Addressing Growing Economic Inequality at NCTN 2016

nctn_banner2016_mainLet’s continue the conversation about adult education and economic inequality at the National College conference policy panel on November 16 in Providence.

Join us!

Wednesday, November 16
12:30 PM – 1:30 PM
Grand Ballroom

Education and training that lead to living-wage jobs is a broadly endorsed strategy for advancing economic opportunity for low-income people. As part of that overall strategy, educators provide college and career readiness activities; we integrate, align, and accelerate in order to build more efficient career pathways in hopes that they make a difference for adult learners. But will these strategies alone result in economic self-sufficiency, a key goal of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in light of the deep economic divide? The Aspen Institute, among others, argues that we need to re-balance workforce development policy and practice – including adult education – by focusing on how to make current poor-quality jobs better to improve the lives of low-wage workers. This year’s policy panel will tackle these issues head on, challenge our assumptions, and suggest strategies we should consider in order to have deeper and more lasting impact.  


vickie-choitzVickie Choitz is the Associate Director of the Economic Opportunities Program at the Aspen Institute. She provides strategic research and leadership for a number of program initiatives to identify and advance strategies that help low-income Americans gain ground in today’s labor market. Her primary focus is to advance the EOP’s work to improve both the quality of low-wage jobs and career advancement opportunities simultaneously as a key strategy to address deepening economic inequality in America. Ms. Choitz has almost 15 years of experience in national organizations promoting economic security and career advancement opportunities for low-income workers and job seekers. She most recently worked at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), where she was interim director of the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success (C-PES) and director of the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways. Ms. Choitz also has worked at Jobs for the Future, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), and FutureWorks. She has a Masters of Public Policy degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and baccalaureate degrees in political science and secondary education and a women ‘s studies minor from Kansas State University. 

judy-mortrudeJudy Mortrude is Senior Policy Analyst at Center for Law And Social Policy (CLASP).  Judy has over 30 years of experience developing, delivering, and managing secondary and postsecondary education projects for workforce development, particularly with low literacy and high barrier populations. Judy was the lead administrator for Minnesota’s largest Adult Basic Education (ABE) consortium before moving to the Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development in 2009 to staff the Minnesota FastTRAC Adult Career Pathway cross-system initiative. Currently, she facilitates a network of practitioners in the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways at CLASP.  This Alliance of education, workforce development, and human service providers from across the country has developed quality standards for career pathway system partners to use as they develop and evaluate their aligned efforts. As a senior policy analyst for CLASP, Judy focuses on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Perkins Career & Technical Education, and other education/workforce development policy.


cynthia-petersCynthia Peters is the Editor of The Change Agent, a social justice magazine for adult learners that teaches basic skills in the context of issues that are relevant to adults. Her expertise includes writing, editing, developing content and lesson plans, and providing professional development (both in person and via webinar) on a wide range of topics. She also teaches ESOL in a workplace-based class at a hotel in downtown Boston. Prior to joining World Education, Cynthia worked with the book publisher, South End Press and as a freelance editor and writer for over 15 years. Cynthia is a long-time community activist, currently focused on housing and youth justice work via City Life/Vida Urbana and The City School, respectively.


silja-kallenbachSilja Kallenbach is Vice President at World Education, Inc., the home of the NCTN, where she oversees World Education’s work in the U.S. Silja also directs the Networks for Integrating New Americans national demonstration project funded by Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Silja has 33 years of experience in adult education as administrator, professional development provider, program developer, researcher, and ESOL teacher.

Adult Education and Economic Inequality

AEFL Week Logo“America’s economy and the structure of the job market have changed significantly over the past couple decades in ways that have hurt working poor families. For low-income workers, real wages have fallen, the social safety net is fraying, and staying afloat financially is harder than ever. Economic inequality is at levels not seen since just before the Great Depression of the early 20th century. The economic situation is not likely to reverse itself on its own.” – Choitz and Conway in The Future of Work for Low-Income Workers and Families Policy Brief (2015), The Working Poor Families Project

The staggering economic inequality in the United States affects adult education and adult learners directly and in multiple ways.  That is why we at World Education commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week this year by turning our focus on this topic in this blog series.

We need to bust the myth that education and training alone are the solution to increased economic mobility while also understanding that education and training do matter.  They’re just not enough.  The wages of the poorest and middle class workers have not kept up with inflation.  Low-wage workers took home 5% less in 2013 than in 1979, while those with very high wages had a 41% increase in their wages, adjusted for inflation. “The hard truth is that millions of tomorrow’s workers will have no realistic option except to make do the best they can, struggling each day not for mobility but simply stability,” state Conway and Dawson in Raise the Floor and Build Ladders: Workforce Strategies Supporting Mobility and Stability

As a rule, ABE and ESL learners work in low-wage jobs, often with unpredictable schedules, few benefits, and limited job advancement possibilities.  That is often why they have decided to enroll in adult education, to improve their economic security.  They are up against great odds on the road to completing their high school degree, a training program, or college.  For some adult learners, juggling constantly changing work schedules and family responsibilities and finding reliable transportation to get to school is just too much. Others give up because they cannot afford the actual and opportunity cost of college or training.  Erratic work scheduling alone wreaks havoc not only on people’s anticipated income but also on child care arrangements and the ability to attend classes.

Many studies show that adult learners increase their odds of securing a good job with every degree and certificate.  If we, as adult educators, really want to increase students’ chances of getting through adult education and training or college and landing a decent job, there is yet more we need to do in addition to providing high quality education and training programs.  While we provide ever more workforce preparation activities and help people get on a career pathway, we also need to support students to see themselves as agents of their own destiny, as people who can affect their own workplaces and join broader advocacy efforts.

As Conway and Dawson write in their insightful paper, Restore the Promise of Work, a career ladder is not secure unless it rests on a stable ground.   We need to join forces with other advocates and adult learners to push for increased minimum wage, guaranteed sick leave, and other policies that provide a modicum of economic stability.  Minimum wage, for example, is on the ballot in many states and cities this November, as Sandy Goodman writes in an upcoming blog.  As teachers and practitioners in the field, why not create lessons around these ballot questions, so that our students can develop their opinions and take action if they wish?

We could also follow the example of Instituto del Progreso Latino’s Manufacturing Works program in Chicago that rates employers based on worker compensation and working conditions and that places students in jobs accordingly. We can educate ourselves and our students about how to prevent wage theft, which is rampant and affects our students and their families. And we can model agency by advocating for better working conditions within our own field of adult education! (See our blog posting later this week called “Making a Living in Adult Education?”)

The fact is that for every adult who manages to hang on and graduate and land a decent job, there are hundreds who will be stuck in low-wage jobs. More than one half (56%) of all new jobs over the next decade will be low-wage jobs. That’s 8.8 million jobs in retail sales, food preparation and service, child care, landscaping, home health, and security.[i]  These jobs should meet minimum standards for dignified work, i.e., they should pay enough so that workers can provide food and shelter for themselves and their families, receive decent benefits, and not have to worry about being fired due to illness. There is something wrong with our economic policies when 52% of fast food workers must rely on food stamps and other forms of public assistance, most of them working full-time.

Our complementary Change Agent lesson packets offer teaching resources.  One article (in Lesson Packet #9), for example, details how billionaires’ secretaries pay a higher effective tax rate than they do themselves, and how corporations’ share of the federal tax contributions has plummeted over the last decades. And Lesson Packet #10 highlights efforts many of our students are already part of to improve working conditions.

When we educate, train, integrate, and try to accelerate pathways to good jobs, we should keep in mind the macro-economic policies that contribute to inequality, and we should do what we can to change those policies.  What are the ways we in adult education can integrate advocacy into our teaching so that — in concert with students, with others in the field, and with a wide array of advocates – we ensure the strongest possible voices will be raised for equity?

During the coming week, keep an eye out for more blog posts that help explore this question.

[i] Conway, M. & S. Dawson. (2016) Raise the Floor and Build Ladders: Workforce Strategies Supporting Mobility and Stability

Let’s Celebrate the National Welcoming Week!

toolkit coverThe National Welcoming Week, September 16-25, is a time to celebrate the values that unite us as neighbors, colleagues, and classmates, values like hard work and resiliency. It’s a time to build bridges across differences by sharing our stories. Stories of resilience and overcoming obstacles, for example, can build bonds between immigrant and U.S.-born adults. The journey of Lamchit Phiongphouthai to escape the devastation of war in Laos that destroyed his home, workplace, and school reflects his resilience much like the journey of U.S.-born Davita Carter who survived an abusive relationship and a serious workplace injury. Both found their way to go back to school to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Through increased dialogue we find commonalities and build community. Communities grow stronger when all community members feel valued and have a sense of belonging.  This is as true in any classroom as it is in the community at large.

In celebration of the Welcoming Week, Welcoming America and World Education, Inc. developed a free Instructors’ Toolkit for Building Bridges Across Communities. The toolkit is designed for adult educators who are interested in building more welcoming classrooms and communities by finding commonalities and celebrating values that unite us. The toolkit consists of mid-level, adaptable ESOL and ABE classroom activities that aim to foster dialogue across cultures and build lasting connections, especially among immigrants and US-born residents. It draws on resources developed by Welcoming America and The Change Agent magazine from World Education.

In some parts of the country adult education programs are joining other community groups to organize events and activities for the Welcoming Week. Here’s an article on what Fresno Adult School organized last year.  Adult learning centers across the U.S. welcome refugees and immigrants year-round, and the national Welcoming Week is an opportunity recognize and deepen that role inside and outside of the classroom.

Climbing the Mountain to College and Career Readiness Standards

Massachusetts is a leader in its professional development support and implementation of College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS), says Meredith Liben, Director of the English Language Arts and Literacy Team at Student Achievement Partners.  Keynote speaker, Liben praised the Massachusetts adult education system at the conference dedicated to CCRS and organized by the SABES PD Coordinating Center at World Education for the third year in a row.

Liben called CCRS an equity issue in that all students deserve to have access to complex text. Discussing is the way humans naturally arrive at understanding, but deepening one’s understanding of the world through reading and writing is not natural and is hard work for adult learners and their teachers. But the alternative of not doing so is not acceptable because it implies setting lower standards for adult learners.

Likening the standards to a mountain summit and teaching to them the work of building the trails to the summit, Liben says, “I worry about the standards becoming the only thing. The standards are a means to an important end—we need to remember it’s getting the students to the top that matters. If the slope is too steep we have to know how to cut out switchbacks into the trail.”  Like a mountain summit, the standards demand a singular focus on what matters the most. Less is more.

Liben honed in on the central CCRS idea of evidence.  Educators know that you should be able to provide evidence for your opinions. Employers and colleges demand evidence of skills. Adult learners need evidence that reading at this more complex level matters, that it is relevant to their lives.  Linked to evidence is the ability to ask good questions.

Thank you Meredith Liben for your words of wisdom.  Kudos to the World Education SABES team for organizing a successful conference that engages practitioners to roll up their sleeves and stay with a topic!

Immigrant Integration Offers a Broader Frame for ESOL Instruction


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.



There are nearly 22 million immigrants and refugees in the U.S. who speak limited English and could benefit from English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction. For the two million or so of them who are fortunate to get a seat in an adult ESOL program every year, these programs are a gateway to navigating life in their new home country.  As such, adult ESOL programs are important agents of immigrant integration, but that potential needs to be nurtured.

Immigrant integration offers a broader framework for ESOL instruction than a singular focus on learning the English language.  The White House Task Force on New Americans defines immigrant integration as a two-way process in which immigrants and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities.  The Administration has identified three integration pillars — civic, economic, and linguistic. The linguistic pillar is our “cup of tea” in adult ESOL, and the other two provide context for the instruction.  In adult education, economic integration takes the form of college and career readiness and employment services that help adults prepare and search for jobs.  In our context, civic integration is often interpreted as citizenship instruction with referrals to naturalization services, but we all know that citizenship does not naturally engender civic engagement or integration.

Promoting immigrants’ sense of belonging and connectedness to other community members and institutions is another important facet of contemporary ESOL programming focused on immigrant integration. Increasingly, adult ESOL programs are joining the national welcoming movement spearheaded by Welcoming America, where communities make intentional efforts to form bonds between the receiving community members and immigrants.

In Central Valley, CA, for example, the Fresno Adult School that coordinates the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Network organizes a weeklong series of welcoming activities.  This year, their efforts were focused on connecting ESOL and US-born students across their 16 classes and ABE, high school equivalency and job training programs through common readings and pen pal activities.

The Central Valley Immigrant Integration Network is one of five local networks that are part of a national initiative, Networks for Integrating New Americans that World Education is proud to lead with its partners, Welcoming America, IMPRINT, and the National Partnership for New Americans with support from the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education. The other four networks are located in Providence, RI, Boise, ID, Lancaster, PA, and White Center, WA.  A key design feature of the initiative is to position adult ESOL programs in a central role in these local networks that we and our partners support through coaching and technical assistance.  We will host a national webinar in February and will publish two papers about the lessons learned and promising practices in spring 2016. Stay tuned!

Adult ESOL Programs as Agents of Immigrant Integration

Immigration defines the past, present, and future of the United States. Immigrants’ contributions to U.S. society and their integration underlie the nation’s progress to date and its ability to thrive in the future.* Immigrants and their children will account for 85% of the net growth in the U.S. workforce over the next 20 years; by 2030, nearly one in five U.S. workers will be immigrants.**,*** Ensuring that immigrants can capitalize on their current education and experience and access additional education and training is key to communities’ prosperity. As well, immigrants’ civic integration strengthens the social and political fabric of communities.

Adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs have an important role to play in advancing this integration of immigrants inside and outside of the classroom. As one of the first places newcomers turn to for support in navigating their new environments, ESOL programs are uniquely positioned to facilitate activities that can help immigrants build the skills that will enable them to function effectively in the economic and civic life of their communities.

Immigrant integration is a dynamic, two-way process in which immigrants and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities.**** Therefore, ESOL programs that embrace an immigrant integration mission face the challenge of developing activities that go beyond classroom-based language instruction – they involve bringing the community into the classroom and the classroom into the community.

Networks for Integrating New Americans

Networks for Integrating New Americans is a new, national initiative that seeks to position adult education programs as key contributors to local, multi-sector networks formed to advance immigrant integration. It is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) and led by World Education and its partners: the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), IMPRINT, and Welcoming America. The initiative aims to strengthen adult education programs’ ability to 1) improve immigrants’ access to effective and innovative English language programs; 2) support immigrants on the path to citizenship; and 3) support immigrants’ career development through training and education. The project seeks to break down silos and address gaps in existing services for immigrants while tapping into the potential of adult ESOL programs to be more active agents of immigrant integration.

Five networks of organizations will be selected by February 2014 through a national, open, and competitive application process. They will receive technical assistance from World Education, its partners, and other experts to strengthen local networks’ operations and ability to better facilitate immigrants’ linguistic, economic, and civic integration.

Network for Integrating New Americans Theoretical Framework
The initiative’s implementation is guided by a Theoretical Framework that is based on theory and research about immigrant integration and related promising practices. The project intentionally uses organizational networks as the primary vehicle for promoting immigrant integration because, when the organizations in the immigrant and receiving communities are collaborating and aligned, they are able to mobilize both communities to address common needs, share their unique strengths, and find a constructive path through times of transition.

The Networks for Integrating New Americans project facilitates the integration of services that support three pillars of integrations: linguistic, economic, and civic. Such services have historically been compartmentalized by service type, populations served, or program goals. As community networks work together to assess the strengths and gaps in their combined services, however, they will be able to build more fluid connections among those services (referrals, joint projects, etc.), address missing pieces, and create new collaborative efforts. With such coordination, the networks can have a greater collective impact than each of its member organizations does separately.

Linguistic Integration. It is clear that the ability to communicate in English is critical for immigrants to be able to attain better jobs, advance in their careers, participate more fully in civic life, and become more integral members of the larger community.*****-******* Linguistic integration is a gradual process in which ESOL providers play a central role that can be strengthened in multiple ways. Examples of linguistic integration topics that the initiative will focus on include: ESOL literacy; Multi-level classes; Use of technology to accelerate learning; College and career readiness; Learner persistence; and Parental engagement and family learning.

Economic Integration. Finding a job that pays a living wage is the top priority for most working-age immigrants. Economic integration occurs when immigrants have the resources to excel and obtain economic self-sufficiency and employers are able to attract and retain the best talent, and when both employers and immigrant workers understand their rights. This vision of economic integration is not a reality for many immigrants given that immigrants are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs that do not pay family-sustaining wages. It is one that the initiative seeks to address by strengthening the selected networks’ ability to facilitate immigrants’ job and college readiness as well as financial literacy.

In the short-term, immigrants need job readiness skills and job placement assistance.******** To move ahead beyond the first job they are able to land in the U.S., most immigrants need further education and training and an understanding about the local labor market and how to pursue the most viable career pathway. Immigrant and non-immigrant adults with a postsecondary credential are more likely to succeed in the U.S. labor market than are those without one, be it a certificate or a degree.

Civic Integration. Civic participation is a fundamental value in U.S. democracy. Civic integration occurs when all community members have a sense of belonging in the community and ownership in the nation’s future, and are secure in and exercise their rights.

Citizenship is a classic benchmark of integration in any society. In the U.S., with citizenship comes the right to vote and access to public benefits as well as the ability to sponsor family members for immigration. Even if they have not yet attained citizenship, immigrants should be encouraged and prepared to participate in civic life, such as joining local task forces to address community issues and helping to organize neighborhood activities. Such participation increases interactions with other immigrant and receiving community members and signals immigrants’ commitment to their community and new country. It develops leadership skills and social and professional ties that can expand immigrants’ access to resources and job opportunities.*********

Adult education programs need to claim their place as instrumental to immigrant integration. They are in a strong position to weave language instruction with economic and civic integration activities. Stay tuned for the soon-to-be-released call for applications by existing networks/coalitions/initiatives to participate in Networks for Integrating New Americans.

Ed. Note: Read the Theoretical Framework document that details numerous examples of existing initiatives, research, and promising practices related to immigrants’ linguistic, economic, and civic integration.

*For the sake of brevity, the term ‘immigrants’ refers to immigrants and refugees.
**B. Lindsay Lowell, Julia Gelatt, and Jeanne Batalova, “Immigrants and Labor Force Trends: The Future, Past and Present,” Migration Policy Institute: Insight 17 (2006).
***Dowell Myers, Stephen Levy, and John Pitkin, “The Contributions of Immigrants and Their Children to the American Workforce and Jobs of the Future,” (Center for American Progress, 2013)
****National Partnership for New Americans, “National Partnership for New Americans,”
*****Andy Nash, “Civic Participation and Community Action Sourcebook,” (World Education, 2003),
******Harry C. Boyte, Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics, 1st ed. (New York: Free Press, 1989).
*******Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman and Henry Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
********Maureen Conway, Amy Blair, and Matt Helmer, “Courses to Employment. Partnering to Create Pathways to Education and Careers,” (The Aspen Institute Workforce Strategies Initiative, 2012).
*********Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century.”