National agenda for research and development in adult education and literacy
Corporate Name: Research Triangle Institute
Publisher: National Institute for Literacy
Published At: Washington, DC
Date Published: 1998
Distributor: National Institute for Literacy
Source Address: 800 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 200
Source City/State/Zip: Washington DC 20202
Material Type: Position Paper
Intended Audience: Policy Maker
Physical Media: Print
Physical Description: 38 p.
Subjects: Adult Basic Education; Adult Literacy; Adult Programs; Research and Development
This document outlines a national agenda for research and development in the field of adult learning and literacy. It represents coordination among three agencies: National Institute for Literacy (NIFL); National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL); and the U.S. Department of Education's Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL). Questions are listed under five topic areas: adult learning, recruitment, and persistence; types of instruction that work best; learner assessment and program evaluation; staff development; and policy and structure. Dissemination and capacity are also considered.
NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR LITERACY
A National Agenda
For Research And Development
In Adult Education and Literacy
Prepared by the Research Triangle Institute
800 CONNECTICUT AVENUE, N.W., SUITE 200 * WASHINGTON, D.C. 20202-7560
(202) 632-1500 * FAX (202) 632-1512
National Institute for Literacy
Research Triangle Institute
P.O. Box 12194
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
Contract No. LC-92-008-001
Planning and Evaluation Service
U.S. Department of Education
3040 Cornwallis Road * Post Office Box 12194 * Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709-2194 USA
Under the National Literacy Act, Congress established the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) to:
(A)Provide a national focal point for research, technical assistance and research dissemination, policy analysis, and program evaluation in the area of literacy; and
(B)Facilitate a pooling of ideas and expertise across fragmented programs and research efforts (P.L. 102-73, Section 102).
The Act defines literacy as: "...an individual's ability to read, write, and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and develop one's knowledge and potential."
In order to fulfill this part of its mandate, NIFL initiated an effort to establish a national agenda for research and development in the field of adult learning and literacy. After NIFL initiated this work, Harvard University was awarded a new grant from the Department of Education (ED) to operate the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). In its proposal, NCSALL had planned to create a research agenda to guide its own work. Discussions between NIFL and NCSALL led to the merging of the two efforts into a single agenda-setting activity. ED's Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL), which also administers national funds that support research and development, joined with NIFL and NCSALL as a partner in this undertaking.
NIFL provided a contract to the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) to undertake a series of activities to support this effort. Those activities began with a literature review and included meetings of a Steering Group of experts and focus groups with stakeholders. After all of these activities, RTI drafted an agenda. Because of the importance of this document, the directors of the three cooperating agencies worked together on that draft to produce this document.
The process of developing the agenda is described in the next section. The agenda itself follows. Subsequent portions of this document make recommendations concerning the dissemination of results and the building of research capacity. The report concludes with a discussion of ways in which the capacities of all interested parties might be brought to bear on research questions contained in the agenda.
Literature Review. The first step in the process of establishing a national agenda was a review of previous efforts to establish a research agenda for the field. This review indicated that practitioners, administrators, and researchers believed that future research should:
- Contribute to our understanding of adult learning and motivation, including:
- How adults learn,
- How their needs change throughout their lifetimes, and
- What motivates them to participate and persist in adult education and learning.
- Identify the types of instruction that work best (including the use of technology) for adult literacy students and specific subgroups such as individuals with disabilities, students with limited proficiency in English, and low-level readers.
- Investigate ways to establish an adult education service delivery structure that:
- Allows for better integration with other components of the educational system, and
- Permits easier transition among programs.
- Design and test new approaches to staff development that respond to local contexts and involve practitioners in solving their own instructional problems.
- Investigate issues in the area of learner assessment and program effectiveness, including:
- Specifying outcomes for adult education and learning,
- Identifying better techniques for assessing learner progress, and
- Developing improved methods for evaluating program effectiveness.
Copies of this review, Setting a National Agenda for Research and Development in Adult Education and Literacy, are available at www.nifl.gov or by request from NIFL.
Steering Group Input. To provide overall direction for the agenda-setting process, the three agencies recruited a National Steering Group that included federal and state policy makers, practitioners, and members of the research community. As its first activity, the Steering Group reviewed the summary of previous efforts to establish a research agenda for the field and helped refine and finalize the topic areas that would serve as the basis for focus group discussions. The Steering Group also recommended changes to the original design of the study, which included expanding the number of focus groups to allow for greater input from stakeholders.
After the focus groups were completed, the Steering Group reviewed detailed reports from each session, discussed the implications of focus groups' perspectives for the research agenda, and provided NIFL with suggestions concerning the most urgent priorities for research, Those recommendations have been incorporated into this report. Appendix A provides a list of the members of the National Steering Group.
Focus Groups. Participants in the eleven focus groups represented the range of interested stakeholders. There were three focus groups of adult learners, three of teachers, two of local administrators, one of state directors and other officials, and two of researchers. The focus groups were held at five locations around the country and included individuals from both urban and rural areas, as well as a variety of services. Appendix B describes the focus group sites and the stakeholders who participated in each group. The full focus group report, Setting a National Agenda for Research and Development in Adult Education and Literacy: Focus Group Report is available at www.nifl.gov or on request from NIFL.
The topics identified in the literature review (adult learning and motivation, types of instruction that work best, service delivery structure, staff development, and learner assessment and program effectiveness) served as a basis for focus group discussions. Most groups lasted for one and one-half to two hours, with participants discussing only those topics about which they were most likely to be knowledgeable. Sessions for state directors and researchers, however, extended to one-half day, with the researcher groups discussing all five topics. To provide participants in these longer sessions with a springboard for discussion, each individual was provided with a background paper that included a brief discussion of the current state of knowledge in the field. This report, Setting a National Agenda for Research and Development in Adult Education and Literacy: Overview of Focus Group Topics, is available at www.nifl.gov or on request from NIFL.
Drafting of the Agenda. RTI synthesized the input from the literature review, the focus groups, and the Steering Group and produced a draft Agenda. After the Steering Group had an opportunity to review and comment on the draft Agenda, the directors of the three cooperating agencies discussed this draft and took responsibility for making changes to its format and wording. This agenda was formed with input from every sector of the field and represents a commitment of the three agencies to collaborate in seeking answers to these important questions.
Objectives of the Research Agenda
The three cooperating agencies and the members of the National Advisory group have designed this agenda to form a foundation for the development of an integrated, sequential plan for addressing specific research questions in a logical sequence that:
- Builds on existing knowledge and fills gaps in the current knowledge base:
- Considers the utility of research in other fields (such as the K-12 and higher education systems, human development, and cognitive science) and from other countries to inform research on adult learning and literacy;
- Supports other research planning efforts, particularly those of the Division of Adult Education and Literacy's (DAEL) consumer group that is working to establish an agenda for the Department of Education's national programs and an adult English as a Second Language agenda that the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) is drafting;
- Incorporates strategies for dissemination of research results to the field;
- Allows researchers to justify funding requests as grounded in a national research framework; and,
- Provides potential funders with a list of priority areas in need of research and development and a rationale for their importance.
The most suitable methodology for addressing a particular research question will vary, depending on the topic, and work under this Agenda, therefore, will employ a variety of research methods. Some research will include nationally representative descriptive and impact studies, which will provide the data that federal and state policy makers need for decision making. Research activities will also encompass small-scale analytic studies that help explore causal relationships. Both professional scholars and teacher-researchers will undertake this research. Ideally, these two groups will work together to ensure both quality and relevance of the research. No matter who undertakes the research or whether they use qualitative or quantitative methods, they should adhere to accepted conventions of good research practice.
In the design and implementation of their studies, researchers should consider the ultimate use of their findings. DAEL's consumer group listed steps that, if followed, would help to facilitate its use by policymakers and practitioners. The consumer group stated that researchers should:
- Build on prior work and identify that prior work in the framework of the study;
- Assess to what extent their research question can be answered and whether it will provide useful information to policymakers, practitioners, and other researchers;
- Test the research design before implementation;
- Assess the availability and quality of the data that can be collected before determining the data collection procedure;
- Articulate the relevance of the research to key program and policy issues
- Adopt a consistent use of definitions and measures; and
- Develop a stated dissemination process that takes into consideration the practitioners and policy makers that would benefit from the research and the ways in which research findings can best be communicated to them.
The Research and Development Agenda
The Agenda will help to advance the state of knowledge in the field of adult education and literacy in several ways. First, it will provide researchers at all levels, ranging from those who are conducting nationally representative studies to individual practitioners, with information about the issues that stakeholders consider important. Hopefully, it will spur investment in research and development from the public and private sectors that can now clearly see the consensus around these research questions. By enabling investigators to see how their individual work contributes to answering important questions, the Agenda will help to form links and build coordination among all research efforts. Finally, the agenda, which will change as new knowledge becomes available, will help teacher-researchers, scholars, and policy makers identify the most urgent priorities for research.
The overall goal of the agenda is to focus research efforts on those questions that hold the greatest promise for improving and expanding services to adults who have low literacy skills, who do not speak English, or who do not have a high school degree. These services are usually called Adult Basic Education (ABE), English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and Adult Secondary Education (ASE).
The questions are listed under five topic areas. The questions are not, technically, "research questions." Rather, they represent the questions that practitioners and policy makers have expressed are most important. Researchers may have to develop several specific "research questions" to answer each of the questions presented here.
Adult Learning, Recruitment, and Persistence
For programs to be successful, they must attract adults who are motivated to learn and who persist until they meet their goals. In order to design programs that attract adult learners and help them meet their educational goals, adult educators need to know more about: (1) how adults learn, and (2) what motivates them to enroll and persist in adult education programs. The questions under this topic are:
- What is the current research-based knowledge about how adults learn and improve literacy and English language skills?
- Which educational theories and approaches/practices are consistent with this knowledge?
- What are the gaps in our knowledge base about the ways in which adults learn and improve literacy and English language skills, in both instructional situations and everyday life?
- How can we fill those gaps?
Recruitment and Persistence
- What makes an adult ready to learn at a particular point in time?
- Which recruitment strategies are effective at identifying and encouraging students who are ready to learn?
- Do adults persist longer in programs where the instruction takes place in a context that relates to their specific goals, as compared to instruction that focuses on a more general set of basic skills and knowledge?
- Which instructional components of a program contribute most to learner persistence?
- Which non-instructional components of a program (counseling, orientation, or peer support, for example) contribute most to learner persistence?
- How can adult education personnel help learners identify and manage the forces that act to support and inhibit the achievement of their educational goals?
Types of Instruction That Work Best
The answers to the research questions posed under the heading of "Adult Learning, Recruitment, and Persistence" will help local adult education programs attract and retain adult students and provide those students with instructional services that are based on sound theories of adult learning. No single type of instruction, however, is appropriate for all adults, under all conditions. Adult educators need information that will help them select the type of instruction most suitable for particular individuals and specific situations. The questions under this topic are:
- Are contextualized models that integrate basic skills and ESOL instruction with job training, parenting instruction, health, or other context-based instruction more effective than those that do not, and with which populations are they more effective?
- How can practitioners make the best decision as to which instructional models and designs are most appropriate for specific groups of learners, including older adults, individuals with specific types of disabilities, and students for whom English is a second language?
- How do time-on-task, instructional intensity, and patterns of learner participation affect individual achievement?
- When should a teacher employ individual, group, and cooperative learning designs?
- How can technology be best used to improve instruction, increase learning time, and individualize instruction?
- Which instructional approaches lead to real change in home literacy practice and use of English in everyday life?
Learner Assessment and Program Evaluation
Adult learners need tools that allow them to track their progress toward their academic and nonacademic goals. Teachers need tools that inform instruction by both providing an accurate picture of a student's strengths and weaknesses, the effectiveness of instruction, and measuring academic progress. Program directors and state ABE directors need tools that measure program effectiveness for managing instruction and informing policy decisions. These tools may include standardized tests, competency-based assessments, and participatory techniques such as portfolios.
These measurement tools should provide information that is useful to improving programs as well as measuring progress toward greater effectiveness. In addition, the system as a whole needs tools that will help measure both the achievement of adult learners and the positive impact upon their lives. The first step in addressing these questions is agreement on a framework that defines the skills and knowledge programs should teach and the impact that should result from successful participation in these programs. The questions under this topic are:
- What is the impact of successful participation in an ABE, ESOL or ASE program on the lives of the adults who participate, on their families, and on their communities?
- Which skills and knowledge that contribute to a person being literate can be validly and reliably measured?
- More specifically, which tools (existing or new) can best assess achievement in reading, writing, mathematics, problem solving, learning to learn, and other learning outcomes?
- Which tools and methods (existing or new) can best measure program impact beyond direct learning gains, such as employment, parenting, and community involvement?
- How can these tools be best employed to provide useful information to learners, teachers, program development, and accountability systems?
- How can measurement tools be best incorporated into the operations of a program/classroom so they provide useful information to learners, teachers, program development, and accountability systems?'
- Which principles of effectiveness can serve as a basis for program evaluation and program certification? What would be the impact of a program certification system?
Teachers and other program staff are the most important part of the adult learning and literacy delivery system. The Adult Education Act requires every state to carry out a program of staff development. However, there is no clear articulation of the characteristics and abilities teachers should possess in order to be effective, nor is there agreement as to how they can best acquire the competencies they need. The questions under this topic are:
- What skills and knowledge do all adult education personnel (including instructors, counselors, and administrators) need?
- What additional skills and knowledge do staff in particular types of programs (ESOL, learning disabilities, and math, for example) need?
- Which approaches to staff development are most effective in changing teacher practice? What is the relationship among staff development, teacher practice, and student outcomes?
- What would be the impact of a credentialing system for adult education instructors and administrators?
- Which models for statewide staff development systems are most effective in providing comprehensive, ongoing, systematic, and effective staff development to practitioners?
Policy and Structure
In deciding how to help students meet their educational goals, adult education programs are constrained to some degree by the structure of the service delivery system in which they operate and the policies that govern that system. This policy and structure determine, at least to some extent, what types of services local programs can offer, how intensive those services can be, how services will be coordinated with those offered by other agencies, and how readily students can move between adult education and other education or training programs. This section of the research agenda addresses issues that go beyond the individual program, in order to identify ways in which the delivery system, as a whole, better respond to students' needs. Its questions under this topic are:
- What state and local policies and structures appear to be effective in supporting quality instructional services?
- What are the skills and knowledge needed by policy makers at the state, local, and national levels in order for them to be effective in providing policy and instructional leadership?
- What are the barriers to and probable benefits of better coordination between adult education programs and other human service agencies, specifically the postsecondary education system, occupational training services, corrections system, and welfare agencies? What models do we have of policies that encourage coordination and that increase the likelihood of adults reaching their goals?
- How can the concept of a service delivery system be expanded to create opportunities for adults to learn outside of the classroom? For example, how can learning opportunities be extended through distance learning, at the workplace?
- How should the size and nature of the potential adult learner population be assessed at the national level?
- What has been the impact of recent federal policy changes (e.g., emphasis on employment outcomes, integration of service delivery systems, welfare reform, and NLA's "direct and equitable" requirement) on the adult education delivery system and the students it serves?
- What would be the impact of removing federal set aside requirements on the Adult Education Program and the students it serves?
- What has been the impact of national literacy assessments (e.g., the NALS and IALS) on educational policy making in the United States? How does this compare to the impact of similar assessments on policy in other industrialized nations? If there are differences, what accounts for them?
Some research findings are useful because they lead to further research that eventually answers an important question. Eventually, though, all research must lead to improvements in practice to be of real value. Dissemination of research findings should be systematic at both the national and state level. These dissemination systems should have both print and electronic forms that are easily available to all levels of the system. Research findings should also find their way into regular staff development activities.
Dissemination cannot be a passive activity, especially since this field has many part-time and volunteer staff who may not be focused on building their skills and knowledge for a long-term career. Effective dissemination needs a national, state, and program partnership that actively works to make research findings available to practitioners in forms that they find useful. Responsibility for dissemination, therefore, must be held by each part of the system. Researchers and the national funding agencies must insist that dissemination plans be part of research efforts. State ABE directors must put resources into connecting their programs to research findings, and program staff must be trained to use research findings.
As with many aspects of this field, the capacity to implement research and disseminate its findings is weak. Most of the funding for research comes from a limited number of sources that includes DAEL's national programs account, each state's section 353 (discretionary) funds, NIFL's research efforts, the programs of ED's Office of Educational Research and Improvement, and a few national foundations. These agencies should coordinate their efforts and pay attention to the need to build and sustain capacity as well as answer important questions.
The field must encourage and support adult education practitioners who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in education research. For that encouragement to be successful, more jobs must be available for trained researchers. State agencies, therefore, should work with state university systems to add faculty positions in adult literacy and learning.
The existing base of research in the field is still limited, but several good reviews of literature on specific topics already exist that are not readily available. These reviews should be collected, updated and made available. This requires the support of new publications that will find their way into the library and publications system.
Since most of the research in the field is supported with government funds, the databases they produce should be easily available to other researchers. To facilitate the sharing of data and the analysis of data among different studies, researchers should agree to common definitions and measures of important aspects of the field.
This document defines what needs to be done, but some of this work is already underway NIFL's Equipped for the Future (EFF) initiative is building the framework needed to define measures of achievement. DAEL's is supporting large-scale efforts to identify and validate best practices in ABE, ESOL, and the use of technology. NCSALL is pursuing a set of research projects that will help answer many of these questions. Several foundations and government agencies are also supporting research that will help answer these questions. Much more needs to be done, and this Agenda is a tool that should be used to inform future investment.
Office of Educational Research and
U.S. Department of Education
Steering Group Members
John Comings, Director
Sheila Murphy, Program Officer
Ron Pugsley, Director
Virginia Watson, Director
Focus Group Sites and Participants
Site #1 was the location for two focus groups, one with students and one with instructors. This large city on the U.S.-Mexican border was selected primarily because many of its students represent a growing subset of the English as a Second Language population: adults who do not read and write in either English or their native language. In response to our request to talk with such students, the community college program we visited allowed us to meet with its entire Spanish literacy class. The group comprised 16 students, most of whom were women between the ages of 50 and 60. All were of Mexican heritage, but had lived in the U.S. for most of their adult lives. Most had lost a job in the past year due to the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which caused the manufacturing plants where they worked to move their operations to Mexico.
In selecting instructors, program administrators look for "an individual who cares," and who understands students' culture. Most of the instructors who participated in the focus group were students at a nearby university. Although these staff members received training in use of the college's "five-step" instructional model, and support from "facilitators" who supervise and support their work, none had a formal background in education. The program's director believes that these instructors are, in general, far more successful with the college's literacy students than individuals with more traditional backgrounds in education might be.
Sit #2, the regional office of a State Literacy Resource Center (SLRC), was the location for focus groups of instructors and local administrators. All of the participants at this site represented adult basic education programs serving the SLRC's city of about half a million and surrounding suburban areas. Most were employed by school districts (which have historically formed the basis of the state's service delivery system), although other types of agencies were also represented. Several of the programs represented enrolled significant numbers of adults participating in Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) programs.
Site #3, a community center just outside a major northeastern metropolitan area, was the location for focus groups of students and instructors. The agency emphasizes a participatory approach to literacy education that includes group decision making by staff members, a team approach to instruction, and student involvement. It serves students from a community that includes a large number of Haitian and other immigrants who represent more than 70 language groups. Most of the adults who participated in the student focus group were working toward their GEDs or Adult Diplomas; a few were attending an advanced ESL class.
Several individuals who participated in the instructors' focus group were former participants in the center's GED or Adult Diploma programs. Reflecting the agency's emphasis on "lateral" staff development, which encourages instructors to become familiar with a number of subject areas, most had taught more than one type of class.
Because we believed that rural adult education service providers might face unique challenges in recruiting and serving adults who wanted to improve their literacy skills, we asked the director of adult education in a state that includes many rural areas to help us identify local administrators who represented such programs. These individuals assembled at Site #4, an annual statewide adult education conference. This state requires each school district to provide adult education services (either directly or through a contract with another LEA), and most participants represented programs that served either one large, or two or three smaller, LEAs. About two-thirds noted that their districts enrolled significant numbers of ESL students, who came to their areas to work at military bases, large industrial plants, or farms. Several of the agencies represented worked closely with major employers in their areas to improve the literacy skills of current or prospective employees.
Site #5, a community college in a southeastern state that has historically relied primarily on these institutions to provide adult education services, hosted a focus group of adult education students. The college serves a rural area encompassing four counties, three of which have populations of about 40,000; the fourth has fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. Its main campus is located in the only city in the area that has a population of more than 10,000. The institution offers ABE, Adult High School, and GED classes at a variety of sites, including elementary schools, churches, and local textile mills where many eligible adults work. The students who participated in the focus group were from a single GED class and ranged in age from 18 to 60.
State Directors of Adult Education and SLRC Representatives assembled in Washington, DC, for a half-day session. Participants included: Mr. Robert Bickerton, State Director of Adult Education, Massachusetts; Mr. Garland Hankins, State Director of Adult Education, Arkansas; Ms. Miriam Kroeger, Arizona Adult Literacy and Technology Resource Center; Ms. Mary Ann Jackson, ABE Consultant, Wisconsin Technical College System; Dr. Lennox McLendon, State Director of Adult Education, Virginia; Dr. Gary Padak, Ohio Literacy Resource Center; Mr. Charles Talbert, State Director of Adult Education, Maryland; Dr. Fran Tracy-Mumford, State Director of Adult Education, Delaware; Ms. Virginia Watson, Michigan State Literacy Resource Center. Dr. Andy Hartman, director of NIFL, also attended the meeting.
Researchers and policy makers from the eastern part of the country met for a half-day session in Washington, DC. Participants, who were identified by NIFL, were as follows: Dr. Judy Alamprese, Abt Associates; Dr. Janet Baldwin, American Council on Education; Dr. Hal Beder, Rutgers University; Dr. John Comings, National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy; Dr. Sandra Furey, ED/Planning and Evaluation Service; Dr. Andy Hartman, National Institute for Literacy; Dr. Harold Himmelfarb, ED/Office of Educational Research and Improvement; Dr. Chris Hopey, National Center on Adult Literacy; Mr. Mark Kutner, American Institutes for Research; Ms. Melissa Oppenheimer, ED/Planning and Evaluation Service; Mr. Ron Pugsley, ED/Division of Adult Education and Literacy; Dr. John Strucker, National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy; and Ms. Carol Van Duzer, Center for Applied Linguistics.
Researchers from the western part of the country participated in a half-day session in Los Angeles, CA. Group members included: Dr. Robert Berdan, California State University at Long Beach; Dr. John Comings, National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy;1Dr. Alan Crawford; California State University at Los Angeles; Dr. Elisabeth Hayes, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Dr. Reynaldo Macias, Linguistic Minority Research Institute, University of California; Dr. Steve Reder, Portland State University; Dr. Ron Sol6rzano, Occidental College; Dr. Tom Sticht, Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences; Dr. Gail Weinstein, San Francisco State University; Dr. Terrence Wiley, California State University at Long Beach, and Dr. Heide Spruck Wrigley, Agirre International.
1Dr. Comings attended both the Washington and Los Angeles sessions.*****END OF "DOC AB0053 Research Ad Ed & Lit"*****
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