The Importance of Transforming Adult Learning

Several years ago, Carmen — a single, widowed parent — immigrated from Mexico to California to create a better life for herself and her two-year-old son. When she arrived in the U.S., she spoke very little English. She enrolled in ESL classes at New Haven Adult School and then went on to earn her GED. But Carmen soon realized that she needed to acquire more skills in order to find a job that paid a living wage. While working part-time, maintaining a home and raising her children, Carmen went on to earn her Adult Education Teaching Credential. She eventually completed her Bachelor of Arts degree. Today, Carmen is a computer skills instructor at New Haven Adult School, where she inspires ESL students to achieve their most ambitious education and career goals, just as she did.

Carmen’s story illustrates the importance of supporting low-skilled adults who are working hard to support their families. Last year, approximately 1,300 school districts and 370 partner organizations invested $231 million in federal resources and $614 million in state resources for foundation skills training.

While these investments are critical, unfortunately, they are not enough. The international Survey of Adult Skills showed an alarming 36 million American adults have low literacy skills. Since the survey’s release, ED has been hard at work to create a solution at the federal level. Congress also took action, passing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in July 2014, refocusing federal workforce development, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation systems to prepare adults for 21st century work. The Vice President’s office coordinated the Ready to Work job-driven training agenda. Most recently, the President announced the Upskill America initiative to enlist employers in this effort.

But there is still more that needs to be done. The Making Skills Everyone’s Business report, released today, emphasizes that addressing the challenge of adult skill development must be a shared responsibility.

Because the negative effects of low skills ripple through society and the economy, improving the education and skills of adult learners can pay substantial dividends for individuals and families, businesses and communities.

This report lays out seven strategies for establishing convenient, effective, high-quality learning opportunities. It challenges those of us in education to work more closely with employers to prepare students for in-demand jobs with advancement potential. It challenges employers to work more closely with educators to ensure effective training programs that lead to meaningful skill development. And it calls for making career pathways available and accessible everywhere, an effort that will be aided by the implementation of WIOA.

Importantly, this report recognizes the persistent gaps among learners of different races and abilities. As a nation, we must face the fact that achievement gaps, fueled by opportunity gaps, do not close on their own. Rather, they continue to fester and grow, contributing to inequality and unfairness, a widening income gap and inter-generational poverty that threaten our economic and civic prosperity. Educators must reach out to community- and faith-based institutions and employers to design new and scale up promising models that provide youth and adults with skill development and job opportunities.

Ted Mitchell is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education and Johan E. Uvin is Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. An excellent proposal that is timely and requires immediate support, collaborative partnerships, and implementation must be sooner than later. America, we can’t sit back as unaffected bystanders, watching as the middle class shrinks, the distance between wealth and poverty lengthens, and the achievement gap widens.
    Early Learning programs are important components in closing the achievement gap, but alone, will not succeed in making any significant difference in the gap. Skill begets skill, and by helping the adults increase and improve their skills and capabilities, we will see a narrowing learning divide among children. It’s a total win-win; a no- brainer, America.
    Early learning begins at home, with the adults. They become better equipped to support themselves and their family, the community , city, state, nation. That’s being proactive, and solution focused in our approach to strengthening families, closing the achievement gap, and leading the world in global competence.

  2. To help the adult learner bridge the achievement/opportunity/income gap mentioned above, students should be PAID to enroll in a comprehensive, outcome-based contractual educational program that leads to either a job, skills training, or higher education.

    • Great idea!for years I have struggled with the question of how I could return to and pay for school and still provide income for my family. It’s a double whammy for me and has been the largest reason why I have not returned for formal post secondary education!

  3. I appreciate the attention this report brings to broadly shared and hugely consequential concerns – especially in the area of growing inequality. As the report clearly communicates – this impacts civic participation and broad-based economic security. Just as important, it impacts opportunity to live a long and satisfying life with secure housing and a living wage for one’s family.

    I would love to see additional attention to the motivational conditions that contribute to whether adults leave or stay once they enter a post-secondary, corporate, or non-profit learning environment. Raymond Wlodkowski’s book, “Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn, 3rd edition” is one of many theory-driven and highly pragmatic resources for learning in adulthood. If, as the title of the policy brief suggests, the goal includes transformation, motivation need needs to be a part of the equation. Authentic transformation is disorienting to adults and educators. Who is going to hang in there in the absence of a highly motivating learning environment? This issues needs to be an active part of the conversation.

Comments are closed.