This chapter reviews the implications of policy as it has affected adult basic education over the last 25 years and problematizes the increasing institutionalization and stability that it has brought to the field.
Focusing or Narrowing: Trade-Offs in the Development of Adult Basic Education, 1991-2015
Federal money provides less than half of all the funding that supports the provision of adult basic education (ABE) (basic literacy, numeracy, English language, and adult secondary education) in the United States (Foster & McLendon, 2012). Yet, it influences the direction of the field (by which I mean service provision and the practitioners that support it) in substantial ways. The federal government initially used its support of the field primarily to help it grow, develop, and become more stable (Rose, 1991; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education [USDOE OVAE], 2013). In recent years, it has also taken a more active role in standardizing practice, increasing accountability, and seeking to improve the quality of services. It has done this primarily through legislative policy and regulation. By distributing federal funds through a single state agency, which in turn allocates them to local programs, it has been able both to hold states accountable for meeting performance standards and given them the latitude to determine how they will meet them. In this chapter, I trace the ways in which federal policy has served to focus and institutionalize the field in ways that seem to insure its survival but at the same time problematically narrow definitions of ABE-literacy in particular-and the role of adult learners in setting their educational pathway.
Using the metaphors of focusing and narrowing can help frame the path that ABE policy has taken over the last 25 years. Focusing suggests seeing with greater clarity, sharpness, and detail. When applied to ABE, it suggests a rich, complex view of literacy as a diverse set of social practices that vary in application depending on purpose, text, task, and context. Additionally, focus would bring a deeper understanding of the complex, multifaceted, and rich experiences of adult learners that shape their needs, interests, and goals for participating in adult education in diverse ways. Focus would support the development of instructional materials, assessment strategies, program accountability, and instruction based on learner-centered approaches. Narrowing indicates a limiting process that requires funders, practitioners, and learners to be selective in conceptions of literacy and the purposes of adult education. It may also tend to limit conceptions of adult learners in terms of their goals for adult education. In turn, this could limit instructional and assessment strategies, what is measured for accountability purposes, and the role of learners in shaping their educational experiences.
Federal funding for ABE has been allocated annually since 1964; over the last 25 years, the statute that authorizes this has been updated just three times. In 1991 the National Literacy Act (NLA) adopted a new, broader, and more humanistic definition of literacy that focused on the day-to-day goals of adults and the uses of literacy as they defined them. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA), approved in 1998, initiated a national accountability system that was tied to federal funding and reaffirmed and strengthened the connection between basic skills and work. Soon after the NLA and WIA were passed, major summaries of the "state of the field" were published (Belzer & St. Clair, 2003; Fingeret, 1992) that sought to capture what made the new legislation distinctive and how it could potentially (re)shape the field. Similarly, this volume is written at a turning point shaped largely by the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014. This chapter summarizes these prior publications and raises questions about and problematizes the current state of the field in terms of focusing and narrowing.
The National Literacy Act: Institutionalizing the Adult Literacy Infrastructure
Fingeret (1992) wrote an overview of and vision for the field soon after the NLA was enacted. She argued that, prior to the NLA, the federal approach to ABE funding had been to treat low literacy among adults as a short-term crisis that could be quickly addressed and eliminated. This played out in limited infrastructure development in the field. However, several elements of the NLA seemed to signal a more long-term commitment to improving ABE and acknowledge it as an ongoing need. To that end, the NLA began to construct a more permanent infrastructure. Important indicators of this change were the establishment of the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), State Literacy Resource Centers (SLRCs), and the requirement that states develop indicators of program quality along with performance standards that would enable the state agency responsible for funding ABE to evaluate local program needs for technical assistance and make more informed funding decisions. There was also a specific focus on workforce development through the National Workforce Demonstration Projects and family literacy through an expansion of Evenstart to include adult education as a required element of the program (USDOE OVAE, 2013). For the first time, adult basic education was framed not so much as a strategy for reducing poverty but rather as an important element in strengthening the economy and increasing U.S. competitiveness as major trends in globalization were emerging (Sticht, 2002). Yet, it was also a time when learner experiences, perspectives, and goals were increasingly valued for the ways they could and should inform instruction and program management.
As a result, Fingeret observed (and advocated for) an increased interest in learner-centered and participatory instructional and program models. Along with this, qualitative and holistic methods for assessing learning were developing. These focused on understanding changes in learners' literacy practices in a range of contexts, the literacy strategies they deployed to make meaning from a variety of texts, and progress in meeting self-identified goals. Grounded in a sociocultural perspective on literacy (Street, 1984), practitioners worked to develop strategies to document learning growth in ways that captured this kind of progress. Similarly, program evaluation that described processes and values as well as accomplishments in helping students meet their goals was understood to be of value (Lytle & Wolfe, 1989). Although on the one hand, requirements for indicators of program quality and increased coordination across the education, training, and employer sectors could increase standardization and potentially narrow the field, efforts to value learner perspectives, experiences, cultures, and goals could help maintain diversity in the field (Beder, 1991).
Although the NLA seemed to increase infrastructure for the field, Fingeret identified several areas of ongoing need, especially in the area of professional development. She argued that professional development should help practitioners strengthen their ability to take a critical perspective and an inquiry stance on their practice and that it should be ongoing, embedded, and teacher driven. There were also gaps in curricular resources. For example, although the roots of an integrated job training and education system were present in the NLA and would later be mandated in WIA and strengthened in the WIOA, she noted that, at the time, "the majority of materials relating to work and education remain based in theory more than in experience and practice" (p. 35).
In spite of an ongoing ideological connection between adult literacy education, poverty reduction, and employment and economic development that was present in the NLA, the 1990s as foretold by Fingeret's monograph, written in the early part of the decade, was also a time of burgeoning learner leadership, valuing of learner voice, and at least for some, dedication to literacy education as social justice. She identified this era as one in which understandings of literacy as a neutral, unchanging set of skills shifted to conceptions of literacy as a meaning-based and contextualized social practice that varies by purpose, task, and audience. Fingeret also described it as a time when literacy education was understood as contributing to equity and social justice, and "a political statement about the dignity and rights of every human being" (p. 45). This era seemed to support increased focus.
The Workforce Investment Act: Coordination and Accountability
With the WIA, ABE was subsumed within the workforce development system in 1998. Although a separate title of the law, it was now mandated to join with the employment and training sectors in an effort to increase coordination, reduce redundancies, and increase accountability (Belzer & St. Clair, 2003; USDOE OVAE, 2013). Given that many users of the employment, training, and adult education systems participate in services offered in more than one of these sectors, coordination and joint planning among them can be understood as a logical efficiency. Partnerships were enacted through Workforce Investment Boards and "one-stop" centers that had the goal of meeting multiple service needs for clients through colocation. The impetus for mandated coordination across the training, employment, and education sectors was the assumption that the success of the economy is tied to the success of the education and...