EFF Content Standards
The EFF Content Standards and How They Work

The 16 EFF Content Standards define the knowledge and skills adults need in order to successfully carry out their roles as parents and family members, citizens and community members, and workers. Keeping a focus clearly on what adults need literacy for, EFF identified 16 core skills that supported effective performance in the home, community, and workplace. Then, through two years of iterative field and expert review, we defined Content Standards that describe what adults need to know and be able to do to use these 16 skills in everyday life.

Four Categories of EFF Skills

Interpersonal Skills Lifelong Learning Skills

By identifying four categories of generative skills, EFF broadened the range of skills adult literacy and basic skills basic programs are typically expected to cover. These skills include strong reading, writing, and math skills; they include the skills we need to communicate and work well with others; to solve problems and to keep up with change. These categories of skills (see side bar) include those we traditionally think of as interpersonal skills, and those decision-making and learning skills we traditionally talk about as "higher order" or critical thinking. Our goal in proposing this range of standards and in framing them as we did was to shift the focus of adult literacy and basic skills instruction and assessment away from a decontextualized skills-based curriculum toward a contextualized, practice-based curriculum that was better matched to and firmly grounded in learners' own purposes for returning to schools.

Grouping the 16 generative skills into these four categories is intended to underline the interchangeability of skills within a category. For example, some activities that require adults to Work Together can be carried out most effectively by relying on oral and visual communication skills. In such situations, reading and writing may not be the most important means of communicating with others about what needs to get done. Similarly, the specific interpersonal skills one needs to draw on will vary from situation to situation depending on the task and context. The categories reflect this variability of skills, encouraging adult learners to think about all the skills in a given category as tools they may want to draw on selectively to achieve their purpose more effectively.

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From Skills to Standards

Every standards development effort is guided by a set of criteria that reflect shared assumptions about the purpose of adult learning and the role of standards. The following "standards for standards" identify the key criteria that the EFF development team used to develop standards based on the EFF skills:

  • EFF Standards must accurately reflect what adults need to know and be able to do. EFF's definition of necessary skills and knowledge is based on analysis of what adults do in their roles as workers, citizens, and family members. By starting with an accurate picture of adult roles and role performance, there is real confidence that the Standards truly represent the knowledge and skills critical to real-world success—for now. The world will continue to change, however, and EFF Standards must also be dynamic and capable of change.

  • EFF Standards must be reflective of broad consensus. Every component of the Framework on which the EFF Standards are based, including the four Purposes, the Role Maps, the Common Activities and the Standards, has been refined through an iterative process of feedback, comment, and testing. As a result, the Framework and these Standards reflect a broad and inclusive consensus on what is important for adults to know and do to be maximally effective in their daily lives.

  • EFF Standards must be specific enough to guide instruction and assessment. Once the content covered in the EFF Standards was defined, the Standards were refined through two rounds of field and expert review to assure that teachers working with adults at every level of skill development could use them to guide instruction and assessment. The goal of the EFF development team was to make sure that the Standards were specific enough to communicate what is most important for students to learn, without dictating how the ideas or information should be taught.

  • EFF Standards must be measurable. In specifying the content of each Standard, EFF turned to researchers and evaluators, as well as field reviewers, to help ensure that EFF Standards focus on performance that is observable and measurable. The goal of these efforts was to define standards that enable instructors not only to document performance but also to place it on a continuum and let students know if they are performing well enough to accomplish a desired goal.

  • EFF Standards must define multiple levels of performance for students to strive for. EFF has begun the work of defining performance levels for EFF Standards. These levels will be descriptive, focusing on what adults can do with the knowledge and skills at each level, including what external benchmarks are linked to each level. This approach to setting levels is based on the assumptions that adults differ in the goals they want to achieve at different points in their lives and that different goals require different levels of performance. Once EFF performance levels are set, adults will be able to use them to make informed choices about the level of proficiency they need to develop to achieve goals they set for themselves.

  • EFF Standards must be written clearly enough for all stakeholders to understand. One of the strongest imperatives guiding the EFF Standards development process has been always to keep in mind the multiple audiences that need to understand the Standards. Our goal has been to write Standards that are compelling enough to inspire adult learners, teachers, and tutors, and clear enough to send a coherent message to policymakers and other stakeholders about what students know and are able to do if they meet EFF Standards.

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Focusing EFF Standards on Application of Knowledge and Skills

Since the starting place in defining the EFF Standards is what people do that requires the knowledge and skills that make up each Standard, every effort has been made to assure that the Standards sharply focus on application of skills.

Naming the Standards. The name of each EFF Standard focuses on how adults need to use the skill to carry out the core of activities common to the three roles. The EFF Reading Standard is called Read With Understanding to express the focus on purpose and use: adults need sufficient mastery of decoding and comprehension strategies to accomplish a task requiring them to Gather, Analyze, and Use Information or Manage Resources, for instance. The level of mastery required will vary, depending on task and context. Similarly, the EFF Math Standard is called Using Math to Solve Problems and Communicate to make clear the role that number sense and mathematical operations play in helping adults carry out key activities in their daily lives.

Focusing the content of the Standards. This focus on purposeful application of knowledge and skills is continued in the description of the content (knowlege and skills) of the Standard.

Here is the description of the Standard Read With Understanding:

  • Determine the reading purpose;
  • Select reading strategies appropriate to the purpose;
  • Monitor comprehension and adjust reading strategies;
  • Analyze the information and reflect on its underlying meaning;
  • Integrate it with prior knowledge to address reading purpose.

The Standard has been framed to include the key elements of the reading process as defined in the Reading Excellence Act (REA).19 In the REA, reading is defined as "a complex system of deriving meaning from print that requires all of the following: a) the skills and knowledge to understand how phonemes, or speech sounds, are connected to print; b) the ability to decode unfamiliar words; c) the ability to read fluently; d) sufficient background information and vocabulary to foster reading comprehension; e) the development of appropriate active strategies to construct meaning from print; f ) the development and maintenance of a motivation to read" (Sec. 2252(4)). These necessary components of reading are reflected in all of the components (bullets 1-5) of the EFF Standard. In the EFF Standard, these specific skills and abilities are explicitly wedded to the reader's "purpose."

Using the Standards to teach skills in the context of purpose. EFF research with adult learners has convinced us that purpose is the key to motivation for adults—motivation to learn and motivation to achieve.

The EFF Standards have been designed to encourage adult learners and their teachers

  • to think about strategies for learning and for using skills in the context of the learner's purpose,
  • to identify barriers along the way to achieving that purpose, and
  • to identify and try out new strategies that might enable the learner to get past those barriers.
A shorthand way of saying this is that EFF Standards encourage a problem-solving approach to skill development. While the focus of teaching and assessment is what students need to learn in a particular situation to achieve their purpose, the goal is longer-term: to build, over time, the cognitive and metacognitive strategies that facilitate learning with understanding and transfer of learning from one context to another.

The EFF development team adopted this approach to the Standards for two primary reasons.

  • First, it makes sense in terms of how adults need to use skills in the world. A problem-solving approach to developing knowledge and skills fits with a world in which adults' everyday life responsibilities demand that they be able to identify and respond to change and challenge at work and at home.
  • Second, it is congruent with the growing body of cognitive science research on how people learn. Teaching skills in the context of purpose and application facilitates retention of knowledge in a usable form—so students can draw on it as necessary, in a range of contexts and situations.

Practitioners in the field development process supported this approach to defining standards for similar reasons. They told us that standards focused on "purposes" speak directly to the goals and needs of their students. Adult students are highly goal-directed. They come to formal learning situations actively seeking knowledge and skills in order to build competence in their lives and accomplish things that have an impact on those around them. Making sure that the description of each Standard explicitly defines what the teachers came to call "components of competent performance" enabled teachers to identify with greater specificity what their students can and cannot do so they can better align teaching and assessment with learner needs and goals.

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The 16 EFF Content Standards

Standards-Based Education and Reform

Like other education improvement initiatives focused on accountability issues, Equipped for the Future is a standards-based reform initiative. Standards based reform is based on content standards that represent a consensus of what it is important for students to know and be able to do. Research indicates that standards are a powerful tool to improve the results of education because they make explicit what the goals of instruction should be and therefore provide a way to align curriculum, instruction, assessment and accountability.

In standards-based improvement initiatives, we use the term aligned to describe how instruction, assessment, and accountability all focus on the same thing; what we teach is what we assess is what we are held accountable for. The standards become the definition of quality and every component of a program contributes to achieving them. This effort to use standards to align all parts of a program in order to maximize achievement of desired results is the hallmark of standards-based education and reform.

Since the framework we used to develop EFF Standards includes a focus on both adult learner purposes and policy maker goals, these standards enable us to pay attention to both these critical customers of adult literacy programs. Aligning our program practices toward achieving the EFF Standards helps us sharpen our focus on learner goals, while at the same time aiming to achieve results that are important to policymakers. If we meet EFF Standards, we are being accountable to both our learners and to our funders.