As part of the IES 20th Anniversary celebration, we are highlighting NCER’s investments in field-initiated research. In the Adult Education and Adult Foundational Skills series, NCER will be spotlighting researchers and projects and sharing information about research to improve outcomes for adult learners.
In this opening blog, program officer Dr. Meredith Larson defines NCER’s use of the terms adult education and adult foundational skills, which have specific meaning and scope for IES research. Dr. Larson also describes who the adult learners are, why research in this area is important, and the research NCER has supported.
How does NCER define Adult Education and Adult Foundational Skills?
NCER uses the term adult education to refer to a system legislatively defined in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The adult education system serves learners who are at least 16 years old and not enrolled in K-12 through programs such as adult basic education, adult secondary education, integrated education training, family literacy, and integrated English language and civics.
By adult foundational skills, NCER means the common academic skills—such as literacy (reading, writing, listening), English language proficiency, and numeracy—that are necessary for participating in college or career. Nowadays, digital literacy and digital skills are emerging as foundational skills.
As researchers and practitioners in this field discuss how to define their work and purpose, NCER’s use of the terms may evolve
How many U.S. adults have low foundational skills?
Data from the 2017 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) indicate that roughly 114 to 135 million U.S. adults may have significant or moderate skill gaps in reading or numeracy, with approximately 48 million (23 percent) of adults having significantly low literacy and 69 million (33 percent) having significant low numeracy skill. Having low foundational skills may impede adults’ ability to pursue education or training, participate fully in the workforce, or engage civically.
What is the adult education system like?
Although millions of U.S. adults may benefit from building foundational skills, the adult education system and programs focus on adults with significant skill gaps and those who lack a high school diploma or equivalent.
Adult learners who enter into this system vary widely. They can include people from all regions, races, ethnicities, age groups, and levels of academic attainment, including those with no formal education to those with advanced degrees from other countries. They may be parents, workers, or retirees. They may seek out programs to learn how to read, earn a high school diploma, prepare for employment or college, or pass a citizenship test. The educators who teach adult learners are also diverse. Some have teaching certification, but many do not. The majority of them are part-time. There is also a wide variety of program providers (community colleges, community-based organizations, LEAs, etc.), relevant policies (federal, state, local), and funding sources. The National Reporting System for Adult Education includes descriptive data on students and programs reported to the US Department of Education as part of annual reporting requirements for grantees.
Why is research on this area important? What types of work has NCER supported?
Because of the diversity of learners in the system and the complexity of the system itself, the way forward maybe be unclear without a solid research base to inform policy and practice. Research can provide the knowledge, innovations, and evidence that can help learners, educators, and policymakers make informed choices and decision.
The adult education and foundational skills research portfolio at NCER is small but expanding. Between 2004 and 2021, NCER has invested approximately $51.8 million across 27 awards (grants and contracts) relevant to adults with low foundational skills who are in or eligible for adult education services. Please see a list of the NCER adult education and foundational skills projects funded since 2004: Word file or PDF file).
In the early years of NCER, research addressing adult education and foundational skills tended to focus only on reading, and adults were not the primary or sole focus of the study. Over time, this research has grown to encompass additional skills and education policy, and more studies focused primarily on adults served by the adult education system. The earliest NCER study in this set was funded in 2004 and is a direct ancestor to a 2016 grant to validate a reading assessment specifically for adult struggling readers. Other adult education projects have also built off of early NCER work and have inspired other projects. For example, NCER’s first adult education research and development center, the Center for the Study of Adult Skills (CSAL), incorporated work from one of NCER’s first grants in 2002 and led subsequent development research. Multiple awards in the adult education portfolio also use the PIAAC, as a resource for both research (see here, here, and here) and training grants.
What is on the horizon for NCER research?
One significant recent trend in this portfolio has been the expanding role of technology and digital skills. From CSAL to the CREATE Adult Skills Network and to projects exploring adult problem solving in digital environments, NCER researchers are building knowledge and developing interventions that focus on technology and adult learners’ ability to benefit from technology.
In particular, the CREATE Adult Skills Network is bringing together multiple research teams around technology to support reading, writing, math, professional development, civics/history and English language instruction, and assessment. CREATE is also helping to disseminate information about the role of technology in adult education and the importance of developing adults’ foundational skills.
How can people learn more?
Please visit the project homepage for the CREATE Adult Skills Network and sign up for their newsletters. The network also hosts blogs and podcasts, both of which include discussions of research. People can also visit the IES-wide topic page for adult skills, which curates examples of the work happening across IES relevant to adult education or adult foundational skills.
Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov) is a research analyst and program officer at NCER. Her focus areas include postsecondary teaching and learning, adult education, and postdoctoral research training. She was trained in cognitive and instructional psychology and psycholinguistics and has served as a volunteer tutor for refugee children and in adult basic and adult secondary education programs.