Several years ago, Carmen — a single, widowed parent — immigrated from Mexico to California to create a better life for herself and her two-year-old son. When she arrived in the U.S., she spoke very little English. She enrolled in ESL classes at New Haven Adult School and then went on to earn her GED. But Carmen soon realized that she needed to acquire more skills in order to find a job that paid a living wage. While working part-time, maintaining a home and raising her children, Carmen went on to earn her Adult Education Teaching Credential. She eventually completed her Bachelor of Arts degree. Today, Carmen is a computer skills instructor at New Haven Adult School, where she inspires ESL students to achieve their most ambitious education and career goals, just as she did.
Carmen’s story illustrates the importance of supporting low-skilled adults who are working hard to support their families. Last year, approximately 1,300 school districts and 370 partner organizations invested $231 million in federal resources and $614 million in state resources for foundation skills training.
While these investments are critical, unfortunately, they are not enough. The international Survey of Adult Skills showed an alarming 36 million American adults have low literacy skills. Since the survey’s release, ED has been hard at work to create a solution at the federal level. Congress also took action, passing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in July 2014, refocusing federal workforce development, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation systems to prepare adults for 21st century work. The Vice President’s office coordinated the Ready to Work job-driven training agenda. Most recently, the President announced the Upskill America initiative to enlist employers in this effort.
But there is still more that needs to be done. The Making Skills Everyone’s Business report, released today, emphasizes that addressing the challenge of adult skill development must be a shared responsibility.
Because the negative effects of low skills ripple through society and the economy, improving the education and skills of adult learners can pay substantial dividends for individuals and families, businesses and communities.
This report lays out seven strategies for establishing convenient, effective, high-quality learning opportunities. It challenges those of us in education to work more closely with employers to prepare students for in-demand jobs with advancement potential. It challenges employers to work more closely with educators to ensure effective training programs that lead to meaningful skill development. And it calls for making career pathways available and accessible everywhere, an effort that will be aided by the implementation of WIOA.
Importantly, this report recognizes the persistent gaps among learners of different races and abilities. As a nation, we must face the fact that achievement gaps, fueled by opportunity gaps, do not close on their own. Rather, they continue to fester and grow, contributing to inequality and unfairness, a widening income gap and inter-generational poverty that threaten our economic and civic prosperity. Educators must reach out to community- and faith-based institutions and employers to design new and scale up promising models that provide youth and adults with skill development and job opportunities.
Ted Mitchell is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education and Johan E. Uvin is Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.