with MacArthur of the University of Delaware, helped co-author a comprehensive 2010 review of the research into adult literacy instruction commissioned by the federal government.)

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