Adult education advocates bring their voices to Capitol Hill

  ·   By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, Jessica Cardott,
Adult education advocates bring their voices to Capitol Hill

The Covid-19 pandemic may still be causing adult educators to maintain a safe social distance, but hundreds of them nevertheless have made their voices heard on Capitol Hill. Nearly 600 educators from across the country registered for a recent virtual forum co-hosted by National Skills Coalition, the National Coalition for Literacy (NCL), and the Coalition for Adult Basic Education (COABE).

The forum, a part of NSC's #SkillstoRecover series, included updates on federal policy, opportunities for adult educators to take action during the event, and numerous opportunities for educators to share their reflections on the policy barriers and other issues facing adult learners in the present moment.

Watch the entire forum on National Skills Coalition's Youtube channel here.

Preparing to advocate: Organizational resources and advocacy maps

NSC National Network Manager Jessica Cardott and Senior Fellow Amanda Bergson-Shilcock opened the forum by providing an overview of the event and an introduction to National Skills Coalition’s organizational mission and diverse membership.

Next, Sharon Bonney, CEO of COABE, highlighted her organization’s commitment to federal investment in adult education. COABE’s Educate and Elevate campaign has continued to drive adult educators’ engagement with Congress during the pandemic, including through a themed event known as Advocacy April.

Sharon shared findings from COABE’s recent survey of 1400 adult educators, many of whom reported on the impact of the Covid pandemic on their programs and services. In addition to increased costs and a transition to online learning, some program administrators have reported an uptick in student enrollment, as adult learners seek out services to help themselves build skills during the pandemic.

COABE itself has transitioned to providing numerous professional development opportunities online, with more than a dozen webinars this spring as well as a huge slate of workshops on tap for its upcoming virtual conference. (National Skills Coalition staff will be presenting two sessions at COABE’s conference, one focusing on racial equity and the other on digital literacy.)

Following Sharon’s remarks, Deborah Kennedy, President of the National Coalition for Literacy, explained her agency’s role as an umbrella organization that incorporates adult education advocates from a variety of different backgrounds.

Deborah shared three data sources that adult educators can use when advocating for adult education:

Deborah drew attention to the overlap among the three maps, emphasizing that many adult learners who have low literacy are also located in areas that lack broadband, and are more likely to be under-counted in the Census, leading to fewer federal resources being allocated to their communities.

Update from Capitol Hill: What Congress has (not) been doing

NSC Director of Government Relations Katie Spiker highlighted key developments in Congress’s action on Covid-relief legislation. There was disappointingly little investment in workforce – and no dedicated investment in adult education – in the $2 trillion March 2020 CARES Act bill passed by Congress. The May 2020 HEROES Act, which has passed the House only and is not expected to be taken up in the Senate, similarly contained very limited investment in workforce and no dedicated funds for adult education

Prior to the passage of the HEROES Act, 49 House Democrats had sent a letter to Congressional leadership proposing a $15 billion investment in workers, including $1 billion for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Title II adult education services. More than 700 NSC members, including numerous adult educators, signed on to a letter spearheaded by the Campaign to Invest in America’s Workforce encouraging this level of investment.

Katie emphasized that in recent weeks racial equity issues have gained a higher profile on the Hill, and encouraged adult educators to connect the dots in their advocacy to help Congressional staff understand how investing in adult education can help improve equity.  

Taking action: Immediate steps

Katie also explained that there are two important opportunities right now for adult educators to weigh in with Congress: To inform the next Covid stimulus package, and to inform the FY2021 appropriations process.

Forum attendees were invited to take action immediately, by sending a tweet or e-mail during the event. NSC’s Jessica Cardott shared a sample tweet that advocates could use to tweet at their Senators to encourage investment in adult education as part of the next Covid relief bill.

Jessica also shared a link to COABE’s action-taking tool, which provides a pre-populated letter endorsed by NSC, COABE, and NCL for adult educators to send to their Congressional representatives in support of adult education funding.

Reflections from adult educators: Input from the field

Advocates also had opportunities to share their own expertise during the forum. Jessica asked forum attendees to weigh in on two questions: What is a policy barrier that is affecting your ability to serve adult learners at this moment? And: What issues is the adult education field facing that Congress is not talking about?

Dozens of attendees submitted responses and reflections using the chat box. Digital inclusion issues were at the forefront of concerns for many educators, who shared stories about how their students and staff faced had faced challenges in recent weeks as part of the pandemic-driven shift to online classes. Educators emphasized that all three elements of digital inclusion -- home broadband internet access, device access, and digital skills – were significant issues.

National Skills Coalition has recently released a major report on digital literacy, as well as numerous associated fact sheets and other resources. NSC will continue to advocate for greater investment in digital literacy as a key component of adult education and workforce development policies.

The forum concluded with a robust Q&A session, with panelists responding to numerous questions and comments from attendees about the outlook, strategy, and tactics needed to win greater federal investment in adult education.

Watch the skills blog for more on our #SkillstoRecover series!

Posted In: Adult Basic Education
Workers without a college degree are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 job losses

Economic recessions impact workers across all industries. But adult workers with no postsecondary education have historically suffered the most from job losses during a recession and take the longest to fully recover compared to those with college degrees. And with state budget shortfalls projected to be worse than during the Great Recession, federal and state stimulus investments must support the reskilling needs of adult learners.

Educational attainment of unemployed workers

Unemployment rates for workers across all levels of educational attainment increased substantially due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but workers without a college degree have been disproportionately impacted. In February 2020 – the official start of the recession – unemployment rates for adult workers age 25 and over with no high school diploma were nearly three times higher than four-year degree holders. By June, average unemployment rates for adult workers across all educational attainment levels had declined, but workers with less than a high school diploma (16.6%) and those with only a high school diploma (12.1%) still remained above average (11.1%).

State stay-at-home orders magnified these effects. Workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher (37%) were already more likely to work from home than those with only a high school diploma (16%), according to the American Time Use Survey conducted by the Census Bureau. Yet not all workers who can work from home do so. Recent job-level analyses on the ability to telework show that while 2 in 3 workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher could work from home, only 1 in 10 workers with less than a high school diploma and 1 in 4 workers with only a high school diploma held jobs that supported teleworking, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Working adults need access to upskilling opportunities – and the wraparound services to support their success – to compete for in-demand and any new jobs created by federal stimulus bills. A new report found that many workers looking to change careers say they’d need to reskill in order to do so, and only 4 in 10 workers with a high school diploma or less have access to the education and training they want to pursue.

Defining quality non-degree credentials

When displaced workers do look to pursue training, recent survey results show that it is likely to be in a non-degree program to acquire the skills they need for work, or to obtain a certificate or license. This public sentiment reinforces the need to define what makes a quality credential, so that students and adult learners have a clear and successful pathway to better jobs and avoid predatory training providers that leave students with debt and an unmarketable credential.

This spring, National Skills Coalition launched a Quality Postsecondary Credential Policy Academy to assist 6 states in adopting a consensus definition of quality non-degree credentials. A quality definition must be informed by transparent evidence of the value of a credential to meet the needs of employers, a public process that includes input by key stakeholders, and it must position the student to make informed decisions about their education and employment goals. A quality assurance process can also benefit states who need a way to effectively and efficiently allocate limited federal and state training dollars.

Key criteria for defining quality non-degree credentials, include:

  • Evidence of substantial job opportunities associated with the credential. While what is considered “substantial” will vary by state or region, quantitative data and employer feedback must aid in evaluating the market demand for the occupation(s) the credential is associated with. Use of real-time labor market data, existing sector partnerships, or emerging industries that represent a regional economic development strategy are all potential data sources to inform labor demand.

  • Evidence that competencies are mastered by credential holders. Rather than fulfill a standard number of hours or credits, the student should demonstrate proficiency – often validated by a third-party, like a certifying or licensing body – on the learning outcomes required for the credential and valued by the employer to perform the occupation.

  • Evidence of the employment and earnings outcomes of individuals after obtaining the credential. In short, it is key to accurately track and record outcomes to ensure that the credential provides individuals with the means to achieve their employment goal. Making these outcomes available to students to support their decision-making process is encouraged, as is disaggregating outcomes data to ensure racially equitable attainment.

  • Credential stackability is also a preferred addition to a quality non-degree credential definition, especially during an economic recovery where short-term training for an in-demand job may be necessary for an individual to find a quick route to stable employment, while also providing an on-ramp to a career pathway.

How workforce advocates can get involved

Displaced workers without a college degree need access to federal and state job training programs or financial aid to support short-term, market-driven upskilling. The White House-led American Workforce Policy Advisory Board issued a call-to action in May that supported extending federal financial aid to short-term training programs aligned with the needs of employers to expedite reconnecting displaced workers to businesses who face a shortage of qualified talent and modernize American education and training.

State workforce agencies can also apply for the Department of Education’s Reimagining Workforce Preparation grants, from funds authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. These grants support the creation or expansion of short-term education and training programs aligned with the needs of workers and industry. States must work to develop quality assurance mechanisms and make publicly available the credentials and competencies delivered under the grant. A recent NSC blog detailed this grant announcement and its key requirements.

Take action and join our coalition to stay engaged on how you can support the reskilling needs of American workers to participate fully in the economic recovery.

Posted In: Career and Technical Education
Amplifying Impact: Why policies that combine investments in English language and digital literacy are vital

While strong public policy investments are important at any time, they are even more so as policymakers and skills advocates hurry to identify the best ways to build economic resiliency in a post-pandemic world.  NSC’s new report, Amplifying Impact, explores how combining investments in digital skills and English language learning can pay off for workers and businesses alike.

English is essential - especially for essential workers

The Covid-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated the centrality of frontline workers to the everyday functioning of American life. Many frontline workers are immigrants and/or English language learners – not unlike the US workforce overall, in which more than one in 10 workers has limited English skills.

The proportion of English learners is much higher in certain frontline jobs, such as meatpacking and home health care. Even in ordinary times, these workers often lack opportunities for skill-building because they have irregular hours, limited time or money, or are working for a company that does not offer upskilling opportunities. Many English learners are also people of color, who face additional barriers due to longstanding structural racism and related inequities in the United States.

Yet acquiring better English skills is one of the most powerful steps a worker can take to improve their economic prospects. Data confirms that the US has a tighter connection between better foundational skills and higher earnings than many other industrialized countries.

In other words: For each bit of English that a worker acquires, their earnings are likely to increase. Research also suggests that supporting foundational skill gains among adults who start off with lower skill levels (in this case, literacy) has a more powerful effect on per-capita Gross Domestic Product and labor productivity, compared to skill gains among adults who were already at a higher level to begin with.

As policymakers determine potential avenues for workforce investment as part of an inclusive economic recovery, these findings should be front and center in decisionmaking.

What does the current landscape of adult English learning look like?

Public policies support English learning primarily through the latter two options, through federal legislation such as the Higher Education Act (HEA) and Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Before the pandemic, the most common delivery mechanism for publicly funded English classes was a traditional in-person classroom format, though some adult and higher education providers had launched online learning options.

Since the pandemic began, an enormous percentage of adult English classes have moved to some form of distance learning. Federal agencies have provided preliminary guidance to support this transition, while several national organizations have worked to support program administrators’ and instructors’ professional development needs.

During this time, it has become vividly clear that English and digital literacy skills are more closely intertwined than many had previously grasped. Workers who lack English skills are hampered in finding their way to the online learning opportunities that are their best (and often only) option for upskilling during the pandemic, many of which require at least some fluency in written English.  Meanwhile, those who lack digital skills are prevented from accessing timely and even life-saving training opportunities that can prepare them for working in a Covid-transformed world.

Conversely, workers who have the opportunity to develop both their English and technology-related skills can see a double win: improving their employability and earning power now, while also building skills to access future online upskilling opportunities.

To this end, policymakers and advocates alike can learn from “early adopter” organizations that have been already providing technology-enabled English language learning programs, and can use that information to respond to the unprecedented re-employment and re-skilling challenge the US now faces.

What can innovative English learning look like?

National Skills Coalition spoke with leaders in the education and educational technology fields to better understand emerging models for effective English language learning, especially those that feature digital learning components and well-developed connections to local businesses’ talent development needs.

The examples highlighted in the Amplifying Impact report are a few of the models that reflect promising practices in this rapidly evolving corner of the adult education field. Importantly, each of them reflect blended models that incorporate online elements (and in some cases can be transformed into fully online models).

In addition to helping learners build digital skills, this approach also makes English skill-building opportunities accessible to a wider range of learners, such as those who work extended or irregular schedules, by decreasing the amount of in-person hours that are required compared to traditional classes.

Programs profiled in Amplifying Impact include:

  • Washington State’s I-DEA program (Washington)
  • Mobile Up! (California)
  • New American Workforce (Various)
  • Destination Workforce (Virginia)
  • English Readiness (Various)

In addition, while logistical factors precluded its inclusion in the report, the English Innovations program also bears mentioning. This robust program was developed by the nonprofit One America in 2011. The model incorporates three key components: English language acquisition, digital literacy and community engagement. Outcome data show that nearly 60 percent of participants gain at least one language level in the 12-week class period, compared to 41 percent of participants in a traditional ESL model. The program has recently expanded to several other states as part of the National Partnership for New Americans’ English as a Gateway program.

How can policymakers best support expansion of effective English learning models?

As state and federal officials seek to identify effective tools to help their constituents navigate a tumultuous post-pandemic economy, English language learning models that include strong digital literacy components will be an important part of the solution.

Among the principles to keep in mind:

  • Businesses are central partners in designing English programs that can effectively meet their talent needs and reliably result in career advancement for their incumbent workers.

  • Digital tools are a crucial component, but cannot be the only component, of English language learning.

  • Public agencies should allow providers flexibility in performance measures used to demonstrate learning outcomes.

  • Models that have been successful as individual or boutique examples need deeper study to aid in future replication.

  • Existing racial inequities faced by English learners of color in the US labor market have been magnified by the impact of Covid-19.

  • English and digital skill-building should be supported not only by the traditional education and workforce policies such as WIOA and HEA, but also by other significant public investments.

Get more detail on each of these recommendations, plus additional recommendations for policymakers and practitioners, in the full Amplifying Impact report.

Posted In: Adult Basic Education

Federal government allows use of TANF, SNAP E&T, WIOA funds to support digital inclusion

  ·   By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock,
Federal government allows use of TANF, SNAP E&T, WIOA funds to support digital inclusion

The rapid shift to online services caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the barriers to digital inclusion faced by millions of US workers and jobseekers. Even as adult education organizations, community colleges, and workforce development providers have converted their programs almost overnight into distance learning or other virtual services, a significant percentage of their constituents have been unable to access those services because of such barriers.

New guidance from the federal government can help skills advocates to improve digital access and equity for adult learners and workers. In particular, several federal agencies have clarified how existing policies can be used to remedy technology gaps faced by many US jobseekers and workers.

What are barriers to digital inclusion?

Key elements of digital inclusion, sometimes described as the three legs of the stool, are: 1) home broadband internet access; 2) access to up-to-date digital devices; and 3) digital literacy skills. Individuals face barriers when they lack one, two or all three of these elements due to their income levels, geographic location, and other structural factors such as racism. (This last issue is explored in more depth in NSC’s recent Applying a Racial Equity Lens to Digital Literacy fact sheet.)

In a Covid-affected world, skills advocates have documented ways in which each of these barriers is preventing people from gaining access to crucial services. For example, both teachers and students -- especially those in rural areas -- are struggling with lack of access to affordable broadband internet. Individuals are sometimes resorting to sitting in parking lots to use a library or school Wifi signal to teach or participate in classes.

When it comes to device access, numerous providers have shared stories about how jobseekers and adult learners are attempting to participate in classes despite having out-of-date technology, being forced to share a single tablet computer or smartphone with other family members, or having devices that do not include unlimited data plans.

Finally, the pandemic has also heightened the challenges for individuals who did not have strong digital literacy skills pre-Covid. National Skills Coalition analyzed the digital skill gaps of US workers in a recent report, The New Landscape of Digital Literacy.

(Further resources on digital inclusion issues are available through the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and the Digital US coalition, of which NSC is a member.)

What federal policies can support greater digital inclusion?

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program can be used to support certain digital inclusion efforts, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. In particular, 2013 federal guidance explains that “A State may use Federal TANF funds or State "maintenance of effort" (MOE) expenditures to purchase computers, provide training and cover the cost of Internet access for eligible, needy families.”

Notably, because states are allowed to set different eligibility criteria for various benefits or services under TANF, the guidance also notes that “The criteria for helping families purchase computers and/or access the Internet could be broader than the criteria used for cash assistance. For example, a State could make computers and Internet access available to all families with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line.”

HHS issued updated TANF guidance pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. While this guidance is not specific to digital inclusion issues, it does once again affirm the broad flexibility and discretion that states have in determining how best to use their TANF funds.

Similarly, US Department of Agriculture has clarified that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment & Training (SNAP E&T) funds can also be used to support digital inclusion. Guidance issued in April 2020 explains that if the pandemic has caused SNAP E&T providers to move to online services, “States may use SNAP E&T funds —50 percent Federal reimbursement funds or direct Federal grant funds — to purchase laptops or other computer equipment that may be loaned to E&T participants.”

Importantly, the guidance also notes, “States must follow Federal cost principles regarding disposition of equipment.”

In addition, the  US Department of Labor’s Employment Training Administration (ETA) has issued guidance for federal workforce grant recipients as part of a Spring 2020 Coronavirus FAQ. The guidance clarifies that “Grant funds can be used to purchase supplies or equipment to assist in providing program services and training in a virtual setting during this time. […] Laptops and tablets usually fall within the definition of supplies, which do not need grant officer approval.”

The guidance also links to relevant sections of federal regulations that define the terms “supplies” and “equipment.”

Finally, skills advocates can take advantage of opportunities under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to tackle the third leg of the digital inclusion stool – digital literacy. In particular, WIOA Title II (also known as the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act) lists digital literacy as an allowable activity.

More information about digital literacy in this context is available from the US Department of Education via a 2015 fact sheet from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE).   

Using CARES Act funding to support digital inclusion

The federal CARES Act passed by Congress in March 2020 included $150 billion in funding for state, local, and tribal governments. Some local governments have announced plans to use these funds to support greater digital inclusion. For example, San Antonio’s City Council is considering a stimulus package comprised of CARES Act and local funds that would invest $27 million in digital inclusion efforts, primarily focused on home broadband internet access for low-income households.

National Skills Coalition is continuing to monitor developments in how federal policy can be used to support digital inclusion and equity. Stay tuned for further policy recommendations on how policymakers can support digital equity as part of an inclusive economic recovery.

Posted In: Federal Funding

Department of Education announces Reimagine Workforce Preparation grants

  ·   By Kermit Kaleba,
Department of Education announces Reimagine Workforce Preparation grants

The U.S. Department of Education today published a Notice Inviting Applications (NIA) for $127.5 million in new grant funds that states and other stakeholders can use to create or expand short-term education and training opportunities, including career pathways models, and to support the development of small business incubators on college campuses. The new grants announced by the Department align with several of the priorities outlined in National Skills Coalition’s March recovery framework, including expanded access to high-quality short-term education and training to help displaced workers quickly transition to new jobs and industries, and helping small and medium sized businesses in critical industries respond to rapidly changing economic conditions. These funds were originally authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by Congress earlier this spring, and grants are specifically intended to help address employment, training, and business development needs relating to the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The NIA outlines two specific types of activities (referred to in the document as “Absolute Priorities”) that are eligible for consideration:

  • Under Absolute Priority 1, state workforce boards may apply for funding to “create or expand short-term education and training opportunities and/or career pathways programs that help citizens return to work, become entrepreneurs, or expand their small businesses.” State boards may then subgrant funds to a range of education and training providers, including institutions of higher education, labor organizations, business or trade associations, and continuing education providers. The application particularly encourages states to utilize “sector-based” strategies in identifying programs and credentials that can meet the needs of both workers and industry. The application identifies a broad range of allowable uses of funds, including but not limited to:

    • student stipends for work-based learning opportunities;
    • subsidized tuition and fees for short-term educational programs and career pathways programs;
    • procurement or rental of equipment and supplies necessary for instruction and assessment;
    • providing pre-apprenticeship, adult education, and literacy activities (including integrated education and training);
    • providing supportive services for participants, including childcare
    • vouchers and transportation vouchers, career guidance and academic counseling, and develop and implement interoperable learning record systems.

Short-term programs support under these grants must lead to certificates, badges, micro-credentials, licenses, or other workplace-relevant credentials that respond to the needs of employers or facilitate entrepreneurship. Importantly, states must work to develop mechanisms to assure the quality of short-term programs, and must ensure that information about all credential and competencies developed or delivered under the grants publicly accessible through the use of linked open data formats that support full transparency and interoperability. These requirements are aligned with National Skills Coalition’s efforts to improve quality assurance for short-term and non-degree programs, and we applaud the Department for taking steps to advance this work to support better outcomes for workers and businesses.

  • Under Absolute Priority 2, state workforce boards can apply for funds that would be sub-granted to colleges and universities (or affiliated entities) to support the development or expansion of small business incubator programs and facilities. Funds under this approach may be used for, among other purposes, converting facilities to small business incubators, hiring staff to operate such facilities, subsidizing wages for faculty or entrepreneurs, subsidizing educational costs for incubator participants, and purchasing or renting shared equipment.

State workforce boards may only apply for funding under one of the Absolute Priorities identified above. The Department will award funding based on the number of quality applications received, but generally anticipates that awards will range between $5 million and $20 million. Applications are due by August 24, 2020.

The application awards points to applications in part on the basis of a state’s “coronavirus burden,” which is calculated by looking at the percentage of a state’s population without broadband access; initial unemployment insurance claims filed as a percentage of the civilian labor force; and the state’s percentage share of confirmed coronavirus cases. The Department provides a preliminary list of state percentiles, but notes that these calculations will be updated to reflect data as of the August 24 deadline for applications. In addition to these factors, the application identifies several other competitive preference priorities in making grant awards. Under Absolute Priority 1, states may receive additional points for projects in which training is primarily delivered through distance learning, and may also receive additional points for proposing to serve lifelong learners in distressed communities (generally rural areas and Opportunity Zones). Under Absolute Priority 2, states can receive additional points for serving entrepreneurs and businesses in distressed communities.

National Skills Coalition looks forward to working to ensure these and other recovery investments go to quality programs where people earn in-demand credentials that connect them to good, skilled jobs; working with our state workforce, business, and higher education partners on the rollout of these and other federal stimulus grants; and continuing to advocate for data policies that assess whether people most impacted by the pandemic recession are being effectively served by these and other grants – including workers of color and people without a college degree.