Outcomes of Participation in Adult Basic Education: The Importance of Learners’ Perspective

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This paper addresses an issue of concern to adult educators across the United States: how to measure the performance of programs by measuring the outcomes of program participation for learners. All federally funded programs will soon begin measuring three “core indicators” mandated by Title II of the 1998 Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Measurement of these core indicators will vary from state to state, but all states will use the National Reporting System (NRS) developed by the Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL) of the Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Based on studies conducted in Tennessee in which adult learners reported a broader and more complex set of outcomes than the WIA core measures, this paper suggests that learners have a different perspective on performance than the authors of WIA and that their perspectives should be taken into account at the policy level as well as by local programs. While these adults did report outcomes, including increased employment, that correspond with the WIA indicators, they were more likely to name outcomes related to their sense of self and to changes in how they used literacy in their everyday lives. The challenge for the adult basic education system is to develop measures of program performance that credit these more complex and nuanced changes.

The paper begins by examining performance accountability in adult basic education and how it is being applied in the Workforce Investment Act and the National Reporting System. We then report on the findings of a longitudinal study of Tennessee adult literacy learners and a subsequent qualitative study. Finally, implications of these findings and some alternative ways to assess the performance of adult basic education are discussed.

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