Exploring Economic Inequality with The Change Agent

AEFL Week LogoExtreme inequality in terms of wealth and income is barely news anymore. CEO pay has skyrocketed over the past 30 years while workers’ incomes have stagnated or decreased. A report from last April states that the world’s “richest 64 individuals control as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people combined.” Five years ago, the occupy movement exploded onto the scene, and now “the 1%” vs. the “99%” are commonly accepted ways of talking about the extremely wealthy and the rest of us.

Most students will not be too shocked by the first three articles in the lesson packet titled “Making Sense of Extreme Inequality.” (Click here and scroll down to Lesson Packet #9.) The first, written by a learner from Hartford, CT, talks about growing up on cornflakes and rotten meat. She ate more when she got a job at McDonald’s, but then she gained 40 pounds. The second article, “Redecorating in a Recession,” shares a list of the pricey items a CEO used to decorate his office at a time when the economy was tanking and his company was laying off workers. The third article by a learner in Methuen, Massachusetts, talks about how hard it is to stay mentally and physically healthy when you’re struggling to pay the bills.

These highly accessible articles provide the scaffolding to a more complex piece, which many people may indeed find surprising, as it busts some of the fondest myths that help prop up extreme inequality in the U.S. Andy Nash’s article, “Nobody Makes It on their Own,” is a more challenging read, but students will be primed to take it on because it puts the stories they just read in context and provides some explanation for how the rich keep getting richer.

Why teach about extreme inequality? Isn’t it just depressing? Yes and no. Yes, for obvious reasons. And no because this catastrophic imbalance is not written in stone. It came about due to policies, and it can be changed in a similar fashion. (What are some ways it can it be changed? Check out a lesson packet titled “Taking Action at Work.” Click here and scroll down to Lesson Packet #10.)

Students in adult education programs have everything to gain from understanding that poverty and inequality are not handed down from on-high. Education can boost individuals’ chances. Addressing macro-economic policies — including more progressive taxation and less corporate control over public decisions — boosts everyone’s chances.


Defining Work Readiness


Adult literacy has been at the heart of World Education’s work since it was established in 1951 in India and founded the Literacy House upon the urging of Mohandas Gandhi. Sixty-four years later, while gains have been made in many parts of the world, the need for literacy education remains great:  there are nearly 800 million adults and out-of-school youth in the world with limited or no literacy and numeracy.  In the U.S., adults’ basic skills are falling behind those of other developed nations.  For the first time, the skills of young adults are lower than those of their parents’ generation.  At the same time, people need even more different types of literacies to move ahead in their lives than in 1951. World Education’s approach to literacy education and how we define it has evolved and expanded commensurate with the skills adults need to navigate systems, pursue opportunities, and address problems successfully in their personal lives, work, and communities.

To commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, in this series of blog posts World Education/ U.S. staff share their views on what literacy means to us today and how we are helping to advance adult education in multiple ways.  Our list is not comprehensive: there are not enough days in a week to feature all the types of literacy youth and adults need in today’s world!  Please join the dialogue.

Workplace Literacy

Adult learners often seek to improve their basic skills because they want better jobs. And as adult educators, we want to provide them with the skills they need to get those jobs. But what if there are simply not enough good jobs to go around? Do we proceed, happy that at least a few will procure that “better job”? Or do we help our learners gain the skills they need to turn bad jobs into better jobs?

The fact is: there are a lot of really bad jobs out there, and the bad jobs are growing the fastest.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 30 occupations adding the most jobs from 2012 to 2022 will add more than 15 million (15,628,000) jobs. (See chart below.) Yet only eight of these occupations will pay a living wage, which the MIT Living Wage Calculator puts at $20.17 per hour (or $41,593 annually) for an adult raising one child.

What about the other 22 jobs? They pay less than a living wage, some of them just barely above what the U.S. considers a poverty wage. Workers in four out of the top five of the fastest growing occupations (personal care aides, retail salespersons, home health aides, and food preparation workers) can expect to make just a few thousand more (about $20,000 per year) than a poverty wage.

As adult educators, how do we let these facts inform our teaching and our understanding of “work readiness”?

At a recent conference where I was sharing these facts in a workshop, one teacher said, “I don’t want my students to see those statistics!” Right. Think how discouraging it would be to find out that all this work you are doing to get your GED or to get into college is not necessarily going to yield a decent job!

But if we pretend that this is not the reality, then we are doing our students a disservice.

If it is true that millions of the new jobs that will be added to the economy over the next 7 years will pay less than a living wage and will offer little to no advancement opportunities, then we must re-think the idea of “work readiness.” Does it mean gaining the skills you need to take your place in a low-paying, dead-end job? Hopefully not. The definition of “work readiness” should be expanded to include equipping learners with the knowledge and background they need to see themselves as advocates for themselves and others. In the classroom, our job is not just to shape students to meet the needs of future employers. Of course we want them to have the basic skills and the technical skills they need to find decent work. But we also want them to be able to shape the kind of work that is available as well as the terms of their employment, including compensation and benefits.

Adult student contributors to The Good Jobs issue of The Change Agent wrote thoughtfully about their hopes and ambitions for work. They want jobs that allow them to support their families, that provide dignity as well as a paycheck, and that don’t leave them thoroughly exhausted and stressed. Mariama Diallo in New York City doesn’t want to be “paid today but broke tomorrow.” Maria Hernandez in Fayetteville, Arkansas, wants to be treated like a “human, not a machine.” Carwasheros, grocery store workers, and hotel and restaurant workers all over the country tell stories about fighting for their right to organize, recuperating lost wages, and winning dignity and respect on the job. They are using the support of labor unions, community organizations, and workers’ centers. Students see that the reality is more complicated than just acquiring basic skills and credentials. They also need to know how to advocate for themselves and others so that they can leave our classrooms with the skills they need to join with others to affect the job market, not just be delivered into it.

Occupations with most job growth chart


Using the Technology Issue of The Change Agent to Teach to the College and Career Readiness (CCR) Standards

World Education Transition to College

The Change Agent has heard from teachers and programs that they need materials to help them teach to the new College and Career Readiness (CCR) Standards, and we have engineered our lesson plans and activities accordingly.

For example, turn to the story called “Finding Felix” in our latest issue, and on the surface, it is simply a moving account of a young woman who used social media to find her long-lost brother. But by using the carefully designed activities we have included, your students will have the opportunity to work on anchor standards 1-3 of the CCR standards in reading as well as writing. These include being able to determine what the text means and how you can prove it, and being able to write in various ways in response, including providing reasoning, evidence, and details.

Look on page 3 of the Technology issue, and at first glance, the story is a moving plea from a father: How can he afford to buy his daughter that fancy smart phone? But it’s not just a highly relevant account of a problem that almost every parent can relate to, it is also an opportunity for students to work on anchor standards 1-3 for speaking and listening as well as 4-6 for language. These include being able to converse by expressing yourself and building on others’ ideas, and being able to independently build your vocabulary. The online audio version of this article, available to subscribers, gives students a chance to listen to the article while they read along (an evidence-based strategy for improving reading comprehension, as well as grammar and pronunciation).

If you’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about the new “Common Core,” and if you’ve been wondering what resources are available for bringing that work into the classroom, you should know that The Change Agent lends itself rather seamlessly to the key shifts in the new CCR standards. What are those shifts? In English Language Arts, they can be summarized as: 1) expose students to increasingly complex texts, 2) give them opportunities to analyze readings and be able to cite evidence from the text for their analysis, and 3) help them build actual knowledge in science, history, and technical subjects.

The Technology issue of The Change Agent (published September 2013) is filled with extensions, factoids, background details, and research opportunities that help students build knowledge in exactly these areas (see #3 above). Discussion questions and writing prompts send students back to the text to find out what the author said, why she said it, what she meant, and how you know that’s what she meant. Articles reference each other and build on each other, offering a built-in “staircase” to more complexity and more knowledge. Opportunities to practice grammar and vocabulary exist within content that is interesting and relevant to adult learners. Not only that, but most of the content is written by peers, so readers have role models on every page! Look at pdf of the table to see which articles address which standards.

The Change Agent has a long history of using socially relevant material to teach reading, writing, and math. With back issues on everything from fashion to health to the economic crisis, our articles impart knowledge, and the lesson plans and extensions help students distinguish fact from opinion, build their knowledge, assess the author’s point of view, analyze evidence, and build math skills based on real-world problems. So if you’re already using The Change Agent, you’re a step ahead when it comes to teaching to these standards. And if you’re not using The Change Agent, consider subscribing. It costs just $20 per year to access the current issue, all the back issues, and all the online audio and issue extras.

Adapted from “College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education,” Susan Pimentel, 2013; and with thanks to www.teachingthecore.com.

Photo credit: Jon Crispin