April is National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month! As part of the IES 20th Anniversary celebration, we are highlighting NCER’s investments in field-initiated research. In this guest blog, Drs. Nikki Edgecombe (Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University) and George Bunch (University of California, Santa Cruz) discuss their IES-funded study focused on identifying the policies and practices that support multilingual learners (MLs) in community colleges, the important role of adult education English as a Second Language (adult ed ESL), and some of the lessons learned. MLs in community colleges, a significantly understudied population, include students who were classified as English learners in K-12 but also more recent arrivals to the US with a wide variety of education backgrounds and adult immigrants and refugees who have lived in the US for a number of years.
Vital Role of Adult Education ESL
The demands on and opportunities for adult education programs, specifically adult ed ESL, are growing. The programs are affordable and accessible to immigrant communities and people with lower levels of academic preparation—many of whom were hit hard by the pandemic and disproportionately experienced negative education, health, and economic consequences. Simultaneously, the pandemic highlighted the increasing, critical need for multilingual workers across fields, including education, healthcare, and government. Adult ed ESL programs can help bring those workers into the labor market.
According to the National Reporting System for Adult Education, in program year 2021-22, nationally, free or low-cost adult education programs enrolled about 900,000 students, with nearly 50 percent in English language acquisition or integrated English literacy and civics education programs. Sixteen states house adult education programs in community and technical colleges, often in addition to other community-based and educational settings (see this site for information about state grants). These programs provide a unique opportunity for students to improve “everyday” English skills and serve as a ready-made pathway to a postsecondary credential. Yet, the programs and their students face a number of challenges.
Asking the Questions Practitioners Want Answers To
For the last 4 years, we examined policies and practices that affect the experiences and outcomes of MLs in a large midwestern community college district. The research has focused on adult ed ESL, in part at the recommendation of our district partners. The district serves thousands of ESL students annually, and institutional leaders have actively pursued improvements to program access, instruction, and progression. As we learned more about the improvement efforts underway, we were able to gain a clearer picture of the stringent federal and state policies adult education operates under, which have at times challenged district leaders' ability to make the kinds of changes necessary to enhance student outcomes. Our institutional partners are not deterred, however, and continue to seek ways to strengthen their adult education program, make it more student-centered, and make policy more effective. They consider research an important resource in this improvement process. As such, we both documented their efforts and examined how the policy context affected what they were doing.
What We Are Finding
We wanted to better understand who the MLs are, their life circumstances, their college experiences, and their goals. We reported the following trends to our community college partners.
- Adult ed ESL students are older and less likely to be working than their peers in credit programs. As a group, they are more likely to either have not earned a high school diploma or GED or have previously earned a baccalaureate degree or higher. Adult ed ESL students in our survey sample report enrolling in adult ed ESL to improve their everyday English literacy skills, to strengthen their employment prospects and prepare themselves for the language and literacy demands of further postsecondary education.
- The multiple ESL levels required by policy may generate obstacles to progression, particularly for students who initially place in the lower levels of the sequence. MLs in our partner district place into 1 of 6 adult ed ESL courses. As research has previously established, community college students rarely persist through long sequences of courses, and our preliminary administrative data analysis shows students in our sample generally persist for less than 2 semesters. In response, our district partner developed a full-time position to help students in the transitions into, through, and out of adult education; has offered short (4- and 8-week) courses; built out dedicated academic and nonacademic supports; and created an intentional on-ramp to credit programs. Nonetheless, the length of the sequence appears to undermine retention and progression.
- The prescribed assessment and placement procedures make it difficult for community college-based adult ed ESL programs to meet the varied English language learning needs of enrollees. Language learning is a complex phenomenon that requires students to develop a range of productive (speaking and writing) and receptive (listening and reading) literacy skills for a wide range of academic, professional, and community participation goals. That learning can look quite different for different students in different education environments and proficiency measurement is equally complex. Our district partner used one of the federally mandated assessments to both place students and measure their proficiency gains. The test is relatively inexpensive and easy to administer, but it only measures reading, just one aspect of language proficiency, leaving no consistent record of proficiency levels in speaking, listening, and writing.
New Directions in Adult Ed ESL Policy Research
Early findings from the study have the potential to inform changes in policy and practice at our district partner. Our findings also raise issues that federal and state policymakers and practitioners working on the ground may need to work together to answer, including how policy systems can balance the perceived need for standards and accountability with community colleges’ need to structure and administer the programs in ways that best meet the needs of MLs.
To pursue this line of inquiry, we will explore the origin and rationale for adult ed ESL policy and how that policy translates from federal to state to institutional providers. We will also learn more about the goals and experiences of adult ed ESL students coming out of the pandemic, explore the perceptions and experiences of adult educators and program staff, and provide formative feedback on the reform efforts underway at our district partner with a particular focus on whether and how policy is helping or hindering their ability to meet their goals.
This blog was produced by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer at NCER.