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The Lessons of the Churn: Adult Basic Education and Disciplining the Adult Learner
Posted by Jessica Gilmour on October 15, 2020 in categoryFacts & ResearchcategoryAdvocacy

This week we are spotlighting the article “The Lessons of the Churn: Adult Basic Education and Disciplining the Adult Learner,” by Erik Jacobson, Montclair State University. This article is featured in ProLiteracy’s most recent issue of its research journal Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy. The journal’s mission is to publish research on adult basic and secondary education and transitions to college and career programs.

An excerpt of “The Lessons of the Churn: Adult Basic Education and Disciplining the Adult Learner” is highlighted below.

Each year in the United States, hundreds of thousands of people enroll in adult basic education (ABE) classes funded by the federal government only to leave before completing a level or accomplishing the goals that they had set for themselves. This creates an educational churn, a disruptive and disorienting process by which large numbers of people move in and out of a system to what seems like no productive end. In fact, levels of adult literacy in the United States have not changed in decades despite the work of adult education teachers, tutors and program administrators. Moreover, the persistence of this churn may indicate that it is a feature of the system, rather than an unfortunate or unforeseen outcome. Indeed, research on other types of social service provision (e.g., welfare, housing) suggests that seemingly counterproductive or inefficient systems are actually intentionally constructed to discipline and regulate the behavior of the populations in need of assistance (Piven & Cloward, 1993; Willse, 2015). If that is also the case with regards to ABE, attempts to improve literacy outcomes by continuing to focus on learner or classroom-level factors will necessarily have a limited impact. If our goal is to improve literacy levels at the societal level, the nature and functioning of the ABE system itself needs to be evaluated, rather than the efforts of individual learners and their teachers.

Re-Examining the Performance of the ABE System in the United States

Assessments of the impact of the ABE system in the United States have been conceptualized in a number of different ways. Currently, the most prominent accountability measure is the National Reporting System (NRS) for Adult Education which requires states to report the performance of programs that receive funding as part of the Workforce Improvement and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Programs and states must provide data regarding students’ ability to meet certain goals. These include educational gain, high school completion, entry into post-secondary education or training, gaining employment and retaining employment (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education [OCTAE], 2015). The data is collected and made available in annual reports that contain state by state results and cumulative statistics for the country. These reports note what percentage of students achieved their stated goals and whether or not that constitutes an improvement from previous years. Within the last five reports available (e.g., OCTAE, 2015, 2016, 2018a, 2018b, 2018c) results vary by no more than a few percentage points. For example, in 2015-2016, 41% of students whose goal was to complete at least one ABE/ASE functioning level did so, compared to 42% in 2013-2014. A narrative summary reviews the outcomes for each of the designated goals and suggests what the results mean about the performance of the system and the programs that it funds.

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