Equipped for the Future

Equipped for the Future:

A Customer-Driven Vision for
Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning

Sondra Gayle Stein

National Institute for Literacy

July 1995

Table of Contents

Letter from the Director


Part I
Equipped for the Future: A Customer-Driven Vision for
Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning

Executive Summary


What it Means to be Literate

What it Means to Compete in a Global Economy

What it Means to Exercise the Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship

Voices of Adults on Welfare

Voices of Adults in Prison and Treatment Centers


Dear Friends and Colleagues:

America's highest aspirations for the education of all our people are reflected in our National
Education Goals. One of NIFL's major charges is to measure and track the progress of the nation
in meeting National Education Goal 6--the literacy and lifelong learning goal. Goal 6 states that:

By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and
responsibilities of citizenship."

Two years ago, the NIFL and the National Education Goals Panel began a joint effort to make Goal 6 a real guide for the literacy field--a guide that defines in functional ways what it means to be
literate, to be able to get a job and raise a family, and to be a productive citizen. We decided that the best way to start was to ask adult learners what Goal 6 meant to them. This report is the result of two years of hard, collaborative work--on the part of teachers, administrators, research and program staff, writers, and, especially, adult learners--to solicit, produce, and analyze feedback from over 1,500 adults across the country about what literacy means to them.

We think the words of these adult learners provide a compelling vision of what the goals and
results should be for a world-class system of adult education and literacy in America. What
do adults come to our programs to learn and be able to do? What kinds of programs, staff,
and resources are necessary to enable adult learners to reach their goals? Over the next several years, the NIFL will engage the literacy field in a planning and development process to answer these questions and to build a literacy system for the 21st century. We urge you to be part of
that process.

This report contains both a synthesis of adult learner perspectives on Goal 6 and examples of the actual essays submitted. We believe you will find both parts informative, thought- provoking, and useful. Please use the form at the back of this publication to let us know your thoughts on what adult learners told us, so that we can continue and broaden the national dialogue on reforming our system of adult education and literacy.

Andrew Hartman


Over the past two years many individuals and groups have worked in support of the National Institute for Literacy's Project on Goal 6 of the National Education Goals.

More than one hundred and fifty adult literacy tutors and teachers across the country joined us in our efforts to bring adult learners into the policy process. Many not only devoted several class sessions to preparing and writing for this project, but also spent hours transcribing tapes of classroom discussions so we could get the full flavor of the rich and animated exchange of ideas that precipitated these thoughtful and enlightening writings.

More than 1500 adult students took our request seriously, spending considerable time and painstaking effort to make sure we knew what they think is important to know and to do. The gratitude expressed by so many learners at being asked their opinion brought home to us the importance of a project like this. Again and again their words reminded us why we needed to ask.

Once the responses started pouring in, we realized we were in the midst of a major research project. Luckily, we had expert assistance in shaping and carrying out this part of the project. Hanna Fingeret and Jereann King from Literacy South got us off to a good start by designing Guidelines that ensured we would receive sharply focused, easy to use data. Ray Rist, Director of the Center for Policy Studies, Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University, orchestrated the data analysis operation, overseeing the work of the coder/analysts, and consistently communicating his excitement about the research enterprise.

Among our coders, Sara Goodwin, Kirti Shastri and Louise Weiner all maintained a strong commitment throughout to letting the voices speak for themselves. Carole Inge shared this commitment. She also quickly distinguished herself as the coordinator of data management and has stayed on as a Fellow at the Institute to continue to work with me in coordinating the many complex pieces of this project.

The magic of any project that relies on primary source material is that, as you immerse yourself in the data, you begin to see things differently than you ever did before. The task then is to reflect these different views in writing. As we began to sketch out our findings in early drafts of this report, we received valuable feedback from many. Gregg Jackson and Hanna Fingeret both maintained a commitment to the project once their official roles were ended and generously served as my best and most consistent critics through many drafts. Nickie Askov, Susan Green, Andy Hartman, Joe Klaits, Lisa Levinson, Juliet Merrifield, Peggy McGuire, and Mary Jane Schmitt all read early drafts of the manuscript and gave feedback and encouragement to the effort. Joan Wills helped me think through how our findings could best be connected with the work going forward on skills standards. Cindy Prince, my colleague at the Goals Panel, provided unflagging support, mirroring my excitement at our findings.

Everyday support is critical when a project becomes part of your work life for as long as this one did--and the team at the Institute was always there through every crisis along the way. Andy Hartman was encouraging, persistent and demanding--exactly what you would want from your Director. Special thanks, also, to Carolyn, Jaleh, Meg, Sharyn, Susan and, of course, Alan, who will all say they were only doing their jobs, but who gave just what I needed just when I needed it.

It is my hope that this report will communicate to you what we heard from adults across the nation. Luckily, my words do not need to stand alone. Part Two of this publication includes a sample of adult writings. So you can hear the voices for yourselves.

Sondra Stein
Goal 6 Project Director
National Institute for Literacy
June 1995

Executive Summary

The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.

-- A Nation at Risk, 1981

In 1989 the President of the United States called together the 50 governors to consider the state of American education. He labeled the gathering a Summit, calling attention to the ways in which the condition of education in our country did, in fact, make us a "nation at risk," and making clear that this crisis could only be addressed through concerted action by those present at both the state and the national level.

The Summit launched a new approach to educational improvement. Instead of focusing on what was wrong with the schools, the new strategy focused on what results we wanted to achieve in each of the states and across the nation. Six National Education Goals were defined, and the National Education Goals Panel was established to identify clear benchmarks and indicators that would enable us to track national and state progress toward each of these goals.1

Most of the Goals focus on improving the quality of education for children and young people. Only one looks ahead and focuses on what is a primary aim of all eight goals: an adult population with the necessary skills and knowledge to ensure the continuing leadership of the United States in a changing world. This goal states:

By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

While there is broad consensus that too few adults in our present society can meet the requirements of this Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning Goal, there is no consensus on what those requirements are. The Goal has remained vague and ambiguous, no more than a rhetorical flourish in most people's minds. While it identifies the areas of public life--citizenship and the workplace--that adults must be prepared to function in, it gives little guidance as to what adults need to know and be able to do if they are to participate fully and successfully in these two spheres.

As a result, Goal 6 has had little practical impact on our definitions of progress for adults in local, state and national education and training programs, or on what or how adults learn in these programs. Progress has been haphazard, dependent on the commitment of skilled teachers in exceptional programs rather than the systematic, concerted national effort the Governors and President envisioned when they set this Goal.

In 1993, motivated by a common mandate to measure progress toward Goal 6, the National Institute for Literacy and the National Education Goals Panel launched a joint project to arrive at a measurable definition of this goal. In addition to commissioning papers from researchers, policymakers and assessment experts, we decided to ask for advice from adult learners themselves. Our hope was that we might find in their words a starting point for a consensus-building process that would enable us to define and measure the Adult Literacy Goal more clearly.

In January, 1994 the Institute sent an "Open Letter" inviting adult learners in programs all across the country to join with us in our effort. Responses came from over 1500 adult students participating in 149 adult programs in 34 states and Puerto Rico. They reflected the full spectrum of adult students, in terms of age, race, culture and ethnicity, as well as the full spectrum of programs, including community-based organizations, community colleges, volunteer programs, and vocational and public schools. At the same time, however, these responses presented a remarkably consistent vision of what adults want literacy programs to prepare them to do.

Adults told us that in order to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship they need the skills and knowledge:

This vision focuses on key purposes--what adults need to do--in key contexts--the family, the community and the nation--and key roles--as parent, citizen, and worker. If we rephrased Goal Six to reflect these customer-defined outcomes, it might read something like this:

By the Year 2000 every adult will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to orient themselves in a rapidly changing world, to voice their ideas and be heard, and to act independently as a parent, a citizen, and a worker, for the good of family, community, and nation.

Rephrasing the Goal--whatever words we choose--is the easy part. The harder part is figuring out what this vision means for how we deliver adult education and literacy services. Right now, the adult education and training system is fragmented by the competing eligibility and performance requirements of multiple state and federal funding sources. While there has been frustration at every level with the impact of this fragmentation on our ability to meet adult needs, we have not been able to forge a consensus on a goal or mission to unify this system.

The National Institute for Literacy believes that the vision shaped in these adult perspectives constitutes a customer-driven mandate for change. We propose this vision be adopted as a mission statement for our field and that we begin--as a field--to explore what we would need to do differently, as teachers, administrators, counselors, support staff, providers of technical assistance and staff development, funders and policymakers, to assure that every aspect of our delivery system is dedicated to achieving Goal 6 as defined by these adult students.

In publishing this research report we hope to stimulate broad discussion of what our customers want and what we need to do to meet their needs. We want to know what you think a customer-driven adult learning system might look like, and what steps you think we might take to begin to construct that system, classroom by classroom, program by program, state by state. As a first step we invite you to read the report carefully and let us know if the vision presented here reflects your experience with adult learners. If it does, we hope you will join us in:

1 When Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act in 1994 two more goals were added to the original list, and the Goals Panel was directed not only to track progress in the states and the nation but also to facilitate that progress by identifying educational practices that were making a difference. Back To Text

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