Education for the Cast-off Members of Our Labor Force

September 2, 2013

Tom Sticht,  International Consultant in Adult Education

Education for the Cast-off Members of Our Labor Force

The year 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Applied Behavioral & Cognitive Sciences, Inc. (the ABCS) in San Diego, California. I founded the ABCS at the request of Gordon Berlin, who at the time was Program Officer at the Ford Foundation for the Urban Poverty Program. A major concern for the Urban Poverty Program was the very large unemployment rates of unskilled youth and young adults, particularly for minority youth for whom unemployment rates were in the double digits, and as high as 50% for black teenagers 16 to 19 years old.

One of the major needs was for information about successful education and training methods which would work with unskilled youth, as well as with low-skilled workers displaced due to changing technologies and organizational restructuring to “high performance” workplaces. As it turned out, the Ford Foundation had as one of its members of the Board of Directors former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In 1966 he had implemented a program in the military in which tens of thousands of low-skilled, under-educated young men who had been cast-off from military service due to their low literacy and low-aptitude test scores were accepted for service as part of the 1964 War on Poverty. Mr. McNamara suggested that the Ford Foundation conduct some research to find out how well this special project worked out and how the military services went about educating and training these unskilled young adults.

Cast-off Youth: Policy and Training Methods From the Military Experience

Because I had developed the Army’s Functional Literacy program during the Vietnam War I was asked to conduct the research on educating and training under-educated, unskilled young adults. This research demonstrated that although over 340 thousand young men were declared so poorly educated and of such low literacy that they could not succeed, and they were referred to derisively as McNamara’s Moron Corps, over 85 percent of them actually learned military jobs and  performed them satisfactorily, and many served in an outstanding manner. Further, in the Functional Literacy (FLIT) program, they learned job-related reading and job technical knowledge simultaneously, all while making as much or more gains in general literacy as general literacy programs made.

In 1987, we published the results of the research in a book entitled Cast-off Youth: Policy and Training Methods From the Military Experience. The book included what we called Functional Context Education principles, one of which called for integrating basic skills (reading, mathematics) education with jobs skills training and a second which called for contextualizing the basic skills instruction in work situations by using actual job-related reading and mathematics materials and tasks. 

Functional Context Education in Workforce and Career Development

In 1988, the U. S. Congress passed legislation creating the National Workplace Literacy Program (NWLP) in the U. S. Department of Education which called for providing basic literacy, mathematics, and English language integrated with workplace materials and tasks according to the Functional Context Education principles. From 1988 to 1991 the NWLP funded over $60 million for integrated and contextualized programs for over 67,500 in more than 361 businesses. These programs included those for hiring new workers and helping them overcome shortcomings in education and needed skills, as the military programs had done for those under-skilled and under-educated young adults under the programs outlined in the Cast-off Youth book.

In 1990, I was appointed to the Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS).  At the first meeting of the Commission I presented an overview of the work on Functional Context Education. Later SCANS convened a group of cognitive scientists who confirmed the Functional Context Education approach. That lead to the SCANS to state in its first report, “We believe, after examining the findings of cognitive science, that the most effective way of learning skills is “in context.”

Following the SCANS recommendation on teaching “in context” numerous projects were undertaken by public school educators in the K-12 and community college education sectors with funding from both the U. Sk. Departments of Education and Labor and several private foundations. In 2009 the President’s Council of Economic Advisors recommended “contextualized learning” and “Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training” and in 2012 the U. S. Department of Labor designated over $68 million dollars in grants for these Functional Context Education types of programs.

Labor Day is the day we celebrate America’s workforce. Too often, we hear about the shortcomings of this workforce, and read about the tens of millions of adults who are undereducated and so lacking in literacy and other cognitive skills that we might as well cast them off and focus instead upon programs for their children.  That’s essentially what the George W. Bush administration did after the findings of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) were published in 2003.

But the past research on Functional Context Education and the hundreds of programs based upon the FCE principles have demonstrated that we do not have to cast off a sizable section of our laboring force. Programs can be designed which provide both basic skills and job skills simultaneously. This makes it possible for adults to get into jobs faster and to get that piece of paper which they all seek: a good paycheck, for themselves and their families.

In solidarity we can do it! Si, se puede!