Diversity and Poverty Issues not Recognized?

The COABE conference in Dallas this week was the best-attended ever. Of course, it was in Texas!

As I reviewed the list of presentations, very few dealt specifically with issues related to topics that we address in this community, focusing specifically on diversity, poverty, or rural/nonformal programs. Why do you think that happens when this community is filled with views, opinions, and, yes, controversy related to what defines us and what is useful to us in education?

What issues would you bring up to present at conferences such as COABE that address the needs of adult learners in Adult Ed Programs? I have a few suggestions to add or to support yours. Let's talk! Leecy


I love your points Leecy and those topics you mention are all areas of need. I would add the following thoughts...

Our learners are individuals that all bring a wealth of experiences, skills and attitudes to us simply asking for help in finding and taking their next steps in his or her pathway to success. Even the means of measuring what success is varies a great deal within our programs. The attempts at creating individualized learning experiences are all quite sterile, prescribed and impersonal. In fact, most are simply "sockets" teachers plug learners into as needed. This lack of personalization is quite a stark contrast to the great people we have come to us for assistance. 

In the field we have wonderful, caring people trying to assist learners. Very often, our instructors are lacking tools and resources that help facilitate learning experiences that maximize the learner's skills and experiences they bring to us. Although there are many commercial offerings that claim to "have it all", these systems feel prescriptive still.  Often we are missing tools and systems to:

  • efficiently get intake information that can help form instruction to teachers in a manageable format
  • help learners set and track short and long term goals
  • establish sequences of learning options contextualized to learner's goals
  • means to assess and record learning progress based on standards rather than completion of a artificially prescribed list

I think it would be wonderful at COABE to have face to face collaborations on what these elements might look and fee like. We have so many talented individuals that we could probably create a great framework that the field could really use as we all venture forward into WIOA. Being able to efficiently and effectively do the four bullet items above will go a long way in helping us meet requirements while personalizing educational options with our learners. I feel the professionals in the field have the ability to create tools an resources that really work well for our learners. 

I couldn't agree with you more Ed! And, indeed, pros in the field do "have the ability to create tools an resources that really work well for our learners."

So let's talk a bit more, starting with your first bullet and going from there as the discussion progresses: efficiently get intake information that can help form instruction to teachers in a manageable format.

How do you and others here propose to increase the efficiency of programs, especially those that struggle just to stay open, during the intake process? What questions should be asked or information gathered, short of getting into "sticky" legal issues related to learning disabilities? How can we transform the intake process into an initial learning experience, especially among diverse students who tend to distrust "systems"?

To start, I'll make one suggestion. During the intake process, I strongly advocate implementing "movable" learning agreements. Some call them learning contracts, student contracts, or other terms. Many resent the use of "contract" since the term have such an unappealing legal feel to it.   By "movable," I'm thinking of "movable feasts," sort of a la Hemingway.

On intake, students thoroughly discuss their learning goals and sign an agreement. As the week progresses, instructors monitor how well the student consumes the dishes he proposed for his agreement or learning feast. If he doesn't meet his proposed standards, redo (move) the agreement and keep rewriting it until the student's performance matches the items in the updated agreement.

Alfred Adler first introduced the concept of "inferiority complex (The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, 1923).  He wisely proposed  that healthy self-esteem is not developed until we suffer the consequences of our actions. Through agreements, students can readily see the results of their performance and take responsibility for meeting their own commitments. Or not, in which case, they might opt to return when they are more able or ready to devote time to learning. Agreements also allow students to feel that they are guiding their own learning process rather than having it imposed on them.

Let's throw this around a bit as we then proceed to other items in your bullets. Thanks. Leecy


I have had the pleasure of working with over 50 adult education programs here in Maine and there are a large number of interpretations as to what works "best" for intake. In looking at the many strategies I have seen employed there are some key variables at play that are very difficult to balance. 

Time: Some intake get great information but take so long that many programs reject the procedure fearing brand new learners will become intimidated and run away. In contrast, those intake that are quick and easy often give very little information that can help drive instruction. Finding the time balance seems a big challenge considering every learners' tolerance for current intake procedures varies. 

Data: The type of data that could or should be collected is not agreed upon. Many may feel learning styles inventories or multiple intelligence inventories provide good data. In contrast, I have seen some convincing arguments that the subjective nature of those inventories imply that a good interview with the right questions can produce similar results. Exactly what those questions are has varied a great deal and the finished data from intakes does not seem to relate well to intakes from other programs. 

Accessibility: In many systems, the intake is done to satisfy requirements more so than to drive instruction. Once the results are collected, they are often stored away in some file cabinet closet that slowly blooms into a larger and larger archive that no one ventures into...ever. One program has a very slick method (full disclosure, I created it with them) but in spite of the efficiency in getting teachers quality information immediately after intake, they system is not universally accepted because it relies on people using specific systems that not everyone is eager to use. I have been amazed to see how many detest the thought of a student using anything google. In any event, intake systems still struggle to efficiently get relevant data to the teachers in a way that the teacher can work with each individual with useful knowledge from the intake.  

Scope: This challenge is somewhat related to time in that some intakes include so much data that there must be many sessions over time to accomplish all the data collected. In some cases, intake is not "over" until 3/4 of the way into the first semester the student is enrolled in. Sure, all the essentials get done up right at the get go, but subjects like confidence with different academic activities, career and college exploration , and the general nature of goal setting (another bullet for another day) are all addressed in widely varying time frames.  Just how much should we be taking in in the intake process and when should it be gathered and by whom seems to be a variable response set of questions. 

There may be other variables at play, certainly, but those listed above are big ones that pop up with every adult ed program I have worked with. I do think there is an answer available that can help us, but I don't think we are there yet. Ideally, we are looking at some kind of algorithm that can quickly and efficiently determine a person's strengths, challenges, goals, ambitions and mannerism and get that all packaged up in a manner that is easily consumed by teachers effectively. There is a wonderful video called "The Secret Rules of Modern Living Algorithms" on YouTube and on Netflix that everyone should watch. Specific to our conversation, I would suggest everyone take five minutes to look at the algorithm discussion around Microsoft's Kinect. In this youtube link, go to time mark 41:30 to catch this segment. 

We need some algorithm that quickly learners what we need about our learners in ways that are easy on the learner.  Watching dozens of new adult ed students struggle through a standard Multiple Intelligence Inventory is painful to watch. Vocabulary, the number of questions and the repetition of so many similar questions quickly cause intake to be a torture to endure in order to get help. Of course we can all think of medical procedures that are currently a similar torture, but the difference is that the medical field tends to innovate quicker, safer, more accurate means of data collection in ways that negatively impact patients less and less. I am sure diabetics today can share how much better tests are today than just 15-20 years ago. 

Leecy, I like your ideas about contract (both the desire for them and the stigma of the name) and the concept of things being "movable". Adapting is part of the learning process and no matter what data is taken in at intake, things will change over time. In reading your comments, I wondered if you may have been thinking of goal setting. This in tern got me questioning if everyone has the same vision of what Intake is. With that in mind, let me share what I think of to see of there are differences of opinion. 

Intake is the process of collecting previous experiences, long term and short term goals (often not fleshed out yet), perceived strengths, perceived challenges, and some kind of opportunity for the learner to share important information with instructors. 

Note that I tried to not specify the means of getting the type of information and stuck to general goals of the intake process. For example, there are many batteries of tests that can help accomplish some of these goals, but I feel they all aim to provide these basic five items (experience, goals, strengths, challenges, personal advice to instructors). 

I think goal setting is an on going development for learners and will change frequently as the learner encounters more success and challenge. Most of our learners come in with very weak goal setting skills, and few ways to accurately track success in reaching their goals without dwelling on the challenges as a primary focus. Goal setting and tracking are very important for our learners' success and the development of these skills deserve their own discussion. 

The concept of a contract could be viewed as a set of goals, expectations and ambitions or it could be seen as some written commitment the learner signs indicating an investment of time, energy, and commitment to themselves to take his or her next step. Some directors have shared that having a written contract helps learners persist more in their programs, but I am unsure what data they have available to show that correlation. I have not been clear what kinds of contracts they aim for either (Goals vs Commitment). I think I like the commitment contract, especially if it's focus is on getting the learner to reflect and communicate how valuable the learner's choice to continue learning is to finding successes. 

What about Intake? What does everyone feel that should include or not include? How might we get the powerful information we need as quickly and painlessly as possible? Is there one right way to efficiently get intake information to instructors in a way that an instructor might check on a student's data in less than a minute or so in class? If intake data does not drive instruction in your program, does it have any use other than compliance with requirements?

Hello Ed,

I think it would not be difficult to make progress on bullets 1 and 2. Bullet 3 is much more challenging. I wonder what a system that assesses and records progress based on standards rather than NRS levels we have now might look like.

David J. Rosen


I have played with a number of options to make a standards based systems that would be easy to use and powerful for learners. In prototyping some of these systems, I have frequently bumped into the following situation. Testers would marvel at how easy the system is for teacher, administrator and for student only to follow that up with concerns of how standards based reporting "fits in" with the current norms of reporting in the field. The standards-based system tracks how many standards have been demonstrated while many of our current day-school reporting include abstract compilations of weighted categories that offer scaled up percentage grades that all end up getting averaged together. The concept of meeting a standard to an acceptable level which allows "unlocking" of other standards to explore does not translate well into our seat-time based credit systems that use arbitrary averages. I wonder what readers on this forum think? Is there a way to merge the two reporting methods or would a program simply need to replace traditional reporting with standard-based completion reports and provide the public with much support in the transition?

If we had an easy and efficient way of tracking completion of standards, do you perceive there would be difficulties in your state in reporting progress or completion?

Here in Maine, I am not aware of any way a purely standards based recording system "fits" in with the current reporting practices required by our adult education programs. The difficulty often centers on the fact that most of our adult education programs are affiliated by day-school programs and must abide by reporting practice the day schools require, especially for any credit baring work. In effect, many adult education programs are limited in how much adult education evaluations and records can vary from what day schools currently do. In spite of standards being around for almost a decade now, the transition to standards-based reporting has been a huge challenge in the field. 

David, I do have some systems I have developed that I feel would do a wonderful job of tracking learner goals, progress and evidence of meeting standards. Many who have play-tested my prototypes have been excited with the possibilities a system like this could offer for learners and education staff. The questions all fall back to, "When will my adult education program or state be able to record progress like this while we must maintain consistency with our partner day schools?"

Do people feel their state policies are ready for a purely standards based reporting system? Are there adult education programs that have more autonomy from day school practices in terms of recording academic completion? Perhaps we could get a pure standards-based reporting system moving to a point where others have an example to point to in order to facilitate transitions?

Leecy, yes I agree with you 100% - we need to switch our focus a little so that we can really serve the most “under-served”, namely low-income and "diverse" students, particularly immigrants.

Once I had a discussion with an ESL teacher who told me how pleased she was in her classes with exchange students. Most of them were young, in their late teens, had already studied English and were able to study a lot and do their homework, mainly because they did not work. The teacher contrasted this group with groups of low income immigrants, and actually complained about the latter group.

I mentioned to her that I thought an exchange program was very valuable and wished I had been able to be an exchange student so many years ago. But I also mentioned that most of these exchange students would eventually go back to their native countries, whereas most of the immigrants would be staying in the US and raising families, so they basically should be given a little more credit and attention in adult education than they were receiving.

So, Leecy, let’s kick up a little dust and see if we can shift the focus just a little so that we really do promote adult education for all.



Leecy, I do not know anything about the COABE conference and was wondering if there is a description of the presentations and topics addressed. You mentioned that there is some controversy surrounding these issues, and I would be interested to know specifically what those issues are. In my opinion, most problems can be solved if we work together cooperatively, and I look forward to reading what others think.