[AAACE-NLA] Reforming The AELS of the US: Top-Down VS Bottom-Up
heather at nmcl.org
Wed May 28 20:00:13 EDT 2008
Tom, thanks for asking the Million Dollar Question. As Archimedes is
fabled to have said, "Eureka!" You've been building up to this
question in many ways, so here we are now.
We chose the latter option as a state agency when presented with
both. It's going to take an overhaul of the system before we buy back
in. Many volunteer and/or community-based literacy programs have been
choosing the latter option, too. Those who are private and
independently managed are student-goal driven (not curriculum and
assessment driven). Nationally, about 1/3 of ProLiteracy's membership
does not operate with funds from Title II because the model won't
work for them or their learners. Thus, they are truly student-
centered. In the 60s and 70s, policy and practice in psychology and
education was student-centered, but the desire for "evidenced-based"
practice, i.e., the medical model, moved us away from that revolution
yet again, as it did early in the century when the zeitgeist first
There are feigned attempts at student-centered practice in the AELS
system through the use of MI theory in practice, yet no one
challenges its flaws, as you've previously pointed out. These
attempts at student-centeredness- whether on the mark or amiss - are
negated by a heavy, bureaucratic system. Literacy programs have the
flexibility to meet student goals, a flexibility the broken system
Student goal attainment is our prime mover; goals are practical and
relevant to students' lives and there are many ways to meet goals.
That's what we focus on as a most marked measure of success as a
statewide funder and supporter of literacy programs, but even some
movement toward goal attainment is still a mark of success because
it's progress. Why not go with that model? I fear the AELS lost the
forest for the trees somewhere along the way.
I want to leave you all with a helpful passage from A History of
Modern Psychology to illustrate the ways in which the AELS is
undergoing a similar zeitgeist. My hope is that it prompts further
reading and a healthy dialogue. In many ways, adult education has
recently built for itself a system, "to build a better machine."
"To lend authority and scientific credibility to their fledgling
enterprise, intelligence testers had adopted terminology from the
older disciplines of medicine and engineering. Their purpose was to
persuade people that psychology was just as legitimate, scientific,
and essential as the more established sciences. Psychologists
described the people they tested not as subjects but as patients.
Tests were said to be analogous to thermometers, which at that time
were available on to physicians. No one who lacked proper training
was permitted to use a thermometer, a claim also made for
psychological tests. Tests were promoted as X-Ray machines enabling
psychologists to see inside the mind, to dissect their patients'
mental mechanisms. 'The more [psychologists] sounded like doctors,
the more willing the public was to accord them similar
status' [Keiger, 1993, p. 49]...Metaphors from engineering were also
cited. Schools were referred to as education factories, and tests as
ways to measure a factory's products (the students' levels of
intelligence)...By employing these metaphors, these analogies with
other sciences, psychologists hoped to enhance their credibility and
proceed to apply psychological testing to every level and facet of
society" (Schultz & Schultz, 2004, p. 229).
Now, we see "evidenced-based practice" everywhere, from K-12,
counseling, higher education, and finally, adult literacy. I think
VALUE's points are well-heeded. At least there is hope. There are
adult literacy programs who don't all practice in this way right now,
yet they are rarely recognized for the good work they do.
If we're to have a future for ourselves in the field of literacy and
adult basic education in the 21st century, we should look to and
learn from the past first. I think a lot of our questions will be
answered if we look to our foundations. The history of education (a
large part of which is the history of psychology and human nature),
will help us in the field of literacy better see the big picture of
how to best serve adult literacy and adult basic education students.
Are we really serving them better under the existing AELS model or
does the model serve ourselves? Again, if it didn't work the first
time (K-12), why do it again? That's the definition of insanity back
to which we often harken.
Heather Heunermund, Executive Director
New Mexico Coalition for Literacy
heather at nmcl.org
3209 Mercantile Ct. Ste. B
Santa Fe, NM 87507
On May 28, 2008, at 10:00 AM, aaace-nla-
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1. Reforming the AELS (tsticht at znet.com)
Date: Tue, 27 May 2008 14:24:32 -0700
From: tsticht at znet.com
Subject: [AAACE-NLA] Reforming the AELS
To: aaace-nla at lists.literacytent.org
Message-ID: <1211923472.483c7c105dbac at webmail.znet.net>
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May 27, 2008
Reforming The Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS)
of the United States: Top-Down and Bottom-Up Perspectives
International Consultant in Adult Education
Presently there are two groups advocating for change to the Adult
and Literacy System (AELS) of the United States. One is the National
Council of State Directors of Adult Education (NCSDAE) consisting of the
state leadership of programs jointly funded in part by Title 2 The Adult
Education and Family Literacy Act of the Workforce Investment Act of
This group represents what I am calling a "top down" point of view on
AELS and its operation to service our nation's adult education and
The NCSDAE has an American Competitiveness Initiative which notes
2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) reports some 93
adults with literacy below the minimum thought necessary in our
contemporary world. The NCSDAE Initiative essentially calls for the
continuation of the present AELS but in an expanded version. The NCSDAE
American Competitiveness Initiative report calls for yearly increases in
the federal component of the AELS budget up to $2 billion in
an increase from the present 2.6 or so million enrollments to some 4
million enrollments. This would result in about $500 federal dollars per
enrollment. Even with state funding added, the report projects about
per enrollee as a national average, though actual amounts would vary
state to state.
The second group advocating for change of the AELS is a non-governmental
organization called VALUE: Voice of Adult Learners United to
is an organization governed by adult learners with the mission of
representing the educational interests of adult learners at a national
level. The VALUE organization considers that the present AELS does not
well serve the needs of adult learners and it is calling for
alternative model for adult basic education to replace the present AELS.
This initiative based on VALUE's understanding of the needs of adult
learners is what I am calling a "bottom up" point of view on adult
education in the United States.
In what VALUE is calling its Social Change Initiative, a call for
reform" of the present AELS is made. The web site for VALUE USA
number of question and answers about the reason for the Social Change
Initiative. Two of these Q & A address the following:
1. Question: "Why do you say the adult literacy system has failed to
the needs of most consumers?"
Answer: "90 million adults in our nation have low literacy skills. The
current adult basic education system is serving fewer than 3 million of
them. That means, 87 million aren't being served at all. The vast
of them don't want to seek help from a system that looks like the
that failed them in the past - a system that by its design continues to
reinforce the stigma of adult low-literacy. Many who do seek help
because they can't achieve their own real goals in a timely manner
system that uses outdated methods. That's what we mean by a failed
modernized, expanded, consumer-driven system will do much to solve these
problems. It is not just about more money and better outreach though;
entire system must change.
It is not our intent to indict or condemn the local programs and
in the current system. VALUE acknowledges that they are working very
and doing the best they can within the policy constraints placed upon
However, they need more resources, a better system model, and
use 21st Century instructional approaches in order to serve more than
the 90 million adults in this country with low literacy skills and truly
help them achieve their personal goals in a timely manner. "
2. Question: "What "drastic reform" do you feel is needed?"
Answer: "First, the adult basic education system must be expanded to
many times more adult learners than does the current system. VALUE
that we can no longer justify a system that annually serves only 3%
90 million adults with low literacy skills.
Second, the current system treats learners not as adults with time-
real-life goals, with job and family responsibilities, with knowledge
experience acquired over a lifetime, and with the burden of shame and
stigma associated with low literacy, but it subjects them to a child-
K-12 system when their needs and strengths as students are not the
those of children in the K-12 system. So few seek help and many that do
drop out because this approach is completely inappropriate given the
complexities of adult lives in the 21st Century.
Third, the system must take advantage of tremendous advances in
The current adult basic education system uses the computer mostly as
for drill and practice and largely ignores its potential to speed up the
process of meeting learner goals. Technology that reads, writes, and
translates exists today for the blind, the deaf, diplomats and
international business people. With widespread access to knowledge
technology, adult learners can more rapidly gain the skills and
needed to be productive members of the global workforce.
Lastly, learner goal achievement must be the primary measure of
a redesigned adult basic education system. The current system uses
standardized test scores as a primary measure of success and
the program focus is on successful test-taking rather than goal
Adult learners want to focus on their own goals, not on artificial goals
generated for local programs by the system."
Here, then, are two different views of the AELS. A "top down" view
incremental changes in the AELS to improve it by serving more adults
the major change being an increase in the funding for the AELS. A
up" view calls for "drastic reform" of the system for adult education
literacy with a better alignment of the adult education system with the
exigencies of adult life circumstances and needs.
Here is a question: Is it better to stay with the present AELS and
efforts to make incremental improvements with better funding, or
present AELS be essentially discarded and replaced with a new, 21st
system for the education of adults?
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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