The Golden Opportunity of Adult Education Reform

By Marcie Foster and Julie Strawn

Across the country, more and more states are changing adult education policy to provide students the education they need to become employed and economically successful in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Multi-state initiatives, such as Shifting Gears and Accelerating Opportunity, are supporting this shift, as are the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor through guidance and technical assistance. Nowhere is this trend more relevant than in California (known as the “Golden State”), where one out of five adult education students reside and which is newly focusing on restructuring adult education to promote college and career success.

Economists predict that, over the long run, a growing share of jobs in all states will require a postsecondary credential. Yet by 2020, much of California’s prime-age workforce will come from population groups that are currently underrepresented in postsecondary education and may have weaker academic or English language skills.  Adult education is critical to addressing this skills gap, as it is the primary system used by adult learners with low basic skills to prepare for higher levels of education and employment. Most recently, the Governor’s FY13-14 budget proposal called for a dedicated state funding stream to adult education from the current “flex” system that allows districts to determine how much funding goes to adult education. Furthermore, the proposal called for redirecting this funding to community colleges rather than school districts. A recent Little Hoover Commission report called for more programmatic and governance reforms, citing poor outcomes of the adult education system poorly aligned with future workforce needs.

A new report, A Golden Opportunity: Strategies to Focus Adult Education on College and Career, written for California’s LearningWorks and co-authored by CLASP senior fellow Julie Strawn, highlights four levers that could be used to reform California’s adult education from a system focused on basic literacy and GED preparation to one designed to help students prepare for and succeed in postsecondary education connected to labor market opportunities. The utility and challenges of each of these policy levers are demonstrated through short “case studies” of states that have pursued them as part of a broader reform strategy:

  • Integrating adult basic education and community college governance to help more basic skills students transition into postsecondary education;
  • Using strategic plans and Adult Education funding guidelines to signal a new focus on college and careers;
  • Innovation initiatives to increase college and career success for adults with lower skills; and
  • Using goals, metrics, and data to refocus programs: state accountability policies.

Informed by a comprehensive set of interviews with seven leading states in adult education reform (Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin), this report is one of the first to look at key structural policy levers as a strategy for refocusing adult education on college and career. These states’ experiences, including challenges and lessons learned, offer critical insights to California and other states seeking to raise expectations for adult education programs and students. The report also highlights how reforms can create “on-ramps” that enable lower-skilled workers to enter college and career pathways. In particular, the study highlights that multiple strategies are needed; for example, changing governance by itself, without other steps to set a new course for adult education, is unlikely to produce the desired results.  

Though the future of California’s adult education system is still undetermined, this report and others rightly focus attention on what should be the major task at hand for this state and all others: preserving the inherent value of adult education while reforming the outdated system to one more closely aligned with 21st century needs.