[AAACE-NLA] Will the National Commission on Adult Literacy help the AELS?
tsticht at znet.com
tsticht at znet.com
Tue Jun 19 14:50:41 EDT 2007
June 19, 2007
Will the New National Commission on Adult Literacy Help Move the Adult
Education and Literacy System From the Margins to the Mainstream of
Education in the United States?
International Consultant in Adult Education
I have now read several reports from the Council for Advancement of Adult
Literacy (CAAL) aimed at informing the work of the new National Commission
on Adult Literacy which CAAL is managing. So far most of the reports have
been in the tradition of labor market economic, or human capital
development, or educational sociological analyses of the adult population
of the United States. Inevitably these reports repeat the litany of
problems that have been known for almost a hundred years since the
development and use of the Army Alpha and Beta tests of "intelligence" in
1917-18 during World War I.
In summary, about half the adult population (over 90 million) are below
average in "literacy" abilities and about a third of these adults (30
million) are well below average; better educated adults perform better on
tests of "literacy" than do less well educated adults; minority and
non-native English speaking groups do not perform on assessments of
"literacy" as well as do native born, majority group members; poorer people
do not have as much education and do not perform as well on "literacy"
assessments; less "literate" adults have higher unemployment rates, do not
work in management, professional, or technical jobs as much as do better
educated more highly "literate" adults; and older adults do perform as well
as younger adults on "literacy" assessments.
These various reports also follow a theme that has been salient over the
last century. This is the assertion that the world is getting more complex
and technological and this is causing demands for adult "literacy" to
increase. For the last quarter century there has been the added repeated
alarms sounded over the globalization of the world of work, other nations
score better than the US on "literacy" tests, and this raises the specter
that our nation will loose its competitiveness edge if we don't improve the
education of the adult population.
Despite this drum beat of impending doom due to the low "intelligence" or
low "literacy" skills of America's adults, federal and state governments
have apparently not heard the message or, if they have, they have decided
that the problem of adult "literacy" is not as serious as the many reports
would seem to indicate. This is evidenced by the fact that today the
combined state and federal funding of adult literacy education provides
less than $820 per adult enrolled in the 3,000 or so programs serving some
2.8 million adults in the Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) of the
United States which is funded in part by the Workforce Investment Act of
1998: Title 2: The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act.
There are several problems with the repeated assertions by government
agencies that adult literacy levels are not up to the demands of
(1) For one thing, official national unemployment rates are below 5 percent
and this contradicts the claims that adults possess literacy skills so low
that they cannot get a job.
(2) Another problem is that some 95 percent of adults themselves do not seem
to think their literacy skills are below what they need to get by.
(3) Employers in major businesses and industries are not offering programs
to upgrade the literacy skills of their own workforces to the extent that
the claims of government reports would argue are necessary.
(4) The international Assessment of Adult Life Skills (ALL) reported that
only 20 percent of workers are working in jobs for which their literacy
skills are deficient (though the workers are nonetheless employed in the
jobs), while 60 percent had literacy skills that matched their job needs,
and 20 percent had literacy skills that actually surpassed the demands of
(5) International adult literacy assessments indicate that among the richest
nations on earth the US adult population has average literacy skills in the
middle of the distribution of literacy skills of rich nations and it has
adults at the highest levels of literacy that place it in the top three or
four of the richest nations on earth.
In the foregoing I have placed the word "literacy" in quotes in many places
because despite the names given to the various surveys it is not at all
clear just what it is they are measuring. In World War I it was thought
that the Army Alpha test, which was in written format, was a test of native
"intelligence." Later such written tests as the Armed Services Vocational
Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) were called
"aptitude" tests. Then starting in the mid-1980s with the Young Adult
Literacy Survey (YALS) and continuing with various national and
international assessments up to the present time the written tests given to
assess cognitive skills of adults have been called tests of "literacy."
But some journalists and cognitive scientists have claimed the "literacy"
assessments are in fact assessments of intelligence and that IQ is normally
distributed in the adult population and so by definition half of adults will
always be below average and not much can be done about it. Indeed, the
National Center for Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) has published
research showing a positive correlation between measures of working memory,
a factor generally associated with intelligence, and performance on the
National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS).
Given all these issues involved with the national and international
assessments of adult "literacy," and the conflicting evidence regarding the
match between the skills of the adult population and the demands for
"literacy" skills in the present world social and economic context, it
seems that a valuable service for adult literacy education would be
achieved if the issues could be directly addressed by the National
Commission for Adult Literacy. To simply reiterate the controversial and
what appears to me to be fairly unproductive claims of "the wolf is at the
door" with regard to the skills of the workforce and our nation's
international competitiveness does not seem to offer much promise for
moving the Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) forward.
It seems to me that what is needed is a new perspective on the AELS as a
viable third leg of public education (Pre-K-12, Higher Education, Adult
Education & Literacy System) that serves generally hard-to-reach,
under-served adults looking to improve their own lives and the lives of
their families through education. Perhaps the work of the National
Commission for Adult Literacy will pursue and achieve positive actions to
help move the Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) from the margins
to the mainstream of education in our nation. I hope so.
Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133
Email: tsticht at aznet.net
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