America’s adult education system is broken. Here’s how experts say we can fix it

Experts say that more money is critical to improving the national system

Published December 28, 2022 7:45AM (EST)

Silhouettes of students with graduate caps in a row on sunset background (Getty Images)
Silhouettes of students with graduate caps in a row on sunset background (Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on ProPublica.

They never got the help they needed with learning disabilities. Or they came to this country without the ability to read English. Or they graduated from schools that failed to teach them the most crucial skills.

For a number of sometimes overlapping reasons, 48 million American adults struggle to read basic English, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That may leave them unable to find and keep a decent job, navigate the signage on city streets, follow medical instructions and vote. They're vulnerable to scams and face stigma and shame.

The main remedy available is adult education: free classes where they can improve their reading and earn a high school credential.

But the infrastructure for adult education is profoundly inadequate, a ProPublica investigation found — and, as the nation's persistently low literacy rates reveal, the government's efforts haven't done enough to address the problem. About 500 counties across the nation are hot spots where nearly a third of adults struggle to read basic English. This contributes to disproportionate underemployment. In communities with lower literacy, there is often less economic investment, a smaller tax base and fewer resources to fund public services.

"It's in our best interest to make sure that, regardless of why people didn't get an education the first time around, that they get one now," said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition who focuses on adult education and workforce policy.

ProPublica interviewed experts, students and educators about some of the best ideas for improving adult education. While many experts have said that more money is critical to improving the national system, many states have developed innovations in spite of their limited funding. There are ways to help adults overcome low literacy, and making that help more widely accessible would solve larger problems, both for individuals and for their communities.

Give adults with the lowest literacy skills more attention.

Strict federal standards prompt states to push adult students to get a high school credential as fast as possible. Students who need more time can flounder in such a system. "It's so hard to get students at the basic level. They are lacking so much," said Andrew Strehlow, who directs adult education for Rankin County School District in Mississippi.

The expectation of steady academic gains can be challenging for adult students, particularly for those who have not learned in a classroom in more than a decade. "If you are reading at the sixth-grade level and someone said you have three months to pack in six years of high school because that's the end of the program, realistically, how many will do it? None," said Diane Renaud, who directs the St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center in Detroit. Research has shown that some programs even resort to pushing out struggling students from their classes.

Some programs have focused on providing students with more one-on-one support. The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District offers each student the chance to work with a coach who calls and encourages them as they work toward a high school credential. Jill Hersha, the library's literacy services manager, said many of the program's students had worked in the hospitality industry for years and lost their jobs. "But they hadn't been in school in forever," she said. Coaches help them define their goals and move forward, step by step.

Increase the availability and flexibility of classes, especially in rural areas.

ProPublica found that large swaths of the country lack adult education classes, and residents must travel dozens of miles to enroll in programs. In Mississippi, about 1 in 5 counties lacks a state-run program. In some parts of rural Nevada, people must take virtual classes or drive up to 70 miles, said Meachell LaSalle Walsh, who directs adult education at Great Basin College in Elko. Even in urban areas, inflexible class scheduling may make it difficult for people to attend.

To increase accessibility, some states have developed partnerships to ensure programming is available across vast areas. A decade ago, after a state report found its vast adult education system uncoordinated and fragmented, California reconfigured it into regional consortia that could better assess local needs and collaborate with community groups. In each of the 71 regions, local community colleges and school districts work together to align their teaching materials, collect data on students across programs and make sure they offer distinct services. The new structure helps ensure students can access programs, regardless of where they live. "The idea is to work together to meet the needs of the students and the workforce within that region," said Carolyn Zachry, the state's adult education director.

Train educators on how to work with adults with disabilities.

Experts estimate that as many as half of adult students have learning disabilities, which are sometimes undiagnosed. Many programs don't have resources to work with these students. "They are horribly underserved," said Monica McHale-Small, education director for the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Nationally, less than 5% of adult teachers are certified in special education, according to federal data. Last year, in the entire state of Tennessee, there was only one teacher for adults who was certified in special education.

Some states have developed centralized programs to show teachers how to work with adults with disabilities. Minnesota funds the Physical And Nonapparent Disability Assistance program, which gives workshops and consults with programs on best practices. "Individuals who have disabilities, especially the hidden disabilities, you wouldn't know unless they disclosed it, and they may not have ever even been diagnosed," said Wendy Sweeney, who manages the organization. "It's important that we make sure the teachers have some strategies to work with a student in their class and help them with their learning."

Invest more money in adult education programs.

The federal government provided about $675 million to states for adult education last year, a figure that has been stagnant for more than two decades, when adjusted for inflation. And while states are also required to contribute a minimum amount, ProPublica found large gaps in what they spend. Lower funding leads to smaller programs with less reach: Less than 3% of eligible adults receive services. "When there's no awareness by these legislators at the state or federal level, they just don't put the extra money in," said Michele Diecuch, programs director at the nonprofit ProLiteracy.

This year, Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia introduced a bill to expand access and increase the federal adult education budget by $300 million over the next five years. The House passed the bill this spring, but it's hung up in the Senate and unlikely to become law anytime soon. Some states have also increased their funding for adult education in recent years. After cutting more than a million dollars from adult education in 2021, Georgia chose to restore that money in its upcoming state budget. It also raised pay for full-time state employees by $5,000, which helps some but not all adult education teachers. State lawmakers often need a big push from advocates and educators to increase funding, said Sharon Bonney, chief executive officer of the Coalition on Adult Basic Education. "Talk to your governor about the value of the work that you do, because when governors understand that they're much more likely to fund it," she said.

Increase teacher pay and add more full-time teachers.

Most adult education teachers work part time or are volunteers, leading to high turnover and inconsistent instruction. In Tennessee, more than a third of staff teachers are uncertified, and more than 80% only work part time. (Uncertified teachers must take training modules on adult education, according to the state's labor and workforce department.) Leslie Travis, adult education coordinator at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Athens, dreams about what she could do with more full-time teachers. "I could open a whole lot more classes," she said. "I need to hire at least six teachers right now." Travis landed on a less-than-ideal solution to avoid wait-listing students: crowding more than 25 students into classrooms. Similarly, in Nevada, almost all adult education teachers work part time and half of them are uncertified. "Even in Reno and Las Vegas, they're having trouble staffing," said Nancy Olsen, the state's adult education programs supervisor.

Some states have found ways to provide teachers with professional development: Massachusetts and Minnesota have "train the trainer" programs, where experienced teachers train newer ones. In Arkansas, which commits a larger share of funding than other states, all teachers must be certified in education and full-time teachers must be specifically certified to teach adults or working toward a license — sharpening their ability to support nontraditional students. "It really makes a difference when you have teachers who have gone through training of how to teach adult learners of different levels," said Arkansas' adult education director, Trenia Miles.

Help students overcome barriers that inhibit them from attending class.

Since she dropped out of high school in 11th grade to care for her newborn daughter, Mississippi-native Rolonda McNair, 27, has long wanted to obtain a high school credential. "You're not going to get a good paying job without having it," she said. But between work and child care responsibilities, she could not set aside enough time to attend class. To restart her education this past summer, McNair had to stop working full time and move in with her mother, who could watch her children while she was in school. Many adult learners face similar barriers, from a lack of steady child care or transportation to job inflexibility. Educators are increasingly recognizing the importance of addressing these obstacles.

Mississippi has created the MIBEST initiative, providing some students with support like child care, transportation, food assistance, help with testing fees and career counseling. But the program relies on temporary philanthropic funding and mostly directs support to students who enter at the highest levels. "We have never had enough funding to offer that level of support to every single person," said Nikitna Barnes, an assistant director at the Mississippi Community College Board, which oversees adult education for the state.

Pay adults to return to the classroom.

Kathryn Iski, 56, entered a Nashville, Tennessee, adult education program last year as a beginner in both reading and math. Iski, who did not attend school as a child, studied for months and progressed multiple grade levels in reading. But this June, she had to stop after her job at a Target deli required her to work overtime. After more than three months, she fell behind in her studies and had to work hard to catch up. Adult students like Iski often must skip classes when they conflict with work schedules. They may fall behind and take longer to achieve their goals.

Some of the most innovative programs combine adult education and actual jobs to encourage attendance; experts say these opportunities are rare because of insufficient federal and state funds. ProPublica's story highlighted Detroit's Skills for Life, which pays residents to return to school two days a week and pays them to work city jobs the other three days. Last year, in Georgia, DeKalb County's sanitation department offered employees without high school diplomas an opportunity to take virtual classes on company time. The department also covered fees for credential exams. "We had 100% retention," said Meghan McBride, who leads adult education at Georgia Piedmont Technical College and helped start the workplace program.

Open education programs to all students, regardless of immigration status.

A handful of states, including Arizona and Georgia, prevent adult education programs from using state funding to serve undocumented people. Arizona denies enrollment to hundreds of people each year because they did not provide evidence of citizenship or legal residence in the country, as required by a law passed by voters in 2006. In Georgia, which passed a law in 2010 requiring programs to verify that applicants are in the country legally, three federally funded groups that serve mainly immigrants and refugees are denied state funding because they allow undocumented students. Arizona's Department of Education declined to comment on the policy's impact on enrollment or programs. Georgia's assistant commissioner of adult education, Cayanna Good, said undocumented immigrants without programs to serve them are falling through the cracks.

In these states, undocumented immigrants who want to learn English, obtain a high school credential or improve their reading skills have few choices, and even fewer that are free. This decision comes with a price, according to adult education expert Bergson-Shilcock. "The 'price' in this case is not only lost earnings and tax revenue from less-educated workers, but the human cost of creating a two-tiered society in which some people are explicitly being told that their lives and aspirations are not worth investing in," she said. "The immediate cost of educating a person is far cheaper than the long-run social costs of not educating them."

Weave together technical and academic instruction to prepare people for jobs.

In the 2000s, adult students in Washington were, at best, obtaining high school credentials, but they were not progressing to further education or jobs that paid a living wage. "We were hemorrhaging people up and down the pipeline," said Will Durden, a state adult education director. The programs were poorly connected to college classes or work credential programs. "You're spending all this time learning math that doesn't seem relevant, that doesn't seem like it's going to help you get ahead in life," he said. "So students drop out."

Washington pioneered the I-BEST program, which allows adults without high school diplomas to pursue academic skills and job training at the same time. Two teachers — one providing reading and math skills, and the other job training — work in tandem, putting lessons into context and allowing adults to advance more quickly. Recent studies show I-BEST students were more likely to attain a technical credential than adult students who did not go through the program. It has been replicated in other places, including Mississippi.

Protect a right to literacy for school children.

Experts say the best way to improve literacy rates is to teach children to read proficiently before they become adults. Even though all state constitutions include a right to an education, the U.S. Constitution does not — although 170 other countries affirm that right in their constitutions. Without this commitment, children and their families have struggled to hold schools accountable for appalling proficiency rates.

In recent years, a handful of lawsuits have challenged whether children have a right to literacy. In 2016, a group of Detroit students sued the state, claiming its failure to provide an adequate education left a district serving almost exclusively low-income children of color struggling to read, in violation of the 14th Amendment. "Literacy is fundamental to participation in public and private life and is the core component in the American tradition of education," plaintiffs said in their complaint.

A federal judge initially dismissed the case, agreeing with the state's position that "access to literacy is not a fundamental right." Two years later, in 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed part of the ruling, declaring students should have a "fundamental right to a basic minimum education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy." Michigan settled the case about a month later, promising $94 million for literacy programs in Detroit's schools.

Students across the country are fighting to hold states accountable to their constitutional commitments. In California in 2017, students sued for a right to literacy, arguing that it was essential to a person's ability to participate in democracy. They eventually settled with the state. Recent litigation in Minnesota and North Carolina has also argued for access to a quality education.

"There is no defense of a system that fails to teach kids how to read," said Mark Rosenbaum, the attorney for students in both the Detroit and California cases. "You deny students access to literacy, it's the most effective strategy you can develop to disenfranchise communities."

By Annie Waldman

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By Anna Clark

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Grantland, the Columbia Journalism Review, and elsewhere. She can be found at and on Twitter: @annaleighclark.

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