IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Research to Inform Stronger Adult Education ESL Policy and Practice

April is National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month! As part of the IES 20th Anniversary celebration, we are highlighting NCER’s investments in field-initiated research. In this guest blog, Drs. Nikki Edgecombe (Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University) and George Bunch (University of California, Santa Cruz) discuss their IES-funded study focused on identifying the policies and practices that support multilingual learners (MLs) in community colleges, the important role of adult education English as a Second Language (adult ed ESL), and some of the lessons learned. MLs in community colleges, a significantly understudied population, include students who were classified as English learners in K-12 but also more recent arrivals to the US with a wide variety of education backgrounds and adult immigrants and refugees who have lived in the US for a number of years.  

Vital Role of Adult Education ESL

The demands on and opportunities for adult education programs, specifically adult ed ESL, are growing. The programs are affordable and accessible to immigrant communities and people with lower levels of academic preparation—many of whom were hit hard by the pandemic and disproportionately experienced negative education, health, and economic consequences. Simultaneously, the pandemic highlighted the increasing, critical need for multilingual workers across fields, including education, healthcare, and government. Adult ed ESL programs can help bring those workers into the labor market.

According to the National Reporting System for Adult Education, in program year 2021-22, nationally, free or low-cost adult education programs enrolled about 900,000 students, with nearly 50 percent in English language acquisition or integrated English literacy and civics education programs. Sixteen states house adult education programs in community and technical colleges, often in addition to other community-based and educational settings (see this site for information about state grants). These programs provide a unique opportunity for students to improve “everyday” English skills and serve as a ready-made pathway to a postsecondary credential. Yet, the programs and their students face a number of challenges. 

Asking the Questions Practitioners Want Answers To

For the last 4 years, we examined policies and practices that affect the experiences and outcomes of MLs in a large midwestern community college district. The research has focused on adult ed ESL, in part at the recommendation of our district partners. The district serves thousands of ESL students annually, and institutional leaders have actively pursued improvements to program access, instruction, and progression. As we learned more about the improvement efforts underway, we were able to gain a clearer picture of the stringent federal and state policies adult education operates under, which have at times challenged district leaders' ability to make the kinds of changes necessary to enhance student outcomes. Our institutional partners are not deterred, however, and continue to seek ways to strengthen their adult education program, make it more student-centered, and make policy more effective. They consider research an important resource in this improvement process. As such, we both documented their efforts and examined how the policy context affected what they were doing.

What We Are Finding

We wanted to better understand who the MLs are, their life circumstances, their college experiences, and their goals. We reported the following trends to our community college partners.  

  • Adult ed ESL students are older and less likely to be working than their peers in credit programs. As a group, they are more likely to either have not earned a high school diploma or GED or have previously earned a baccalaureate degree or higher. Adult ed ESL students in our survey sample report enrolling in adult ed ESL to improve their everyday English literacy skills, to strengthen their employment prospects and prepare themselves for the language and literacy demands of further postsecondary education.
  • The multiple ESL levels required by policy may generate obstacles to progression, particularly for students who initially place in the lower levels of the sequence. MLs in our partner district place into 1 of 6 adult ed ESL courses. As research has previously established, community college students rarely persist through long sequences of courses, and our preliminary administrative data analysis shows students in our sample generally persist for less than 2 semesters. In response, our district partner developed a full-time position to help students in the transitions into, through, and out of adult education; has offered short (4- and 8-week) courses; built out dedicated academic and nonacademic supports; and created an intentional on-ramp to credit programs. Nonetheless, the length of the sequence appears to undermine retention and progression.
  • The prescribed assessment and placement procedures make it difficult for community college-based adult ed ESL programs to meet the varied English language learning needs of enrollees. Language learning is a complex phenomenon that requires students to develop a range of productive (speaking and writing) and receptive (listening and reading) literacy skills for a wide range of academic, professional, and community participation goals. That learning can look quite different for different students in different education environments and proficiency measurement is equally complex. Our district partner used one of the federally mandated assessments to both place students and measure their proficiency gains. The test is relatively inexpensive and easy to administer, but it only measures reading, just one aspect of language proficiency, leaving no consistent record of proficiency levels in speaking, listening, and writing.

New Directions in Adult Ed ESL Policy Research

Early findings from the study have the potential to inform changes in policy and practice at our district partner. Our findings also raise issues that federal and state policymakers and practitioners working on the ground may need to work together to answer, including how policy systems can balance the perceived need for standards and accountability with community colleges’ need to structure and administer the programs in ways that best meet the needs of MLs.

To pursue this line of inquiry, we will explore the origin and rationale for adult ed ESL policy and how that policy translates from federal to state to institutional providers. We will also learn more about the goals and experiences of adult ed ESL students coming out of the pandemic, explore the perceptions and experiences of adult educators and program staff, and provide formative feedback on the reform efforts underway at our district partner with a particular focus on whether and how policy is helping or hindering their ability to meet their goals.


This blog was produced by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer at NCER.

Adult Education and Foundational Skills Grantee Spotlight: Dr. Daphne Greenberg’s Advice for New Researchers

As part of the IES 20th Anniversary, NCER is reflecting on the past, present, and future of adult education research. In this blog, Dr. Daphne Greenberg, Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State University, reflects on her connection to adult education and gives advice to researchers interested in this field. Dr. Greenberg has served as the principal investigator (PI) on three NCER grants, including the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy, and is also co-PI on three current NCER grants (1, 2, 3). She helped found the Georgia Adult Literacy Advocacy group and the Literacy Alliance of Metro Atlanta and has tutored adult learners and engaged in public awareness about adult literacy, including giving a TedTalk: Do we care about us? Daphne Greenberg at TEDxPeachtree.

Head Shot of Daphne GreenbergWhat got you interested in adult education research?

During graduate school, I was a volunteer tutor for a woman who grew up in a southern sharecropper family, did not attend school, and was reading at the first-grade level. Her stories helped me understand why learning was important to her. For example, her sister routinely stole money from her bank account because she couldn’t balance her checkbook.

I began wondering whether adults and children reading at the same level had similar strengths and weaknesses and whether the same word-reading components were equally important for them. I later published an article that became a classic in adult literacy research about this.

Over the years, I have grown to admire adult learners for their unique stories and challenges and am deeply impressed with their “grit” and determination even when faced with difficulties. When I watch a class of native-born adults reading below the 8th grade levels, I am inspired by them and yet deeply conflicted about our K-12 system and how many students aren’t getting what they need from it.

How does your personal experience influence your perspective?

I think my childhood and family planted the seeds. My grandfather ran a grocery store but had only a third-grade education. My parents were immigrants who worked hard to navigate a new culture and language, and I struggled with reading in English and English vocabulary growing up. As a result, I understand how people hide and compensate for academic weaknesses.

Also, my brother has profound autism. As a child, I insisted that I could teach him many skills, and I did. This taught me patience and the joy one feels when even the smallest gain is made.

As an adult, I mess up idioms, use Hebraic sentence structure, and need help with editing. I also have a visual condition that causes me to miss letters when I read and write. These difficulties help me relate to the struggles of adult learners. I often feel deep embarrassment when I make mistakes. But I am very fortunate that I have colleagues who celebrate my strengths and honor my weaknesses. Not all of our adult learners are as fortunate.

What should researchers new to adult education know about the system?

Adult education serves students with significant needs and numerous goals—from preparing for employment or postsecondary education to acquiring skills needed to pass the citizenship exam or helping their children with homework. But the adult education system has less public funding than K-12 or postsecondary systems.

Many of the educators are part-time or volunteers and may not have a background in teaching—or at least in teaching adults. There just aren’t the same level of professional development opportunities, technological and print instructional resources, infrastructure, or supporting evidence-based research that other education systems have. 

What should researchers know about adult learners?

As a starting point, here are three things that I think researchers should know about adult learners:

  • What it means to live in poverty. For example, I once worked with a researcher who, when told that adult learners wouldn’t have access to the internet, replied “That’s not an issue. They can take their laptops to a Starbucks to access the Internet.”
  • That adult learners are motivated. The fact that they have inconsistent attendance does not mean that they are not motivated. It means that they have difficult lives, and if we were in their shoes, we would also have difficulty attending on a regular basis.
  • That adult learners’ oral vocabulary often matches their reading vocabulary. If you want adult learners to understand something, such as informed consents, realize that their oral vocabulary often is very similar to their reading grade equivalencies and consider simplifying complex vocabulary and syntax structure.

What specific advice do you have about conducting research with adult learners?

Testing always takes longer to complete than anticipated. I never pull students out from classes for testing because their class time is so precious. So they have to be available after or before class to participate in research, and this can be problematic. We often need to reschedule an assessment because public transportation is late, a job shift suddenly changes, or a family member is sick.

Finding enough of particular types of students is difficult because sites often attract different demographics. For example, one site may have primarily 16- and 17-year-olds, another site may have mostly non-native speakers, and another site may have either lower- or higher-skilled adult learners.

Having a “clean” comparison group at the same site is challenging because of intervention “leakage” to nonintervention teachers.  Adult education teachers are often so hungry for resources that they may try to peak into classrooms while an intervention is in process, get access to materials, or otherwise learn about the intervention. Their desire for anything that might help students makes contamination a concern.  

What areas of adult education could use more research?

I think that policymakers and practitioners would benefit from many areas of research, but two come to mind.

  • How to measure outcomes and demonstrate “return”: Many funding agencies require “grade level” growth, but it can take years for skills to consolidate and manifest as grade level change. In the meantime, adults may have found a job, gotten promoted, feel more comfortable interacting with their children’s schools, voted for the first time, etc. Are we measuring the right things in the right way? Are we measuring the things that matter to students, programs, and society? Should life improvements have equal or even more weight than growth on standardized tests? After how much time should we expect to see the life improvements (months, years, decades)?
  • How to create useful self-paced materials for adults who need to “stop-out”: Due to the complexities of our learners’ lives, many have to “stop-out” for a period before resuming class attendance. These adults would benefit from resources that they could use on their own, at their own pace during this time. What is the best practice for delivery of these types of resources? Does this “best practice” depend on the adult’s ability level? Does it depend on the content area? 

Any final words for researchers new to adult education?

I extend a warm welcome to anyone interested in research with adult learners. You will discover that many adult learners are eager to participate in research studies. They feel good helping researchers with their work and are hopeful that their time will help them or be of help to future learners. I highly recommend that you collaborate with researchers and/or practitioners who are familiar with the adult education context to help smooth the bumps you will inevitably experience.


This blog was produced by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer at NCER.

NCER Adult Education and Adult Foundational Skills Research: Defining the Scope and Introducing the Investment

Adults sitting in rows of desks holding digital devices.

As part of the IES 20th Anniversary celebration, we are highlighting NCER’s investments in field-initiated research. In the Adult Education and Adult Foundational Skills series, NCER will be spotlighting researchers and projects and sharing information about research to improve outcomes for adult learners.

In this opening blog, program officer Dr. Meredith Larson defines NCER’s use of the terms adult education and adult foundational skills, which have specific meaning and scope for IES research. Dr. Larson also describes who the adult learners are, why research in this area is important, and the research NCER has supported.

How does NCER define Adult Education and Adult Foundational Skills?

NCER uses the term adult education to refer to a system legislatively defined in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The adult education system serves learners who are at least 16 years old and not enrolled in K-12 through programs such as adult basic education, adult secondary education, integrated education training, family literacy, and integrated English language and civics.

By adult foundational skills, NCER means the common academic skills—such as literacy (reading, writing, listening), English language proficiency, and numeracy—that are necessary for participating in college or career. Nowadays, digital literacy and digital skills are emerging as foundational skills.

As researchers and practitioners in this field discuss how to define their work and purpose, NCER’s use of the terms may evolve

How many U.S. adults have low foundational skills?

Data from the 2017 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) indicate that roughly 114 to 135 million U.S. adults may have significant or moderate skill gaps in reading or numeracy, with approximately 48 million (23 percent) of adults having significantly low literacy and 69 million (33 percent) having significant low numeracy skill. Having low foundational skills may impede adults’ ability to pursue education or training, participate fully in the workforce, or engage civically.

What is the adult education system like?

Although millions of U.S. adults may benefit from building foundational skills, the adult education system and programs focus on adults with significant skill gaps and those who lack a high school diploma or equivalent.

Adult learners who enter into this system vary widely. They can include people from all regions, races, ethnicities, age groups, and levels of academic attainment, including those with no formal education to those with advanced degrees from other countries. They may be parents, workers, or retirees. They may seek out programs to learn how to read, earn a high school diploma, prepare for employment or college, or pass a citizenship test. The educators who teach adult learners are also diverse. Some have teaching certification, but many do not. The majority of them are part-time. There is also a wide variety of program providers (community colleges, community-based organizations, LEAs, etc.), relevant policies (federal, state, local), and funding sources. The National Reporting System for Adult Education includes descriptive data on students and programs reported to the US Department of Education as part of annual reporting requirements for grantees.

Why is research on this area important? What types of work has NCER supported?

Because of the diversity of learners in the system and the complexity of the system itself, the way forward maybe be unclear without a solid research base to inform policy and practice. Research can provide the knowledge, innovations, and evidence that can help learners, educators, and policymakers make informed choices and decision.

The adult education and foundational skills research portfolio at NCER is small but expanding. Between 2004 and 2021, NCER has invested approximately $51.8 million across 27 awards (grants and contracts) relevant to adults with low foundational skills who are in or eligible for adult education services. Please see a list of the NCER adult education and foundational skills projects funded since 2004: Word file or PDF file).

In the early years of NCER, research addressing adult education and foundational skills tended to focus only on reading, and adults were not the primary or sole focus of the study. Over time, this research has grown to encompass additional skills and education policy, and more studies focused primarily on adults served by the adult education system. The earliest NCER study in this set was funded in 2004 and is a direct ancestor to a 2016 grant to validate a reading assessment specifically for adult struggling readers. Other adult education projects have also built off of early NCER work and have inspired other projects. For example, NCER’s first adult education research and development center, the Center for the Study of Adult Skills (CSAL), incorporated work from one of NCER’s first grants in 2002 and led subsequent development research. Multiple awards in the adult education portfolio also use the PIAAC, as a resource for both research (see here, here, and here) and training grants.

What is on the horizon for NCER research?

One significant recent trend in this portfolio has been the expanding role of technology and digital skills. From CSAL to the CREATE Adult Skills Network and to projects exploring adult problem solving in digital environments, NCER researchers are building knowledge and developing interventions that focus on technology and adult learners’ ability to benefit from technology.

In particular, the CREATE Adult Skills Network is bringing together multiple research teams around technology to support reading, writing, math, professional development, civics/history and English language instruction, and assessment. CREATE is also helping to disseminate information about the role of technology in adult education and the importance of developing adults’ foundational skills.

How can people learn more?

Please visit the project homepage for the CREATE Adult Skills Network and sign up for their newsletters. The network also hosts blogs and podcasts, both of which include discussions of research. People can also visit the IES-wide topic page for adult skills, which curates examples of the work happening across IES relevant to adult education or adult foundational skills.


Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov) is a research analyst and program officer at NCER. Her focus areas include postsecondary teaching and learning, adult education, and postdoctoral research training. She was trained in cognitive and instructional psychology and psycholinguistics and has served as a volunteer tutor for refugee children and in adult basic and adult secondary education programs.

Variation Matters: A Look at CTE Under Distinctive Policy and Programming Conditions

Young diverse students learning together at stem robotics class - Hispanic Latina female building electronic circuits at school

February is Career and Technical Education (CTE) month! As part of our 20th anniversary celebration, we want to highlight the great work our CTE Research Network (CTERN) continues to accomplish. This guest blog was written by James Kemple, Director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools and the principal investigator (PI) of a CTERN research project that is examining CTE in New York City.

While “college and career readiness” are familiar buzzwords in K-12 education, it has often seemed like system leaders shout “college” and whisper “career.” During the last decade, as it has become clear that a high school diploma has limited value in the 21st century labor market, career and technical education (CTE) has become a more prominent way to explicitly prepare students for both college and career. For the CTE field to evolve productively, valid and reliable evidence should inform policy and practice, for example by identifying conditions under which CTE may be more or less effective and for whom.

CTE and College and Career Readiness in New York City

One such project is our ongoing study of New York City’s CTE programs. The current phase of the study focuses on 37 CTE-dedicated high schools, which are structured to ensure that all enrolled students participate in a CTE Program of Study from 9th through 12th grade. These programs are organized around an industry-aligned theme (for example, construction, IT, health services, etc.) and offer a sequence of career-focused courses, work-based learning opportunities, and access to aligned college-level coursework. Our study uses an especially rigorous approach to compare the experiences and outcomes of nearly 19,000 NYC students who were assigned to a CTE-dedicated high school between 2013 and 2016 with those of similar students who also applied to CTE programs but were assigned to another high school during the same period.

When our research team looked at the overall impact of 37 CTE-dedicated high schools in NYC, we found that CTE students graduated from these high schools and enrolled in college at rates that were similar to their counterparts in non-CTE high schools. On average, therefore, being in a CTE high school did not steer students away from a college pathway.

Variations in CTE Programs

A much more interesting story emerged when we took a closer look at variation in student experiences and outcomes. In fact, some of the schools produced statistically significant reductions in immediate college enrollment, while others produced increases in the rate at which students enrolled in college.  Why might this be?

The study team identified two possible reasons. First, the schools in our sample differed based on the policy context in which they were created: 21 of the schools were established after 2008 as the NYCDOE undertook a major expansion of CTE in the midst of a larger overhaul of the city’s high schools that included closing persistently low-performing schools, opening new small schools in their place, and creating a universal high school admissions system that gave students access to schools across the city. In contrast to the 16 longstanding CTE high schools—some of which dated back to the early 1900s—these new high schools were smaller, with more thematically aligned sets of CTE programs, and non-selective admission processes. Most of the longstanding CTE schools used test scores, grades, or other performance measures as part of their admissions criteria.

Second, the schools in the study differed in terms of their intended career pathways—and the extent to which these career pathways require a post-secondary credential for entry-level jobs. Notably, nine of the newer (post-2008) high schools focused on career pathways that were likely to require a bachelor’s degree (referred to “college aligned”). CTE programs in the remaining 12 newer high schools and all of the CTE programs in the 16 longstanding high schools focused on either “workforce-aligned” career pathways—allowing students to enter the labor market directly after high school—or “mixed” pathways that require additional technical training or an associate degree for entry-level jobs. Interestingly, each of these groups of schools included a mix of CTE career themes. For example, some health- or technology-focused CTE programs reflected college-aligned pathways, while other programs with these themes reflected workforce-aligned pathways.

We found that the newer, smaller, less selective CTE schools with more tightly aligned career themes had positive effects on key outcomes—particularly those that were focused on college-intended career paths. These schools produced a substantial, positive, statistically significant impact on college enrollment rates. Students in these schools were nearly 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year college than those in the non-CTE comparison group.

By contrast, the larger, more selective CTE schools, with a range of work-aligned career pathways, were associated with null or negative effects on key outcomes. Notably, these schools actually reduced four-year college enrollment rates.

Applying Lessons Learned

The extraordinary diversity of NYC’s CTE landscape and its student population provides a unique opportunity to gather information about program implementation, quality, accessibility, and costs, and about how these factors influence CTE’s impacts on college and career readiness. A recent report from the project provides new insights into strategies for learning from variation in CTE programs and contexts, as well as particular policies and programming conditions that may enhance or limit college and career readiness.

Recent efforts to enhance CTE, including those underway in NYC, wisely focus on such key elements as rigorous and relevant CTE course sequences, robust work-based learning opportunities, and articulated partnerships with employers and post-secondary education institutions. The findings from this study point to additional conditions that are likely to interact with these curricular and co-curricular elements of CTE—such as providing students with smaller, more personalized learning environments; using inclusive (less selective) admissions policies; and aligning high school requirements with post-secondary options. It will be crucial for policymakers to attend to these conditions as they work to strengthen students’ pathways into college and careers.

Finally, it is important to note that we do not yet have all the information needed to fully discern the impact of NYC’s diverse CTE options. Data on employment and earnings will be crucial to understanding whether students in these schools opted to enter the workforce instead of, or prior to, enrolling in college—and how these decisions affected their longer-term trajectories.


This blog was produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), program officer, NCER.

 

Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2022–23 Data Collection Begins

Last month, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) kicked off a major survey of adults (ages 16–74) across the nation to learn about their literacy skills, education, and work experience. Information collected through this survey—officially known as Cycle 2 of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) in the United States—is used by local, state, and national organizations, government entities, and researchers to learn about adult skills at the state and local levels (explore these data in the PIAAC Skills Map, shown below).


Image of PIAAC Skills Map on state and county indicators of adult literacy and numeracy


Specifically, these data are used to support educational and training initiatives organized by local and state programs. For example, the Houston Mayor’s Office for Adult Literacy has used the PIAAC Skills Map data in developing the Adult Literacy Blueprint, a comprehensive plan for coordinated citywide change to address the systemic crisis of low literacy and numeracy in the city. In addition, the Kentucky Career and Technical College System developed a comprehensive data-driven app for workforce pipeline planning using the county-level PIAAC Skills Map data as one of the education pipeline indicators.

This is not the first time NCES is administering PIAAC. NCES collected PIAAC data three times between 2011 and 2017, when the first cycle of this international study was administered in 39 countries. Developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PIAAC measures fundamental cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper. Among these fundamental skills are literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving. Data from the first cycle of PIAAC (2011–17) provided insights into the relationships between adult skills and various economic, social, and health outcomes—both across the United States as a whole and for specific populations of interest (e.g., adults who are women, immigrants, older, employed, parents, or incarcerated). The OECD and NCES have published extensively using these data.

The current cycle (Cycle 2) of PIAAC will resemble the first cycle in that interviewers will visit people’s homes to ask if they are willing to answer background questionnaire and take a self-administered test of their skills. However, unlike the first cycle when respondents could respond to the survey on paper or on a laptop, this cycle will be conducted entirely on a tablet. PIAAC is completely voluntary, but each respondent is specifically selected to provide invaluable information that will help us learn about the state of adult skills in the country (participants can also receive an incentive payment for completing the survey).

PIAAC’s background questionnaire includes questions about an individual’s demographics, family, education, employment, skill use, and (new in Cycle 2 and unique to the United States) financial literacy. The PIAAC test or “direct assessment” measures literacy, numeracy, and (new in Cycle 2) adaptive problem-solving skills of adults.1

Each sampled person’s response is not only kept confidential but also “anonymized” before the data are released (so that no one can ever definitively identify an individual from personal characteristics in the datafile).

The international report and data for PIAAC Cycle 2 is scheduled to be released by the OECD in December 2024.

Be sure to follow NCES on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and YouTube and subscribe to the NCES News Flash to stay up-to-date on PIAAC report and data releases and resources.

 

By Saida Mamedova, AIR, Stephen Provasnik, NCES, and Holly Xie, NCES


[1] Data is collected from adults ages 16–74 in the United States and ages 16–65 in the other countries.