On August 23, 2023, WestEd research and policy experts presented at a briefing focused on strengthening adult education and career pathways for Senate staff in Washington, DC. hosted by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). The briefing drew from research and development WestEd is conducting for both IES (Adult Numeracy in the Digital Era: Adaptive Technology for Quantitative and Digital Literacy, ANDE) and the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (Adult Numeracy Instruction 2.0), as well as WestEd’s experience building and managing statewide adult education and postsecondary longitudinal dashboards and leading technical assistance on building data-informed accelerated pathways to living wage careers for adult learners.
NCER program officer Meredith Larson asked WestEd’s Dr. Ann Edwards about this briefing and how she understands the role of researchers and research in communicating with policymakers. As the principal investigator on the ANDE grant, Dr. Edwards has been involved in recent work in adult education and provided some context for the briefing and the work that was discussed.
How did this briefing come about?
Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Todd Young (R-IN) recently signaled their commitment to strengthening adult education by introducing the Strengthening Research in Adult Education Act. To deepen their understanding about the current state of research in the field, the co-chairs of the Senate Adult Literacy Caucus, Senators Reed and Collins (R-ME), co-hosted this briefing and asked WestEd to share what we are learning with a bipartisan group of Senate staff.
What were some of the main points made at the briefing?
We covered many topics, but we presented our interpretation of existing evidence. Some of our comments included the following:
- Much of the existing research on adult education is outdated or sparse. Existing research tends to focus on adult learning broadly or on adult learners in other contexts, with less attention paid to the unique educational needs and goals of learners in adult education programs. For example, some adult learners enroll in programs to pass a test for a job, continue their education, or improve their English language skills. These learner-centric goals aren’t always the focus of the research.
- Moving forward, we can build more knowledge of adult education by investing in studies that are situated in the actual adult education settings that adult learners can, and do, access. For example, much of our knowledge about how adults might learn and appropriate instructional practices for them draws from K-12 and higher education systems rather than the adult education system.
- When thinking about how to improve the adult education system, it’s important to understanding which strategies work for learners in adult education programs who face a wide range of life experiences as they balance jobs and family responsibilities. We need to consider the range of reasons they access programs and how these needs are changing. For example, in addition to foundational skills in numeracy and literacy (reading, writing, language), digital literacy is increasingly important for adult learners as they seek to achieve high school equivalency and look to engage in the workforce.
- Investing in research could help us modify and strengthen programs. We have seen how effective something like a research network (for example, the IES-funded CREATE Adult Skills Network) can be for rapidly generating new insights that can strengthen adult learning.
- We also identified a few specific areas where more research is necessary and could be key to adult education:
- strengthening the adult educator workforce
- identifying and applying literacy, numeracy, and English as a Second Language instructional practices developed specifically for adult learners
- understanding promising models and instructional strategies that can be scaled across the adult education system
- measuring short- and long-term outcomes of adult education programs
- exploring the use of artificial intelligence to strengthen teaching and learning for adult learners
- To this end, there is room for strengthening adult education data collections that are connected to federal reporting and accountability systems. The adult education system needs rigorous and reliable data and research to know accurately what works for adult learners and what improvements are needed.
Why do you feel this sort of communication is important?
We hope that briefings can help congressional staff better understand the complexities of the adult education system and the uniqueness of this population. Additionally, we wanted to emphasize for policymakers the limits of existing research on adult learners. Because federal reporting requirements often dictate which data are collected, we wanted to suggest ways the federal government could improve data collection, integration, and reporting. We also wanted to underscore and illustrate how research, policy, and practice are connected in efforts to enhance adult education outcomes. Sharing our research and insights with Senate staffers can help inform their decisionmaking by grounding policy in research, and we believe that can help to improve outcomes and increase opportunities for the economic mobility of this often overlooked population.
Do you have any plans for future conversations with policymakers?
Yes, we plan to stay connected to policymakers and look forward to future opportunities to contribute our insights on research and policy. As Congress takes on new opportunities such as the Strengthening Adult Education Research Act or the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), we hope they will turn to researchers and practitioners to learn about what is working in the field and how research can inform progress.
This blog was produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer for postsecondary and adult education, NCER.