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Turning Points: Recent Trends in Adult Basic Literacy, Numeracy, and Language Education

Alisa Belzer


Number 155 • Fall 2017


San Francisco

Editor's Notes

The Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies finds that 36 million adults in the United States struggle to use reading to support and enhance their day-to-day activities (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2013). Increased literacy levels are linked to improved personal outcomes with regard to individual earnings and employment status; improved educational outcomes for children; and health and socioeconomic outcomes in terms of productivity, a strengthened economy based on higher wages, and a more engaged civic and community citizenry (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, 2015). The need for adult basic education (ABE) is clear. Yet, ABE, which includes basic literacy, numeracy, and language education as well as high school equivalency preparation, is an educational arena that seems to be in constant need of further development, struggles for funding, and lacks a solid research base.

Although ABE has been federally funded since 1964, the National Literacy Act, the funding authorization for ABE that passed in 1991, engendered much needed infrastructure development for the field. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998, the next federal authorization, gave rise to a fully developed accountability system. All else aside, these changes had major impacts on the field. However, in the nearly 20 years since WIA was enacted, the field had been more or less static because there were no major policy initiatives. This all began to change around 2014 when a new version of the General Educational Development (GED) test was launched, new content standards were developed, new data on adult cognitive skills were released, and a long delayed new federal adult education authorization, known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) with its emphasis (almost to the exclusion of all else) on employment and training was enacted. This was certainly a turning point. A few years later, it now seems an appropriate time to review where the field is now in relationship to where it has been and where it could go. This volume was conceptualized to accomplish this by taking up critical discussions of these major changes as well as topics of enduring interest.

In Chapter 1, I give an overview of the policy history and point out how it has created infrastructure and institutionalization, helping to make the field more stable. However, I note that as more systems and structures have been put in place, ABE is in danger of narrowing rather than focusing. I identify focus as being the impetus for the development of rich resources and instructional strategies that help practitioners respond effectively to learner needs, interests, and goals. In contrast, narrowing can limit its efforts to very few goals and give value to only some outcomes. Although the former can be learner centered, the latter is driven more by policy ideals that may or may not align with learners’ purposes for participating in ABE.

In Chapter 2, Jacobson describes WIOA, contrasts it with earlier federal funding legislation, and problematizes its potential impact. He contextualizes his description in long-standing challenges that the field has faced. These include debates about the purposes of adult education; marginalization of adult education, which contributes to inadequate and unstable funding; and the tendency to try to hold programs accountable for outcomes only some of which they have control over. These challenges can be understood as an overestimation of and perhaps unrealistic optimism about what practitioners and learners can accomplish under the circumstances. WIOA makes clear that, in spite of ongoing debates in this area, the policy purpose of adult education is leaning ever more toward it being primarily in service of employment goals and economic competitiveness on a macro scale. Thus, policymakers are assuming that practitioners can help learners overcome multiple barriers to employment that many low-skilled job seekers experience. Thus, they are often trying to help learners meet funders’ and their own goals for employment in addition to helping them address other diverse needs and broad goals. By drastically underfunding the system, as Jacobson illustrates, they are also assuming that practitioners can accomplish a mighty task with inadequate resources.

In stark contrast to the narrowing focus on employment that many read into WIOA, Chapter 3 describes the frameworks that guided the development of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competence (PIAAC) in three domains: literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in a technology-rich environment. These frameworks were developed in light of OECD efforts to define what it means to be competent in adulthood. Three broad categories of competence were identified: autonomy, tools use, and social interaction; the notion of competence was inextricably tied to skill use in daily life, including but not exclusively in work settings. Stein points out that the definitional frameworks that guided PIAAC development can also be used to strengthen instruction in ways that focus on the context, content, and cognitive strategies that shape literacy and numeracy practices in adults’ day-to-day interactions. Although a broader conception of the purposes for adult education is implied in the PIAAC frameworks (in contrast with WIOA), Stein suggests that teaching to this test may actually make U.S. adults far more competitive with their international counterparts.

Chapter 4 focuses on a turning point that has had a critical impact on practice: changes in high school equivalency testing. The initial change, a revision of the GED® test, was prompted by the adoption of the K–12 Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which established new, rigorous expectations for students. Matching the trend of new standardized tests designed to capture progress toward meeting CCSS standards, the GED® test was updated to reflect Career and College Readiness Standards (CCRS) implemented for adult learners but preserving many of the same intentions of the CCSS. However, pushback and resistance related to many changes surrounding this update “opened the door” (McLendon, Chapter 4) to competition from other test developers. After having a monopoly on high school equivalency testing since its inception, the GED® now faces competition from two other major test developers. Although in many ways the GED® alignment with the rigorous CCRS is more momentous than this recent added market competition, McClendon argues that more players in the arena could lead to better assessment practices.

In Chapter 5, Rosen and Vanek outline the ways in which an explosion of technology and huge leaps forward in access to information and educational opportunities via smartphones and widespread Internet access are changing the ways in which individuals can learn. With an emphasis on learning about technology for a broad range of purposes rather than for its own sake, they suggest that technology can enhance “lifewide” learning. However, benefitting in ABE from all the affordances of technology, they point out, is challenged by the same issues that undermine so much about this field: underfunding, low instructional capacity hindered by limited and often ineffective professional development, and ambiguous policy direction. In order for technology to reach its rich potential in supporting adult learning, practitioners must help learners bridge the digital divide, which is now less about access to tools and more about the development of informed, skilled, and savvy users who can strategically and effectively deploy technology to meet their needs and interests.

Chapter 6 is written in the context of the current immigration wave, the biggest and longest in U.S. history (Population Reference Bureau, n.d.), albeit one that might soon end as a result of ongoing calls for immigration reform and a new administration that has begun to focus inward. Larrotta points out that immigrants are identified as being in one of two categories—documented and undocumented—that are particularly salient to delineating opportunities to participate in adult education. Although integration is key to economic self-sufficiency, and English language learning, civics education, and survival skills particular to life in the United States are of critical importance, only documented immigrants have full access to federally funded adult education, and that access may be limited because of insufficient funding and program availability. She observes that many nonprofit community and church-based organizations have taken up the slack for both documented and undocumented immigrants. Yet they often do so with limited and unstable resources. Larrotta suggests that it is in the nation's best interest to more fully support the immigrant integration effort regardless of how individuals got to the United States.

Professional development and professionalization trends are updated in Chapter 7. In particular, Smith documents the growing institutionalization of professional development for adult basic education practitioners. The main impetus for this has been a WIA regulation that requires states to set aside money for leadership activities including professional development. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same legislation has increased accountability demands and encouraged more rigorous performance standards that in turn led to more rigorous high school equivalency tests. These factors may also have created a much clearer and focused need for professional development in the field. In the early 2000s, subsequent to WIA enactment, there was growing energy focused on establishing professional development systems at the state level. More recently, the field has moved toward a greater effort to increase professional development quality by drawing on a robust best-practices research base and increasing access to professional resources through online sources along with efforts to professionalize the field through credentialing. It is unclear how mandates for high-quality professional development called for in WIOA will intersect with the priorities of the new administration which could lead to cuts in funding and changing priorities for adult education.

In Chapter 8, Greenberg, Ginsburg, and Wrigley provide helpful overviews of current research in reading, numeracy, and language education. Although WIOA points us toward reading for employment and PIAAC points us toward reading (literacy) for a broad range of uses that contribute to a “successful” life, Greenberg notes that much of the current research on adult literacy has focused on the components that support reading comprehension. Ginsburg reviews the research on transfer of numeracy understanding and skill from the workplace to the classroom and back. She asserts that more research and improved practice are needed to take better advantage of the connections that could be made between them if each context could be understood as a resource to support learning in the other. Wrigley points out that, despite the important returns that can be reaped from increased English proficiency among immigrant adults, the knowledge base on effective practices is especially limited. This problem is exacerbated by the complexity and variety of the target population (immigrants with limited English proficiency) and a severe lack of funding for research and development. Although each section of this chapter is diverse, all could end with the same sentence: “More research is needed to address this complex instructional challenge”.

In this volume's concluding chapter, Prins amplifies on this theme by pointing to the many gaps in the research base that this volume illuminates; the ways in which research could strengthen policymaking and practice; and how diverse research approaches that include university researchers, practitioners, and learners can enrich the knowledge base in important ways. This volume is timely in capturing the changing landscape and, it is hoped, will serve as a guidepost to current conditions and challenges for a range of interested stakeholders.

Alisa Belzer


  1. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2013). Time for the U.S. to reskill? What the survey of adult skills says. Paris: OECD Publishing.
  2. Population Reference Bureau. (n.d.). Trends in migration to the U.S. Retrieved from
  3. U.S. Department of Education Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. (2015). Making skills everyone's business: A call to transform adult learning in the United States. Washington, DC: Author.