How English Learners Realize Their Potential

This week the Baltimore Sun has a good summary article by Liz Bowie on what it takes for students who are English learners to succeed and thrive, with insightful comments by my former CAL colleague Julie Sugarman.

Shutdown vs. Social Safety Net

The Partial Shutdown of the Federal Government Has Devastating Effects on Adults with Low Levels of Literacy and Numeracy

Numerous news articles and blog posts over the past few weeks have underscored the magnitude of the impact that the partial federal shutdown is having on low-wage workers and adults who are unemployed or under-employed. Not always recognized, but pivotal, is the connection with adult literacy and numeracy. As the National Skills Coalition relates in its report Foundational Skills in the Service Sector:

NSC’s data show that workers with low skills overwhelmingly have low earnings. Overall, 78% — nearly four in five service sector workers with low skills — fall into one of the two lowest earnings quintiles. … Low earnings are a problem for all workers with basic skills gaps, but they are especially problematic in the service sector. In particular, among workers with low literacy across all industries, 29% are in the bottom quintile for earnings, while among service sector workers with low literacy the percentage is substantially worse, at 38%. The numbers are similar for the second-lowest earnings quintile, with 33% of all low-literate workers and 39% of low-literate service sector workers falling into this category. (p. 14)

The shutdown’s negative effects on low-wage workers are thus of significant concern to the adult basic education and adult ESL communities as well.

Safety Net Programs

The Department of Agriculture provides food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Child Nutrition Programs, and the Supplemental Nutrition and Safety Programs, which include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, among others. The department has found ways to continue providing this assistance through February, according to a press release from the Secretary’s office. If the shutdown continues into March, many low-income families will lose this essential nutrition support.

The Rural Housing Service at the Department of Agriculture helps low-income rural residents pay their housing costs. According to the National Rural Housing Coalition, the agency

Provides a rental housing subsidy to very low income households, elderly households, and persons with disabilitiesOver 270,000 families receive this assistance from USDA. The last rental assistance payments were made in December 2018. There is not any information available for January payments. Without those payments, housing for these families will be in jeopardy.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides critical housing support through the Section 8 voucher program. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition,

An immediate result of the shutdown is HUD’s inability to renew federal contracts for 650 Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) properties, housing tens of thousands of low-income renters, that have expired since the government shutdown began. Additional contracts will expire later in January and February, should the shutdown continue for that long, as HUD does not have funding to renew contracts while the government is shut down.

The NLIHC also has a state-by-state breakdown of the shutdown’s effect on low-income housing.

The Department of the Interior provides supports for native American tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Services include economic development programs, law enforcement, road maintenance, and disaster relief. Without an appropriation (and with 76 percent of its employees furloughed), Interior is largely unable to provide these supports.

Many of the operating divisions of the Department of Health and Human Services have been funded for 2019 through the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriation that was passed in the fall of 2018. However, according to the department’s contingency plan, many of the HHS-administered programs that support needy citizens rely on the appropriations for the Agriculture and Interior departments and thus are not currently funded.

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: TANF helps families with children meet their basic needs. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, “TANF is funded through a mixture of federal funds and state ‘maintenance of effort’ (MOE) funds, so states can continue to provide benefits and services using state funds or unspent previously appropriated federal funds.” It is not clear how long states will be able to do this, however.
  • The Indian Health Service: The IHS provides health care for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. With the lapse in funding for the Department of the Interior, per the HHS Contingency Plan, IHS continues “to provide direct clinical health care services,” but “IHS would be unable to provide the majority of funds to tribes and Urban Indian Health programs.”

Civil Rights and Consumer Protections

The Department of Justice FY 2019 Contingency Plan notes that “a significant portion of the Department’s mission relates to the safety of human life and the protection of property, and primarily for this reason, the Department has a high percentage of activities and employees that are excepted from the Antideficiency Act restrictions and can continue during a lapse in appropriations.” Overall, therefore, only 16 percent of DoJ employees are furloughed. However, in the Civil Rights Division, 71 percent of employees are not excepted. As a result, there is a significant lapse in activity in the sections that provide essential protections for adults who may have difficulty protecting themselves from discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas. The sections of the Civil Rights Division charged with protecting civil rights include the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section, the Immigrant and Employee Rights Section, and the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section, which works to assure equity in language access.

At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 85 percent of employees are furloughed. Activities related to receiving and investigating charges of employment discrimination are thus severely compromised. The EEOC provides information on the activities that it can and cannot carry out during the shutdown on its website.

At the Federal Trade Commission, 77 percent of employees are furloughed. The FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection investigates and brings charges against perpetrators of fraud, and raises consumer awareness about different types of scams, including Social Security scams, phishing scams, notario (immigration) fraud, and identity theft. A substantial portion of those served by the FTC’s work are adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy. The shutdown prevents the agency from fulfilling its essential consumer protection mission.

The Longer Term

Th federal government can only allocate funding appropriately for programs that support and protect America’s neediest if it has accurate information about the country’s population. With the lapse in appropriation for the Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau is operating at a deeply reduced staffing level. Whether and how the funding lapse will affect the Bureau’s preparations for the 2020 Census remains to be seen; the longer the shutdown continues, the more difficult it will be for those preparations to be carried out effectively. The possibility of incomplete or inadequate Census data is a concern for everyone, most particularly those who rely on the safety net that Census data informs.


This blog entry was written for the National Coalition for Literacy and posted on the NCL site.

For further reporting on the effects of the partial federal government shutdown on populations with relatively high levels of limited literacy and numeracy, please read:

Food stamps, rent aid and the safety net for America’s poorest at risk as shutdown drags on (Tracy Jan and William Wan, The Washington Post)

Shortfall may crimp ’20 Census planning (Tara Bahrampour, The Washington Post)

Shutdown leaves food, medicine and pay in doubt in Indian country (Mitch Smith and Julie Turkewitz, New York Times)

Learning from the Forgotten 90 Percent

Why is it that only 10 percent of the adults in the United States who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills participate in adult education? Program capacity is certainly one reason. But what about the adults themselves? What is holding them back, and what changes could increase their levels of participation?

To find out, VALUEUSA and Research Allies for Lifelong Learning partnered to conduct a research study that asked adult nonparticipants for their perspectives. The Critiquing Adult Participation in Education (CAPE) research project sought to identify deterrents and discover ways to mitigate them in order to increase motivation to participate.

Researchers administered a survey to and conducted focus groups with 125 nonparticipating adults in five states. Study subjects included parents, seniors, homeless adults, formerly incarcerated adults, recovering addicts, adults with disabilities, and elder caregivers. The median age was 35 years, with a range from 18 to 75 years, and just over half (57 percent) were female. Annual personal income was at poverty levels, with 84 percent earning $0 to $18,000 annually. All of the study subjects had either left the education system without completing high school or had been educated outside the United States. None were currently enrolled in adult education, and 75 percent had never participated in it at all.

The CAPE project has now released three reports on its findings, summarized below.

Report 1: Deterrents and Solutions
by Margaret Becker Patterson and Wei Song

On the basis of the group interview responses, the researchers identified three categories of deterrents: situational, dispositional, and institutional.

  • Situational deterrents included transportation, family care needs, and finances. These deterrents were listed most often; the report notes that “many adults in CAPE interviews were literally fighting to survive financially and seemed on the brink of losing their few resources from threats such as a car breakdown, a family emergency, or a job loss.” Study subjects also listed other situational deterrents, including lack of a support system, anti-education sentiment in the community, unemployment, and work-related issues.
  • Dispositional deterrents included “influences from the past, health concerns or disabilities, struggles with behavior, lack of motivation, little time for themselves, anxiety or fear, [and lack] of confidence in themselves.”
  • Institutional deterrents “included requirements of education policies and procedures and ways in which adults perceived the helpfulness of adult educators. Some adults simply did not know adult education existed within reach.”

In addition to identifying deterrents, study participants outlined a number of actionable solutions. These included partnerships with faith-based and community-based organizations to establish ways of assisting adults with financial management and other situational deterrents; provision of counseling services at adult education sites to help adults manage dispositional deterrents such as anger and feelings of failure, develop self-efficacy, and persist in pursuing their educational goals; and use of both high-tech and low-tech means of distributing information about adult education opportunities more broadly.


Report 2: Motivation Around Adult Education
by Margaret Becker Patterson, Research Allies for Lifelong Learning

This report summarizes the attitudes that study participants expressed about adult education and their reasons for nonparticipation. For the most part, attitudes expressed in both surveys and group sessions were positive, although some differences of opinion became evident in the group sessions.

“At the group level,” the report notes, “male, employed, and low-income adults [identified] issues associated with the value of education somewhat more frequently than their counterparts.” Except for a small difference by gender (“a higher percentage of women placed value on education than did men”), the value placed on education did not vary by demographic group. “This finding is positive and important for those planning policy and programming, in that frequently held assumptions such as ‘older adults don’t care about adult education’ or ‘people in poverty don’t value adult education’ are not supported in this research,” according to the report.

Despite their positive attitudes toward adult education, most of the study participants had never participated in it. The reasons for a few were the cost of participating (including conflicts with other commitments and exhaustion, as well as actual financial cost) or a perception that further education was not something they needed. However, for most, the major deterrents were “past influences or traumatic experiences” associated with education, as also noted in the first report. “Adult education policies and outreach efforts need to assure adults that adult education will offer skills that will enable them to reach their goals,” the report concludes. “They need instructional services delivered in a welcoming social context and accepting learning environment.”


Report 3: Technology Use
by Margaret Becker Patterson, Research Allies for Lifelong Learning

As its title indicates, this report focuses on respondents’ experiences with technology in general (defined as getting online, pursuing online activities, and experiencing challenges that make online access more difficult) and their attitudes about using technology for learning (defined as employing learning software on standalone computers, participating in online learning, and using apps on a smartphone). The study found the following:

  • 62% of respondents are currently online
  • 24% have been online previously
  • 14% have never been online

Among those currently online, 9 out of 10 connect using smartphones. Four out of five stated that they could locate a website easily, and three out of four stated that they could find the information they needed. As the report notes, “the high rate of access to technology is encouraging and shows promise for engaging” adults who are not currently enrolled in adult education.

According to the report, technology use did not differ significantly by gender, but differences by age group were apparent. “Nearly all Millennials and two-thirds of Generation Xers used smartphones for online access at least sometimes, but 20 percent of Generation Xers and 29 percent of Baby Boomers reported never going online on a smartphone,” the report states. In addition, “Although [respondents] generally perceived high technology efficacy, efficacy rates were higher for Millennials and decreased significantly as age increased. Ease in finding a website and finding information within a website also decreased with rising age, and 10 percent of Generation Xers and 40 percent of Baby Boomers found it difficult to find websites.” However, most Baby Boomers did indicate the belief that they could learn to use technology with support.

Overall, respondents showed a preference for learning on their own rather than in groups, whether by using technology, by reading print materials, or with a tutor’s support. This preference was particularly clear with respect to using technology for learning. “Very few [respondents] preferred learning with others via technology, and stronger preferences were apparent by age. With the exception of Generation X, most indicated a preference to learn on their own rather than with others. … Two in five would use technology to learn along with other people or to solve problems with other people,” according to the report.

Respondents also reported a variety of challenges with using technology. The three challenges cited most often were difficulty concentrating, difficulty sitting for long periods of time, and eyes that tire easily. The report notes that “adults in all age groups reported comparable rates of challenges… The top three challenges were experienced at high rates by adults reporting ‘fair’ health.”

The report observes that the wide availability of access to technology and the overall positive attitude toward its use for learning bode well for initiatives that seek to expand participation in adult education through online offerings. However, it cautions that adult educators will need to respond to the learning preferences of adults who are not enrolled in adult education and work to mitigate the challenges that many of these adults face, if outreach to the forgotten 90 percent is to be successful.


The CAPE project was sponsored by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. For more information and full copies of the three reports, visit the VALUEUSA website at

Briefing on the Value of Adult Education

I will be coordinating the panel of speakers for a Congressional briefing on the outcomes and significance of federal support for adult literacy on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. The briefing is free and open to the public.

National Coalition for Literacy Invitation-1

Downloadable invitation: National Coalition for Literacy Invitation-1

Literacy and Social Justice, 50 Years On

The sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis took place 50 years ago, but the literacy issues at its heart are still with us, as Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post points out.
[The Memphis sanitation strike was a fight for better pay and working conditions. Now workers need to fight for better training, 1 February 2018]

In 1968, sanitation work was one of the few options available to those with limited literacy skills. Milloy describes Alvin Turner, who paid for his three children’s college educations on a sanitation worker’s income. Turner himself “didn’t have a lot of opportunities for formal education,” Milloy writes. “He had to take a job with low pay and high risk.”

Yet even the limited opportunities that were available to Turner have become scarce 50 years later. Milloy quotes Cleophus Smith, a Memphis sanitation worker since the 1960s.

“Years and years ago,” Smith recalled, “I told a co-worker, ‘Look, the day is going to come when we are going to have to know how to read and write because if we don’t we are not going to be able to hold a position on these garbage trucks.’ ” And sure enough, Smith said, “We had to take a skill test a few weeks ago, six to nine sheets of questions you had to read and answer. The next thing I know, these young guys are whispering to me: ‘Doc, can you help me? What’s the answer to this one?’ I don’t blame them for not being able to read. Nobody taught them.”

“To operate equipment on virtually any job today means being able to read directions,” Milloy writes. “Too many adults still have not acquired that basic skill. …If federal officials ever make good on their pledge to spend billions if not a trillion dollars to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, local officials need to be ready.”

“Tough as the fight for social and economic justice may be, it’s a whole lot harder if you’re illiterate.”

Adult Ed & Family Literacy Week 2017

AEFL Week is here! And here are links to resources that you can use to promote adult education and family literacy in your communities and with your legislators.

World Education blog series on The Well:
Educate & Elevate Campaign Toolkit:

Highlighting Literacy Success Stories

This week two corporations that have long supported adult and family literacy are launching a new social media campaign “aimed at educating customers on the positive impact literacy and reading advancements can make in one’s life and inspiring people to continually look to learn and reach their own educational goals.” The campaign, Here’s My Story, is sponsored by Dollar General and Kellogg’s and will highlight personalized literacy and education advancements stories through programs funded by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.”

The campaign launch is part of the two companies’ observation of National Literacy Month in September. “In collaboration with educational partners, the National Center for Families Learning and FiftyForward, the campaign highlights family literacy and youth literacy stories in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Nashville, Tennessee” according to the report on BusinessWire.


Literacy in a Digital World

Friday September 8 is UNESCO International Literacy Day. The theme for 2017 is “literacy in a digital world.”

According to the UNESCO ILD website, the day’s “overall aim [is] to look at what kind of literacy skills people need to navigate increasingly digitally-mediated societies, and to explore effective literacy policies and programmes that can leverage the opportunities that the digital world provides.”

Visit the ILD website for the agenda of the international conference on literacy in a digital world, taking place in Paris on September 8. The conference will be live streamed.



Parents’ Education => Children’s Academic Success

In an August 22 blog post, Education Week‘s Marva Hinton reports on a new study that demonstrates the connections between children’s early home environment and the development and persistence of their academic skills through 5th grade.

The study, conducted by Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda and colleagues at New York University and published online in Applied Developmental Science, looked at 2,204 families with children in Early Head Start.

“All of the children in the study came from low-income, ethnically diverse families,” Hinton writes. She continues,

The researchers found that children whose parents engaged them in meaningful conversations and provided them with books and toys designed to increase learning were much more likely to develop early cognitive skills that led to later academic success.

…The researchers found that early-learning environment predicted pre-K skills as well as achievement in 5th grade. They also discovered that early-learning environments predicted later learning environments. …These findings were true across all ethnic/racial groups studied.

The NYU results mirror the findings of multiple earlier studies, including those reviewed by the National Institute for Literacy in 2006 and those conducted by the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy at Penn State. They corroborate the importance of focusing on what Thomas Sticht , in a 2011 article in the American Educator, calls “the intergenerational transfer of literacy” — the ways in which reading aloud and other ways of using oral language can promote the development of children’s literacy skills. Sticht writes,

The results of studies of major early childhood education programs suggest that some of the long-term academic and social outcomes of early childhood education result not so much from the direct education of the children, but rather from education provided to highly disadvantaged parents. Changes in parenting help explain why relatively short-term education programs for children could sustain them through school, and into adulthood. Better parenting provides a long-term educational intervention for children.

However, where Sticht found a one-to-one correlation between parents’ socioeconomic status and children’s educational outcomes (he cites an average of 215,000 words per week heard by children in professional families, 125,000 by children in working class families, and 62,000 by children in welfare families), the NYU researchers were struck by the variety of early childhood experiences that they found within their low-income study group. Hinton quotes Tamis-LeMonda:

“We often make assumptions that this is a homogeneous group,” said Tamis-LeMonda. “They’re all living in poverty, so these kids will therefore be doing horribly, that parenting will be weak. What is amazing to think about is how much the experiences of these children vary from one another. You have children who are in poor families who are getting incredibly rich engagement. Parents are talking to them all the time, providing rich language, lots of books, lots of toys, and then at the other extreme, also within low-income families, you have children who are in much more impoverished circumstances.” 

Hinton writes that the NYU researchers “found that children with a father in the home, adult parents versus teenage parents, and more-educated parents tended to have better environments for early learning.” (emphasis mine)

The NYU study is thus another tool in the adult educator’s advocacy toolkit. It supports the point that the National Coalition for Literacy and its member organizations have long maintained: that the education of adults is the key that opens the door to learning for people of every age and background.

Read Marva Hinton’s EdWeek blog post here.

Read the Applied Developmental Science article on the NYU study here.

Learn more about adult education and family literacy from the National Center for Families Learning and the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy.



The Positive Power of the Arts

This summer the research and advocacy organization Americans for the Arts has released the report Arts & Economic Prosperity 5: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts & Cultural Organizations & Their Audiences. We know that the arts and cultural resources contribute to community and individual quality of life in a variety of ways; this report demonstrates that they make major economic contributions as well.

Americans for the Arts summarizes the findings this way:

Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 is Americans for the Arts’ fifth study of the nonprofit arts and culture industry’s impact on the economy. It documents the economic contributions of the arts in 341 diverse communities and regions across the country, representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $166.3 billion of economic activity during 2015—$63.8 billion in spending by arts and cultural organizations and an additional $102.5 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. This activity supported 4.6 million jobs and generated $27.5 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments (a yield well beyond their collective $5 billion in arts allocations).

By every measure, the results are impressive. This study puts to rest a misconception that communities support arts and culture at the expense of local economic development. In fact, communities are investing in an industry that supports jobs, generates government revenue, and is the cornerstone of tourism. Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 shows conclusively that, locally as well as nationally, the arts mean business!

The organization’s website provides links to national findings, local and regional findings, and a national map of the study partners. The site is also a great source of materials and guidance for arts advocacy.

“Anyone can advocate for the arts and have an impact,” the site says. “Get involved and start advocating for the arts today!”