The Ongoing Transformation of Adult ESOL Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shock to the economy and our way of life.  Its effect on Adult ESOL learning has been equally disruptive, but ultimately, it has accelerated program innovation and transformation and possibly system level recalibration, potentially making learning more flexible and attractive to adult learners. Most importantly, ESOL providers stepped up to develop feasible education opportunities remotely. It was a learning process for them and their students, one which they honed over time.  The field has learned much about the  approaches employed to sustain teaching and learning during the pandemic. We at World Education investigated the efforts to sustain adult ESOL programs, with the goal of improving and scaling promising practices and to meet a potential growing demand for English language education under pending immigration reform. 

Our Research Project
Fifty-two (52) programs responded to our national call for applications and nominations for our Remote ESOL project.  In all, 35 programs, reflecting different institutional settings, organizations, student populations, geographies, and approaches, were selected for interviews and an analytical review process.  These programs represent segments of the adult ESOL ecosystem both with and without public funding. Each program integrated some combination of key features identified as leading to ESOL learner success in a remote learning experience.


What We Observed

Our six-month landscape scan revealed an array of tech tools and approaches being used by Adult ESOL providers at a growing level of sophistication. Our analysis made visible several key implementation areas that buoy starting, scaling, or improving current implementation:

  • Student recruitment and orientation;
  • Instructional platforms, materials, and approaches;
  • Student persistence strategies;
  • Student access to digital skills, devices, and internet;
  • Support for students’ basic needs;
  • Professional development and support for staff; and
  • Partnerships and leadership.

Benefits of Remote Instruction. Remote Adult ESOL services solved to varying extents the design shortfalls and opportunity constraints of set schedules of in-person programming. We learned that remote designs are conducive to more flexible, multi-faceted and frequent learning opportunities and to leveraging technology for more differentiated/personalized instruction. Remote programs can facilitate higher levels of participation, promote persistence, increase intensity of instruction, and can lead to achieving greater gains in shorter periods of time. Several programs we interviewed showed it is possible to transition integrated support services to a remote environment and use various applications and strategies to communicate with and refer students to services to help them meet their non-academic needs. 

Digital Literacy Imperative. All programs acknowledged and found ways to address the need to treat digital literacy skills not only as key foundational skill to facilitate remote learning but also to navigate daily life, support their children’s remote learning, and increase the competitiveness of students in the labor market, as digital literacy skills are now expected of workers and in most spheres of life. Program approaches varied in how much they integrated digital skills instruction into ESOL instruction. Some simply provided distance learning supports to enable access to ESOL instruction but didn’t necessarily continue to intentionally teach digital skills and resilience. Others did both. It is clear that digital literacy is no longer an optional nice addition to program offerings but an essential skill.  Funders’ policies need to reflect that.

The Future of Remote ESOL. While remote ESOL services are likely not a wholesale substitute for in-person delivery for all students or a panacea for current system capacity and performance shortfalls and variability in program effectiveness, they can be a great way to complement the capacity of in-person programs and add new capacity through remote learning only. Our findings also point to what supports programs may still need to fully leverage the power of technology to increase the reach of who can be trained and to accelerate learning through strategies such as personalization, differentiation, and embedding digital and other essential skills into ESOL instruction.

Resources to Support Scaling or Starting Up Remote ESOL Instruction

The Remote ESOL project resulted in several resources that reflect these findings:

Check them out on the project website:  You may also be interested in the recent webinar that shares broadly the policy and practice findings.

Why This Matters

We believe that these findings and resources are also useful as Congress considers ways to fill the existing gap between demand and supply for ESOL services and to build the necessary capacity to satisfy any English language requirements that might be part of a major legalization effort and pathway to citizenship. We also hope that the findings encourage philanthropy and state/local policymakers to invest in ESOL education opportunities.

We come away from this study with deep appreciation for the tremendous effort ESOL programs made to rapidly redesign their programs for the COVID-induced remote learning environment. Across the country, adult education programs went well beyond the call of duty to respond to the crisis to not just ensure the continuity of access to education, but also to meet students’ basic needs for food, avoiding eviction, filing for unemployment, and accessing health care during the pandemic. And while doing that, they innovated, rethinking how adult education programs can be designed using diverse technology tools. It was a lasting learning experience for us all and one that continues as programs now make decisions about their design and services for the next academic year.  Many, perhaps even most, programs have permanently changed their designs to include more technology-enabled options and flexibility that expand access to learning.

World Education and the Remote ESOL Team thank all the ESOL programs who responded to our call and took the time to submit their information. We are especially grateful to the programs whom we interviewed, who reviewed our drafts, and shared so much about their approaches and their own and their learners’ experiences.


Silja Kallenbach is Project Director of the Remote ESOL project and also Vice President at World Education. Jen Vanek is Director of Digital Learning and Research at World Education. Johan Uvin was lead consultant to the Remote ESOL project. Alison Ascher Webber is Director of Strategic Initiatives at World Education’s EdTech Center.

Adult Education Eligible for School Relief Funds: Act Now to Support Adult Learners!

Funding could be available to your adult education program if you advocate for it.  As record levels of education relief funds flow into states, it’s critical for adult education leaders to understand what funds support adult education activities.  Both ESSER and GEER funds can support adult education.

ESSER is The Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund and its allotments are disbursed to State Education Agencies (SEAs) and through them to Local Education Agencies (LEAs).

There are actually two ESSER funds:

  • ESSER, which is part of the American Rescue Plan (signed into law March 11, 2021) and is a continuation of the ESSER fund that was included in last year’s CARES Act
  • ESSER II, which is part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Relief Act (CRRSRA, signed into law December 27, 2020)

GEER is the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. This fund was set up in the CARES Act and has received additional funding through the CRRSRA (GEER II). Governors disburse these funds to LEAs, institutions of higher education, and “education-related entities.”

New Guidance Includes Adult Learners

Recent guidance from US ED includes information specifically on use of funds for AEFLA.

 C-21. May ESSER and GEER funds be used to serve adults, including English learners, who are eligible to be served under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act? 

Yes. An LEA may use ESSER and GEER funds for any activity authorized by the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), which is Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. These activities could include:  

  • Conducting outreach activities to re-enroll eligible adults who may have discontinued their attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic; 
  • Providing career counseling for eligible adults who suffered job loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; 
  • Purchasing technology (including laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, or tablets) that enable adult learners to access virtual instruction; 
  • Professional development for adult education instructors in the effective implementation of online learning; 
  • Providing instruction to improve digital literacy of adult learners, including English learners, to improve digital access and inclusion; 
  • Assessing the skills and educational progress of adult learners using virtual assessment tools; and 
  • Accessing PPE and cleaning and disinfecting classrooms used during the regular school day so that they may be used for adult education and literacy activities in the evening.

The bulleted list is helpful, but the introduction to the list includes this key statement noting that ESSER & GEER funds can be used for “any activity authorized by the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA).”

CARES Funding Supporting Adult Learners

In the fall of 2020, Literacy Minnesota received CARES act funding through the State Librarian at the Minnesota Department of Education to add a Supporting K-12 Distance Learning assessment and instructor led curriculum on the Northstar Digital Literacy platform. As a result of the pandemic, many parents were responsible for helping their children navigate the world of education through distance learning platforms. This Northstar topic drew from some of the most commonly used Distance Learning platforms to teach parents how to help their children with skills such as uploading an assignment, checking schedules, and communicating with teachers and classmates. This unit topic also covers information on troubleshooting problems, synchronous classroom etiquette, and parental controls. While intended for parents of school-age children, this unit topic is also useful to adults who will be participating in distance learning themselves. The Northstar Digital Literacy assessment and curriculum are both available for free.

In California, Santa Barbara Community College’s School of Extended Learning (SBCC)   and implements intensive, online Integrated Education and Training (IET) programs for English language learners, such as Personal Care Attendant, Green Gardener (landscaping), and Construction. Some of the IET programs target unemployed community members who have been laid off due to COVID’s impact on the economy. Thanks to federal CARES Act funding, these students receive $200/week to attend these intensive IET classes remotely. In contrast to the intensive IET courses, SBCC’s standard English as a Second Language (ESL) program offers a “light-touch” option: open-entry, less formal learning circles offered remotely. The learning circles are a regular part of the ESL program offerings.

Take Action

The first step is creating your advocacy ask and then contacting the right stakeholders.  Access to ESSER funds involves working with your state or local education agency (SEA or LEA). Access to GEER funds involves approaching your governor’s office.

Also, it is important to note that funds from both ESSER I and II “may be used for pre-award costs dating back to March 13, 2020, when the national emergency was declared.” So if your state or local program blew the budget to keep learners connected, here’s a chance to refill your bottom line and continue building toward your new adult education vision.

Judy Mortrude is a Senior Technical Advisor, World Education, Inc. and currently serves as the president of the National Coalition for Literacy.

Theresa Sladek is the National Partnerships and Northstar New Business Specialist at Literacy Minnesota and works with organizations to ascertain and implement their digital literacy needs. Theresa also works with Literacy Minnesota’s national Open Door Collective program on poverty reduction through literacy.

NOTE: For more information on ESSER, see the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education information page and fact sheet comparing ESSER and ESSER II. For more information on GEER, see the FAQs and information page.

Early Lessons from the College Success for Single Mothers Project

Eight community colleges were selected in June, 2020, to participate in College Success for Single Mothers, a project led by Word Education’s National College Transition Network (NCTN) in partnership with Achieving the Dream and PERG Learning, with funding from ECMC Foundation. The goal of the project is to identify the needs of single mother* students on campus and develop an action plan to address their needs and expand key practices and services to enhance their success in college and careers.

Each college has convened a cross-functional task force that leverages diverse expertise from members who represent faculty, administration, institutional effectiveness, early childhood education, student services, and other key departments. Each task force will develop an action plan aligned and integrated with the college’s broader strategic vision to expand key practices and supports, and work on improving equity, inclusion, and student success outcomes.

Collecting Baseline Data

The first year of the three-year project involved a comprehensive quantitative and qualitative data-collection and needs-assessment process to inform the colleges’ action plans using PERG’s Family Friendly Campus Toolkit (“Toolkit”). The Toolkit is a collection of data-collection tools, described in more detail below, that are easily customizable by each task force. Participating colleges are implementing new approaches to collecting and using data to inform planning and decision-making. We share some early lessons from the project here.

A goal of this initial comprehensive data-collection process is to establish a baseline understanding of parenting students, in general, and single mothers in particular, in order to better address their needs. Rather than make this process a one-time event, the intention is to integrate collection and review of student-parent data into ongoing operations and student success metrics to ensure that institutional effectiveness is viewed through the lens of parenting students, among the other lenses used.

Institutional Data and Limitations

The Toolkit provides a template for reviewing any student data that the institution already collects that can be disaggregated by parenting and relationship status and analyzed to understand the demographics, academic experiences, and financial needs of single mothers and all student parents. Examples of institutional data include student information gleaned from Perkins reporting, admissions, and FAFSA .

Some of the participating colleges collect and report enrollment data for subsets of parenting students, but only when required by specific funding streams and for targeted programs. Few collect this information college-wide. One college includes a question about parenting status on its application but doesn’t routinely include that data in its institutional review.

One source of institutional data that colleges draw on for this project in order to broaden their view of the numbers of students with dependent children, is FAFSA data (de-identified). However, FAFSA data aren’t reliable for establishing an accurate or comprehensive baseline of student parents because only 66 percent of college students complete a FAFSA and as many as one in seven who are eligible for some form of aid do not complete a FAFSA 2 .

Each of the sources of institutional data has its limitations, and no single source can be relied on to provide an accurate count of single mothers/student parents, especially since all rely on students to self-report. Therefore, it’s important to institutionalize multiple methods at key junctures.

Student Surveys and Focus Groups

To tell the story behind the institutional data and give voice to single mothers and all parenting students, participating colleges are conducting student surveys and focus groups. The Toolkit provides sample survey and focus group questions that colleges built on and customized to identify single mothers and all parenting students and to learn directly from them about their life circumstances and experiences as students. Additionally, colleges are learning the extent to which parenting students are aware of, need, and use available campus and community supports, in order to identify gaps in support to be addressed.

Strategies for Engaging Students in Focus Groups and Surveys

Recognizing that existing sources of institutional data are incomplete, participating colleges sent the survey to all students, not just those participating in specialized programs or identified by single data sources, in order to reach as many parenting students as possible. They used creative and broad-based dissemination strategies to reach and engage as many student parents as possible. These are some of the strategies that colleges found effective:

  • Plan ahead for the survey and focus groups to take longer than anticipated. A few of the participating institutions required surveys to go through an approval process (i.e., Institutional Review Board) or wait in a queue with surveys from other projects. Others ran into weather delays in scheduling focus groups, or unexpected changes in staffing.
  • Ask for help from other faculty, staff who can serve as “trusted translators” and share the survey, the reason why it’s important, and encourage parenting students to participate. Reach out to students participating in any targeted programs and ask for their help in reaching out to other parents beyond those programs.
  • Where policy and funding allow, compensate students in some way for their time and expertise. Offer incentives, such as electronic cash cards or gift certificates, and/or enter them into a drawing for a larger cash prize.
  • Explain why the survey is important and how the information will be used to assess and respond to the needs of parenting students and single mothers.
  • Weigh the pros and cons to an anonymous survey: Identifiers enable you to align the survey data with institutional data on academic outcomes over time; identifiers enable colleges to develop a more robust outreach strategy to share information specific to student parents and single mothers and invite input into new programming in the future. At the same time, students may be more circumspect if they are asked to identify themselves and need to be reassured that their individual, personal information is confidential.
  • Compare survey results with the institutional data available on student parents and single mothers, but keep in mind that it’s impossible to determine whether any of these self-reported, voluntary sets of data provide a full count. Consider the survey and focus group results as a means to tell the story and supplement institutional data, rather than try to match up the survey data to the institutional data.
  • Some colleges also used the survey to recruit parenting students and single mothers to participate in follow-up focus groups to dig deeper into the details of their life experiences and experiences as students.

Importance of Transparent Messaging

Participating in a survey, focus group and/or reporting one’s parenting or relationship status in an application are all voluntary and may make some students uneasy for a variety of reasons, such as concerns about privacy, stigma or bias.

Prospective students may decline to disclose their parenting status in an application out of fear of discrimination. They may feel more comfortable disclosing parenting status at the point of enrollment. Further, because applications are already quite lengthy, institutions are reluctant to add more content, and students may skip over optional questions to save time.

It’s important that colleges are transparent in their messaging about why they seek information, how they aim to use it to support parenting students, and why sharing such information can be beneficial to parenting students. Providing information about campus and community supports for parenting students in the request for information would be one step in demonstrating sincerity and commitment to assist.

Next Steps

This project was conceived before the COVID-19 pandemic and launched in the early months of the first shutdown. The pandemic makes even more acute the need for systemic responses and targeted supports for single mothers and all parenting students. Participating colleges joined the project because they recognized the imperative to do more to support these students’ success. What they’ve learned about the challenges, persistence, and resilience of single mothers and all parenting students has deepened their commitment to the work.

“The project to date has really raised the level of awareness among our team about the specifics and impacts and needs of single mothers — that, in and of itself, is important, but what we do with it is the most important.” – Task Force Convener

We will continue to share lessons gleaned as the colleges make meaning from the data they’ve collected and develop action plans to address the needs that single mothers and parenting students have voiced through this work.

*The project is focused on single mothers, but colleges are encouraged to collect and analyze data on all parenting students, as long as the data can be disaggregated to understand the distinct needs of each parent group.

1 Juszkiewicz, J. (2014, April). Community College Students and Federal Student Financial Aid: A Primer. Retrieved from 

2 Reeves, R. V. and Guyot, K. (2018, July 5). FAFSA Completion Rates Matter, But Mind the Data. Retrieved from

A WIOA Career Pathway Promise Fulfilled (sort of)

A January 2021 update to federal adult education performance accountability has opened up new ways to document learning in Integrated Education & Training and workplace education programs and new ways to show the impact of our work to our communities and other stakeholders.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

Hard to believe, but the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) – the federal law that authorizes the public adult education system  – is being teed up for reauthorization talks this spring. Years ago, as practitioners worked to develop and implement effective adult career pathways that leverage adult education and workforce development career and training services, we frequently told our federal partners at the U.S. Departments of Education & Labor that they were making our work IMPOSSIBLY difficult because our systems were aiming at different targets.  We had performance accountability policies working against student success.  

WIOA’s passage in 2014 brought the promise of shared accountability to the partners with the definition of six core outcomes, including five different interim progress metrics to document progress along the way to the achievement of recognized postsecondary credentials and quality employment. However, subsequent WIOA regulation for Title II continued adult education’s laser focus on the National Reporting System (NRS) pre/post-testing for Education Function Level gain.

Challenge & Opportunity

During this past year, the COVID-19 requirement to move to remote teaching and learning revealed the house of cards our federal accountability is based on.  Without the use of one of the very few NRS approved tests, practitioners were stymied to even enroll adult learners.   Remote test proctoring stories were often nightmarish – a young mother 5 hours into an online exam taken in her bedroom closet is interrupted by her toddler needing a diaper change and is told her test and her time and her effort are invalidated – and made us ashamed.

While we continue to imagine into existence our perfect adult education accountability system, at least we now have additional options for demonstrating skill gain within a couple of program models:  

  • Integrated Education & Training (the career pathway education design and delivery method), and 
  • Workplace Education and Literacy.

Integrated Education & Training (IET)

IET is a small but growing part of WIOA adult education, and the now allowable use of Measurable Skill Gain (MSG) type 4 Training Milestone and MSG type 5 Skills Progression to document MSG on NRS table 4 (the NRS table used in negotiated performance target setting between US ED and the state AEFLA agency and – hence – the state agency and AEFLA local grantees) means a state and local program can finally get credit for the learning that happens along the way to a recognized postsecondary credential.

Here’s how a local program might design a welding IET program to document these MSGs and the recognized postsecondary credential. [Note that the credential outcome is not an MSG but is a separate outcome measure that can be taken during program participation or up to one year after exit.

Workplace Education and Literacy

Workplace education and literacy programs, like those at Tyson Upward Academy, that partner with AEFLA funded adult education are providing clear guidance to their state partners through guidance documents like that created by Anson Green, Economic Opportunity Director in Tyson’s Corporate Social Responsibility division and former Texas Adult Education State Director.

The Tyson example above notes a variety of MSG opportunities for a participant in an onsite ESL class.  Note how digital literacy skill gains are recorded through competency-based assessments; standardized contextualized academic exams (non-NRS approved) are another possibility for documenting skills; as are financial literacy gains measured via the CASAS additional assessment rubrics. This holistic approach to documenting – and therefore investing time, talent, and resources in – these critical skills truly honors the adult learner in all their roles as worker, family member, and community member.

One Step Closer

There is a lot of work ahead for state adult education funders to ‘turn on’ these additional measures through explicit guidance and technical assistance to local providers.  The expanded reporting is available to use this program year, opening an opportunity to perhaps capture all the remarkable digital skills adult learners gained during remote learning in these two program models and required next program year.

One step closer to shared accountability, these small but significant changes should make it easier to co-enroll and truly partner with our WIOA Title I youth and adult partners and with employers to provide comprehensive, human-centered services to support adults in building foundational skills and more.


Judy Mortrude has been an adult education teacher, administrator, state program director, and national policy analyst.  Judy currently supports World Education’s NCTN Center of Expertise

Click the link for full citations and references A WIOA Career Pathway Fulfilled (Sort of)