ED Launches Engagement Process Following Report on U.S. Adults’ Skills

Last month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the findings of the international Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The results showed that on the three domains (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in a technology-rich environment), the U.S. average performance is significantly lower than the international average and the U.S. has large percentages of low performers in each domain.

Statistics Graphic

Clearly, we need to be more strategic and systematic and create learning opportunities for all low-skilled adults, beyond the 2 million per year we can reach through the current adult education program.  To that end, the Department asked OECD to take a closer look at the backgrounds of the U.S. low-skilled population, identify policy implications, and offer a broad set of recommendations that could provide a framework to help this country build on our strengths and systemically address some of our skill weaknesses.

Today OECD released their report, Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says. This report is the first report in a decade that quantifies the population of low-skilled adults and takes a closer look at who these low-skilled adults are. The findings are alarming and should concern us all.  They shine a spotlight on a part of our population that’s historically been overlooked and underserved—the large number of adults with very low basic skills.  OECD identified in this report that there are about 36 million adults ages 16-65 performing below Level 2.

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Maine CTE: It’s Not Your Parents’ Vocational Education

Students at the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology in Biddeford, Maine are excited about learning — and they’re eager to tell you why.  They can also show you some pretty impressive proof that they’ve mastered the concepts they’ve studied.

Take, for example, the house they built as the capstone of one project.

Programs at Biddeford Regional Center of Technology

A selection of CTE programs offered at Biddeford Regional Center of Technology

“It’s not just about wiring a house, it’s about the theory and science [of] what is actually happening in the wires. In my other classes, you don’t really get hands-on, you just do what’s in the book,” a senior at the Center recently explained to visitors from the U.S. Department of Education.

Part of my role as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow (TAF) is to help teachers and other educators around the country learn about the Department’s efforts to support world-class teaching and learning. But, it’s just as important for us to bring teacher, principal, and student perspectives back to policymakers in Washington. For both those reasons, I traveled to Biddeford.

Right now, there’s an important shift taking place in schools and districts across the United States: a shift away from vocational education, and toward career and technical education, or CTE. The narrow vocational training of our parents’ and grandparents’ day was often separated from the college preparatory curriculum, and geared to the needs of the industrial age. Today’s CTE programs are designed to meet the needs and opportunities of the global economy and the digital age, and prepare students for equal success in college and careers.

When change is this ambitious, it can take a while for old perceptions to catch up to new realities. CTE teachers and students in CTE courses often find themselves having to correct the belief that CTE courses are less rigorous than traditional “college prep” classes. The experiences of the students and teachers at Biddeford certainly debunked this myth.

Biddeford offers professionally certified programs in career fields like legal studies, architecture, early childhood education, and health sciences. The students told us they feel good about learning a combination of academic, technical and employability skills that will equip them for success in college and in the 21st century’s technology-rich, team-based, results-oriented professions.

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Adult Learners Share Stories of Personal Triumph

The inspiration for Alma Miller to obtain her GED started with a simple statement from her youngest son: “Mom I challenge you to finish your GED.”

Attaining the GED would be no easy feat for this mother of four who dropped out of school when she was sixteen. Fortunately for Alma, her children stepped up and volunteered to tutor her in preparation for the exam.

Today, Alma Miller is a proud GED  recipient but most importantly, she’s an inspiration to her children, just as much as they are an inspiration to her.

Miller is one of eleven adult learners who recently met with Secretary Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education Brenda Dann-Messier at the Department of Education (ED) to share their stories and make recommendations on how ED can improve services offered to adult learners.

Dann-Messier acknowledged that these adults face many barriers to success in the labor market. Some of the barriers she cited were: a lack of a high school diploma, no postsecondary degree or training, and an inability to speak, read, and write English well.

Each of the adult learners at our recent meeting displayed a tremendous amount of courage in order to overcome the odds associated with returning to school as adults, but what is more laudable is the strength they found in their families and in support organizations.

“I was an honor roll student in high school, but I just kind of lost my way,” said Shamika Hall, the state vice-president for the Delaware Career Association.

Hall lost her sister to an act of senseless gun violence, a devastating tragedy that altered her life’s course. She credits her family and the James H. Grove Adult High School in Wilmington, Del., for helping her get back on track. Watch Hall tell her story below:


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Secretary Duncan said that he was inspired by each of the adult learners resilience and tenacity. “It’s pretty remarkable to hear not just where you’ve been but how far you’ve come, and most importantly, where each of you are going,” he said.

Before the meeting concluded, Reuben Holguin, an ex-gang member and convicted felon, showed Secretary Duncan his inmate ID. He said that even though he acquired his GED, completed college courses and changed his life around, he will always carry his inmate ID with him to remind him just how far he’s come.

The adult learners who stopped by ED were in town to attend VALUEUSA’s National Adult Learner Leadership Institute, and Dann-Messier thanked VALUEUSA, the only national literacy organization governed and operated by current and former adult learners for helping to organize the meeting with Secretary Duncan.

This fall, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development will release the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The goal of PIAAC is to assess and compare the basic skills and the broad range of competencies of adults ages 16-65 around the world. PIAAC covers 23 countries, including the United States. OECD will also release a country report specific to the U.S. to accompany the data release. The report will identify policy implications for improving the skills of adults in the U.S.

De’Rell Bonner works in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

Back on Track after Being Behind Bars

Student Voices

Secretary Duncan and Assistant Secretary Dann-Messier listen to previously incarcerated youth during a recent Student Voices Series. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Returning to society after being incarcerated isn’t easy. Yet a group of formerly incarcerated youth that recently met with Secretary Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education Brenda Dann-Messier are refusing to let their past lives determine their future. They’re overcoming challenges– and building better lives for themselves through grit and resilience.

Secretary Duncan praised the youth for their perseverance and willingness to challenge the system. “Obviously there are a lot of young men and women coming up beneath you who have your talent and potential,” he said. “But they may not have your toughness to get through.”

Michael Kemp of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) explained how his slide toward the juvenile and criminal justice system started with school suspension. Kemp said that such punishments might not be beneficial for students or society.

Brandon McMillan told Duncan and Dann-Messier that he has learned from his experience of being incarcerated and is now hoping to inspire others. He recommended that ED increase Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. “Some people don’t want to go to college,” he said. “So automotive, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) and other vocational career program should be put back in high schools.”

Secretary Duncan agreed with McMillan’s point and said that young people should be both college and career ready and allowed to follow their career passion.

The Department of Education recently hosted a Correctional Education Summit and released a Reentry Education Model guidance document to support individuals leaving prison to successfully transition back into society through education and career advancement.

“The prison industry has job skills training programs for careers that no longer exist,” Assistant Secretary Dann-Messier said. “So we are trying to modernize that and make sure there are funds available for those incarcerated to help them be successful.”

Reverend Jesse Jackson

Reverend Jesse Jackson briefly stopped by the Student Voices discussion. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

The Department also recently announced a $1 million grant program called Promoting Reentry Success through Continuity of Educational Opportunities that will invest in innovative programs to help incarcerated individuals become productive members of society.

After hearing the youth’s seven recommendations to improve the quality of educational services for detained and incarcerated youth, Duncan welcomed Reverend Jesse Jackson—who was at ED for other meetings—to offer his encouragement to the youth.

Additional educational resources for incarcerated individuals reintegrating into society is available through the Department’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education’s Take Charge of Your Future.

De’Rell Bonner works in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach

This discussion is part of the ongoing Student Voices Series, where students engage with the Secretary of Education and senior staff to solicit and help develop recommendations on current programs and future policies. 

It’s Never Too Late to Learn

Two young men, from different backgrounds, each tell a tragically similar story of their mistakes, which resulted in felony convictions and incarcerations. Their names aren’t important, but their stories are.

Both men are using education to take charge of their futures and be productive citizens.

During a recent trip to Iowa, Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education Brenda Dann-Messier and I met these men and several more like them, trying to make positive changes in their lives through education. We spent a day learning about adult education and corrections training programs in Cedar Rapids, before traveling to Dubuque for the Rural Community College Association’s annual conference.

Group Photo

Deputy Warden Bill Sperfslage, Anamosa Education Coordinator Mary Feeney-Wilfer, Kirkwood Community College High School Completion Director Marcel Kielkucki, Deputy Director of Offender Services Jerry Bartruff (front row) Kirkwood C.C. Executive Director of Government Relations Steve Ovel, Warden John Fayram, Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier, Deputy Assistant Secretary John White outside the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Anamosa, Iowa.

Having served their sentences and exited the correctional system, these two men now support each other and their fellow classmates in Kirkwood Community College’s Kirkwood Pathways for Academic Career Education and Employment (KPACE) program.

Kirkwood seeks to help lower-skilled, low-income adults, the unemployed and underemployed advance to successively higher levels of education, employment, and financial stability through the KPACE program. KPACE weaves together basic skills and workplace-readiness training, academics and certification attainment with support services through partnerships with the United Way of East Central Iowa and community-based organizations.

Believing that everyone’s situation is unique, Kirkwood has taken bold steps beyond simply offering courses and certifications. Kirkwood and its community partners, including United Way, are working with formerly incarcerated adults to make a successful re-entry into society.

According to the National Reentry Resource Center, federal and state corrections facilities held more than 1.6 million prisoners at the end of 2010 – approximately one of every 201 U.S. residents. At least 95 percent of state prisoners will be released back to their communities at some point.

The U.S. Department of Education recently released a new resource, Take Charge of Your Future, to help justice-involved adults connect to education and training opportunities. ED also provides funding for efforts to reduce recidivism by supporting in-prison education services through two formula grant programs: the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006. A federal Office of Correctional Education was created in 1991 by the Perkins Act and currently resides in ED’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Rapid increases in the U.S. prisoner population over recent decades have increased the need for educational services in correctional settings.

Inside and outside of Iowa’s Anamosa State Penitentiary, a maximum/medium security institution that currently houses more than 1,150 offenders, we witnessed the hope that literacy and job skills training can bring.

The Iowa Department of Corrections and Kirkwood Community College are working together to offer inmates opportunities to earn a GED, learn computer skills and programs, including the production and printing of books in brail for the blind, and trades that include welding and carpentry while behind bars.

Kirkwood is also working with its community partners to help ex-offenders find stable employment and housing—other key success factors—upon re-entry. Two hundred businesses have committed to hiring Kirkwood students, including ex-felons. The Corporation for National and Community Service’s AmeriCorps program and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) are providing social and educational services, and helping the community work on prison re-entry issues.

Community colleges have long offered innovative and valuable career training opportunities for youth and adults of all ages and in various stages of their lives. Kirkwood is offering solutions for safer communities through education and public-private partnerships.

John White is deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.