The Missing Piece of Education Reform

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and District officials have demonstrated impressive resolve in their efforts to improve the District's public education system. The work of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and her team have understandably received the bulk of the attention, but it is also noteworthy that the city is about to dramatically increase access to preschool early-childhood education with a bill that passed the D.C. Council this month.

Unfortunately, many children will continue to struggle in school until the city makes a similarly bold investment in adult education. Adult education -- including basic adult literacy, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), GED preparation and family literacy -- provides adults with the skills needed to succeed in their own lives. But, perhaps even more important, studies have consistently demonstrated a crucial link between adult education and children's success at school. In a city where it is estimated that over a third of our adult residents have literacy skills at what the U.S. Department of Education considers "below basic," a strong adult education system is the next critical component that must be addressed if we are to succeed in our efforts to raise school achievement.

Policymakers sometimes describe investments in early-childhood education as "stopping illiteracy at the source," but this approach ignores the central role that parents play in the transfer of literacy from one generation to the next. Well-educated, more-literate parents possess higher levels of language skills that are passed on to their children and that form the foundation for the development of their children's reading and writing skills. High-quality preschool education cannot, by itself, offset the negative effects of growing up with parents who have not had the opportunities to develop the skills needed to support their children's literacy development. Moreover, research has established that parents who participate in adult education programs have a positive impact on the educational achievement of their children. Data from these studies reveal a transfer of motivation, self-efficacy and language skills from parents to children.

In "Hometown Prosperity: Increasing Opportunity for D.C.'s Low-Income Working Families," a recently released report from D.C. Appleseed and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the authors note that "investing in the District's working adults is likely to be as important to the city's future as the current efforts to rebuild the D.C. public schools."

Washington's adult education system is made up of independent, community-based nonprofits and a few charter schools. The best of these organizations provide high-quality adult education services, despite the fact that few are able to rely solely on government funds to maintain their programs.

Working in partnership with leaders from these programs, city officials need to articulate a long-term strategy for addressing adult education and begin implementing it now.

As a start, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education should immediately release the final report from the mayor's Adult Literacy Council. This body, made up of representatives from the public and private sectors, was established in 2006 by Mayor Anthony A. Williams to develop recommendations and an action plan to strengthen the city's adult literacy system. When he took office in 2007, Mayor Fenty wisely supported the ongoing work of the council, which submitted its final recommendations last October.

We can also take a small step in the right direction by making a modest increase in the amount of money granted by the city to adult education programs this year. We estimate that an additional $450,000 would allow programs to serve an additional 500 people, a conservative estimate of the number of known District residents on waiting lists for an adult education class or tutor. This is only a fraction of the potential demand if more services were available, but it is a good place to start.

Ultimately, we need to invest millions more to build the institutional stability the adult education system desperately needs. The $3 million annually allocated in recent years for small grants to programs is insufficient for a need of this size and scope. Most adult education programs struggle to fund their services year after year and are not able to offer teachers much in the way of benefits, professional training or job security.

We cannot wait. A successful educational system requires not only high-performing schools and quality preschools, but a strong adult education component as well. The mayor, his education team and the city's adult education leaders have the skill and talent to build adult education programs that will complement and support the extraordinary changes planned for our schools. The ultimate success of many of the children entering those schools will depend on it.

-- Jeff Carter


The writer is executive director of D.C. LEARNs, Washington's literacy coalition. He was a member of the Mayor's Adult Literacy Council.

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