Close the illiteracy blind spot with adult education

By Tom Nash
April 25, 2016

There’s a giant blind spot in our national debate about how to rebuild the middle class, strengthen our workforce and grow our economy: tens of millions of adults in America can barely read or handle numbers. Unless we address that, we’ll be leaving way too many people and communities behind.

You can’t graduate from a community college if you can’t read or don’t have a high school diploma or the equivalent. You can’t find, get and keep a decent job if you can’t read a job listing. You may not be able to get to work reliably if you can’t understand a transit schedule. You can’t solve problems in a high-tech world if you lack even the lowest-tech skills to use a computer.

Helping millions of adults master the basics is ignored even as policymakers, elected leaders and those who want our votes talk about the also-worthy goals of strengthening K-12 classrooms, shoring up community colleges and overhauling the way we pay for college.

One in 6 working-age adults in America—some 36 million people—read at or below the lowest levels of literacy, according the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies. One in four adults in America struggle with basic numbers and problem-solving skills. 

Under-resourced and often underpaid adult ed teachers and programs are fighting the good fight, but our nation is woefully underfunding the teaching of basic skill sets these educators work to provide. We’re falling behind. 

Congress authorized dividing $635 million among states for adult basic education next year through Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The administration’s budget asks for even less, $607 million. Both are well below what the nation invested in adult ed a decade ago, though our national skills deficit grows. Appropriations are yet to come.

Yet adult basic ed makes real differences in people's lives.

Like here in my state of Maine, where the Turner Public Schools teach basic skills so adults like Yohanan Svitavsky could move from government reliance to self-reliance. Like countless people in this country, Yohanan worked hard for years, but without better literacy, he couldn’t get ahead. He lived in fear that he was one paycheck away from losing his home. He is now working his way through college.

Yet for every success, others languish, unable to get into programs that turn around adults who for whatever reason missed out on basic skills as a child or teen.

It’s bewildering that our nation doesn’t rally behind and insist on helping these adults. For every dollar invested in adult education, communities reap some $60 back in increased payroll and property taxes, reduced demand for social services and even savings on criminal justice and healthcare. 

There are positive signs. Just this month, states are filing detailed plans for federal adult basic education funds promised under WIOA. They lay out each state’s strategic visions and goals, rigorous metrics for tracking success, and details for aligning learning with the job skills needed to address each state’s current and projected workforce needs.

But providing even modest funding for those plans remains uncertain.

Congress should keep its word and at a bare minimum fully fund WIOA at the authorized level. Political leaders left, right and center must remember there are millions of working age—and voting age—adults yearning for the basic reading and math skills they need to get jobs and wages that will sustain their lives and their families. They can be part of the engine that grows our economy with a stronger middle class.

Our nation is falling behind the world in educating our citizens. Even as we rethink K-12 classrooms, community colleges and beyond, let’s not ignore the millions of adults who are falling between the cracks of illiteracy and who can instead help us soar ahead.

If we truly want to bring prosperity to middle America and strengthen our national economy and workforce, we need to close that blind spot and invest in our people—with the basics.

Tom Nash, Director of Adult Education in the Windham Raymond (Maine) School District and President of the national Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE)