Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Connecting to Place and People: How My Experiences with Native American Communities Motivate My Work

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In this guest blog, Dr. Tabitha Stickel, a second-year postdoctoral research fellow at the Georgia State University (GSU) Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program shares her experiences working with adult education programs in Native American tribal lands and how it has shaped her work and purpose.

Entering Adult Education: Connection to the Land and Peoples of the Southwest

Prior to graduate school, I found work as an adult education teacher at a rural, southwestern community college in the traditional lands of the Diné (Navajo), the Hopi, and the Ndee (Western Apache). This college, which served the indigenous communities, was set in the short-grass prairies, spotted with juniper trees in a land that seemed silent and empty to the untrained eye. But the land was full of life and opportunity, and the students I met gave me new appreciation for the opportunities adult education could provide.

As an adjunct faculty in an adult basic and developmental education program, I traveled several hours each week to teach classes on the Diné and Hopi tribal lands. I was immediately struck by the students’ dedication to their education and personal goals—to be the first in their families to earn a college degree, help their children or grandchildren with homework, find or keep employment, and/or fulfill the promise of completing high school made to themselves or others. 

Challenges in Adult Education for Rural Students

Despite this dedication, adult students face a variety of barriers to attending classes. Adult students often must contend with the challenges of caretaking, work, and transportation—a perennial problem for rural students, as there is no public transportation. Some students were able to carpool, and some of the tribes arranged vans to transport the “closer” students to the campus.

Even when faced with such challenges, students showed up each week. I had students without electricity at home who used their cell phones to access class materials, one of many such examples of the digital divide in rural areas. I had a student who made burritos each week and sold them to raise money for a desk for her schoolwork. These students drove my passion for my work. When students overcome incredible odds for their education, how can an educator do anything other than rise to meet them? Earning an education credential, such as a high school equivalency, could have far-reaching positive outcomes for the students and their families. 

What My Students Taught Me

In addition to learning about the challenges and rewards adult learners face, I also learned the importance of listening to students and checking assumptions. For instance, I had a GED student who was chronically late. One day, I called her because I was frustrated that she was over an hour late, only to learn that she was on her way. In fact, she was walking more than 20 miles to come to class. She had been unable to hitch-hike to class as she normally would. I was completely humbled in that moment and realized that my assumptions were keeping me from understanding her. She ended up earning her GED a month later.

When my students shared their stories, I learned how their lived experiences—including the very land on which they lived—shaped them. When I began to truly listen to these stories and understand their importance, I became a better teacher. And I knew that these stories deserved to be heard and answered with more than I could offer as a single teacher.

Moving Between Two Worlds: Research and Practice

My experiences in the southwest prompted me to attend graduate school and research how to understand, empower, and teach adult learners. In general, however, there is insufficient research on adult education within and for certain populations. I wanted help to address this gap, so I centered my work on identifying culturally relevant themes of belonging for Native adult education students to explore the various pathways along which student belonging might develop.

In 2020, I returned to the adult education program I had worked in to gather stories from the students for my dissertation. I found student stories became intertwined with the pandemic and revealed the extent of the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic was having on the Native American communities and students’ sense of belonging. COVID-19 was making it more difficult for students to balance attending class and providing for their families. It was also making the digital divide even more apparent—as adult education programs transitioned to remote instruction, students had to navigate the realities of participating and belonging in the digital sphere. I further explore these themes in the Coalition on Adult Basic Education’s (COABE) forthcoming special issue on COVIDs effects on adult students.

As with other challenges, these Native communities and students continued to survive and thrive despite the tragedies of COVID-19. The students and staff in the adult education programs in these tribal communities deserve all the recognition in the world for their dedication, their creativity in addressing ever-present and ever-arising challenges, and their persistence.

My own commitment to this endeavor led me to become a postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University (GSU) Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. I hope to soon return to the land and communities that have so integrally changed my life.  

Although I may return with more knowledge of the adult education field and how to facilitate classroom learning, I will occupy not just a “teacher” role but a student one as well, as I have much to learn from the lands, the people, and the experiences they inevitably shape.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants and Postsecondary and Adult Education research at NCER.

Becoming a Citizen: Creating a Curriculum for Adult Civics Courses

As we return from our celebration of Independence Day, we also want to celebrate the efforts and dedication of the learners and educators who participate in adult literacy’s integrated English literacy and civics education. This important, but sometimes forgotten, aspect of adult education opens opportunities for learners and creates an engaged, informed citizenry.

What is “integrated civics” in adult education?

Under Title II of the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), integrated English literacy and civics education refers to services for adult English language learners, including professionals with degrees and credentials in their native countries, to build their English language skills—foundational and more advanced—to support their roles as parents, workers, and citizens in the United States. These courses must include English literacy instruction and “instruction on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and civic participation and may include workforce training.”

Are there specific curricula for these programs?

Although WIOA defined what had and could be included in this form of adult education, it did not specify how to include it. Nor did WIOA mandate a particular curriculum or instructional practices. Thus, programs offering these courses may leverage resources from multiple sources and design approaches to meet their communities’ needs.

Luckily, both the Office of Career, Adult, and Technical Education (OCATE, U.S. Department of Education) and the U.S. Citizen and Immigrations Services (USCIS, Department of Homeland Security) have developed resources and standards to help educators.

Though multiple guides, online education resources, and other teaching materials are available, the evidence base and promise of these is not always apparent.  

Is IES supporting research in this area?

In FY21, IES awarded a research grant, Content-Integrated Language Instruction for Adults with Technology Support (CILIA-T), to Dr. Aydin Durgunoglu (University of Minnesota). She and her team of researchers and educators are developing and pilot testing a curriculum that aims to strengthen English language proficiency, knowledge of U.S. history and civics, and digital literacy. This project, which is part of the CREATE Adult Skills Research Network, is the first field-initiated research project IES has funded for adult English learners or adult civics.

Why is integrating language and civics important?

A fundamental instructional practice in adult education is to link instruction to activities and goals highly relevant to the adult learner. For refugees, immigrants, and others new to the United States, becoming a citizen and being able to communicate with others are both highly relevant goals and both daunting tasks. By blending the two, these courses may help adults persist longer and gain knowledge in skills in multiple domains concurrently.

Dr. Durgunglu notes—

I don’t think conversational skills are enough for refugees or immigrants as they learn to navigate in their new communities. To be participatory citizens, they need “academic” English, especially about rights and responsibilities. To really belong to a community, individuals need to know their rights so that they are not exploited and know their responsibilities such as voting and participating in the community activities. Knowing how the system works help people contribute to different type of the decision-making processes, from selecting schoolbooks to selecting a president.

On a personal note, as a naturalized citizen who learned about U.S. history and civics and then took the citizenship exam, these topics really helped me understand the American psyche, such as the individualistic streak that goes back to the pioneers, why government’s role in social services is so controversial in this country, and why one state can be so different from another. Having experienced censorship and autocratic governments, I have a lot of respect for the principle of checks and balances and am aware how fragile democracy and individual rights can really be if not protected dearly.

Where can people learn more?

To learn more about CILIA-T, visit the ABE Teaching & Learning Advancement Systems article: Civics/History Curriculum: An Introduction to the CILIA-T Curriculum Project.

To learn more about the CREATE Adult Skills Research Network, please visit the network lead’s site.

For additional resources, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s LINCS website, which includes items about civics education, English language learners, and other topics relevant to adult education.

For additional information and resources about the citizenship test and courses, visit the USCIS Citizenship Resource Center.


Written by Meredith Larson (meredith.larson@ed.gov), adult education research analyst and program officer for the CREATE Adult Skills Research Network.

A Lifetime of Learning: A Fellow’s Journey to Improve Literacy for All

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In this guest blog, Dr. Marcia Davidson, an IES postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL), shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.

Going Back for More

My career path has had many turns, but I’ve always focused on supporting literacy to ensure everyone can access education, no matter their location, age, or current ability. And I apply this to my life, too.

I started as a school psychologist, practicing for 15 years in Washington state, working with students with disabilities aged 3 to 21. I worked with teachers and small groups of students to provide support and additional instruction for those struggling with reading and realized that my training was insufficient to provide effective support. I was able to advocate for children who struggled with reading, but I wanted to know more about the research and the science that inform effective reading instruction. So I went back to school to earn my PhD in special education.

After finishing my degree, my first academic position was teaching special education and elementary education at Western Washington University. Despite being tenured faculty, I left academia to participate in research projects related to Reading First because I wanted to spend more time conducting and supporting research projects. This led to my working on an IES-funded Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER) project and my deep interest in interventions that improve student learning.

Eventually, my career took more unexpected turns as I was recruited to consult on a USAID/World Bank initiative in reading assessment for low- and middle-income countries, the Early Grade Reading Assessment. My work with this project prompted a significant career change: I moved to Liberia as a senior reading advisor on one of the first pilot early grade reading projects.

I spent the next 10 years working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on NGO, USAID, and World Bank projects and then worked for USAID. My work focused on early grade reading interventions and support in South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, I left USAID but continued to support their projects, serving as the senior reading advisor for a scaled early grade reading project in Ghana.

A New Focus

Although my primary focus was supposed to be on children, I found myself drawn in by parents longing to learn themselves. In Liberia, a parent asked whether he could meet with a reading project teacher to learn to read. In Zambia, parents were meeting daily to review the reading lessons of their first-grade children with the hope that they might learn to read and support their children more effectively. In Nepal, a grandmother walked several miles up a mountain to her grandchild’s school so that she could learn to read by his side. Most recently, when I was in Ghana during the COVID outbreak, our team developed a radio reading program for families, and I again saw how excited parents were to work with their children and learn themselves.

I then turned my attention to my own country and realized that many adults in the United States also have literacy gaps and need good reading interventions. We face a reality in which 43 million adults in the United States (about 1 in 5) have very low levels of literacy and may struggle with basic reading comprehension. Of these, nearly 17 million adults could be classified as functionally illiterate. I began to wonder how research for U.S. adults with low literacy might differ from the work I had been doing in low- and middle-income countries and how adult literacy levels vary across countries.

Despite my interest in U.S. adult literacy, I realized that research had changed drastically and that there were new methods, designs, and approaches that I was less familiar with. So I decided to learn more and build new research skills by applying to become an IES postdoctoral fellow in adult literacy at Georgia State University.

Returning for More: A Fellowship to Reskill and Connect the Dots

I started my IES postdoctoral fellowship in the summer of 2021 in the GSU Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. Here, I am researching interventions to support U.S. adults who struggle with reading. I want to extend my understanding of the role of morphology in reading acquisition, which I honed while working in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. In the United States and internationally, much of this research focuses on children. Teaching adults to read has often taken a back seat in literacy research, despite the critical need to address adult low literacy. I have seen the difference that learning to read can make in a child’s life, and I believe that learning to read for adults can also be life changing and exciting. For me, it is like closing the circle, from young children who are just discovering the delights of learning to read to adults who long to enrich their lives—and often livelihoods—with improved literacy skills.

Recently, I was offered a position as a senior education advisor to the Africa Bureau at USAID, and I will be leaving G-PAL to support the USAID team. However, improving adult literacy remains a priority to me, and I plan to continue my work on the projects I’ve started with my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe, on a morphology intervention for adults and on an analysis of process data on PIAAC literacy items. I also plan to volunteer at an adult literacy center when I move to Washington, DC for my new position. I am so grateful that I had the extraordinary experience of learning about the literacy needs of and effective interventions for adults who struggle with reading. I have a better understanding about the complexities of adult literacy learning needs and feel new urgency to address the learning barriers so many face. My postdoctoral experience has expanded my knowledge, methodological skills, and commitment. And I am confident that I will apply all that I have learned and continue to learn to my new position and beyond.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants, and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.

New Project Exploring Adult Basic Skills in STEM-Related Postsecondary CTE®

In celebration of CTE® (career and technical education) month, we would like to highlight the launch of an NCER project that aims to help us understand how to best support adults seeking additional CTE education and training.

Through their exploratory project, Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem-Solving Skills in Technology-Rich Environment in the STEM-Related Subbaccalaureate Programs in the United States, researchers will use a mixed-method design to gather information about the distribution of basic skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) for adults in STEM occupations and students enrolled in STEM-related sub-baccalaureate programs at community colleges. Their goal is to help identify the needs of students and the programming practices at community colleges that may promote basic skill development in STEM programs.

The team will be leveraging data from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) to survey the distribution of skills and abilities across a nationally representative sample of adults in STEM fields. They will also be collecting primary data from adults and programs in multiple locations, including Indiana, Ohio, and Washington states.

 

 

To help inform the public about their project, the researchers have created a short YouTube video for the public. This project began in July 2020 and may have initial results ready as early as late 2021.

 


Written by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), Program Officer for Postsecondary and Adult Education, NCER.

Recent Report Identifies Possible Categories of Adult Struggling Readers (and How to Help Them)

Nearly one in five U.S. adults aged 16 and over may struggle with basic literacy. These adults may struggle with any of the core components of reading, such as decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension. They may struggle for many different reasons—English is not their first language, possible cognitive declines from aging, or a lack of formal education. To identify the right instructional tools and curricula, we need to understand the varying needs of this heterogeneous group of adult struggling readers and design appropriate solutions.

In a recent report, IES-funded researchers conducted a latent class analysis of 542 adults (age 16- to 71-years old) enrolled in adult education programs whose reading scores indicate a reading level between the 3rd- and 8th-grade level. The analysis identified four possible subgroup categories of adult struggling readers based on their performance on lower-level competencies (phonological awareness, decoding, vocabulary) and higher-level competencies (comprehension, inferencing, background knowledge):

 

  • Globally Impaired Readers: adults who show difficulties in all competencies
  • Globally Better Readers: adults who are relatively strong in all competencies
  • Weak Decoders: readers who are relatively weaker in lower-level competencies but strong in higher-level competencies
  • Weak Language Comprehenders: readers who are strong in lower-level competencies but relatively weaker in higher-level competencies

 

On average, Weak Decoders were older than other categories, though Globally Impaired Readers were on average older than Globally Better Readers or Weak Language Comprehenders. Globally Better Readers and Weak Decoders included a larger proportion of native English speakers than the other two categories. Thus, both age and English proficiency may predict the pattern of strengths and weaknesses. However, having a high school diploma did not predict performance patterns.

Although Globally Better Readers tended to perform better on reading assessment than other categories, even this group of readers performed at the 6th-grade level on average. Thus, all groups of readers would benefit from additional instruction. The researchers suggest different approaches for addressing the needs of learners in the different categories. For example, Weak Language Comprehenders may benefit from technology-based solutions that help build their oral language competencies, whereas Globally Impaired Readers and Weak Decoders may benefit from direct instruction on decoding skills.

 


This research was conducted as part of the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL): Developing Instructional Approaches Suited to the Cognitive and Motivational Needs for Struggling Adults funded in 2012 through NCER.

The abstract for the publication discussed above is available on ERIC; Identifying Profiles of Struggling Adult Readers: Relative Strengths and Weaknesses in Lower-Level and Higher-Level Competencies (Talwar, Amani; Greenberg, Daphne; Li, Hongli).

Dr. Meredith Larson, program officer for postsecondary and adult education, wrote this blog. Contact her at Meredith.Larson@ed.gov for additional information about CSAL and adult education research.