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WIOA!!! What’s Going to Happen to Low-Literacy Adults?

September 17, 2014 2 comments

The current federally-funded adult education system reaches fewer than 6 percent of the 36 million adults with severe deficits in WORKFORCE literacy. Ready to Work: Job Driven Training and American Opportunity,  the July 2014  White House study outlining future directions for career and college readiness through WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act), mandates more collaboration between Education and Labor and stronger business involvement (by sponsoring apprenticeship and other on-the-job training, including for services for “lower skilled” adults). Some of the changes necessary to remain a federally-funded adult education provider under WIOA will be a difficult transition for many providers and learners. I believe we’ll continue seeing program closures, as only the “strong” will survive.

Workforce literacy curriculum is generally out of reach for an alarmingly high number of adults whose reading skills are 4th grade a lower. For this population of learners we’ll most likely see an increase in community-based, volunteer-driven organizations become the major service providers of low-literacy adults for whom getting a job or going to college is not their goal.

The issues with literacy as it pertains to basic skills and workforce readiness only make an impact in the political and other legislative circles when the problems created by it weakens our economy. As long as the illiterate can be “contained” or “controlled” (and I use those terms with no disrespect to the citizens at large) with government subsidized programs, illiteracy can remain a low priority. However, because “the powers that be” are beginning to realize the long-term economic impact illiteracy is having on our skilled workforce, it has become a major priority. We have yet to see to what level of illiteracy will the funding flow.

What kind of alternatives will it create for the 50 year-old native English speaker who can only read at a 1st or 2nd grade-level? Or for the 40-year old non-native English speaker who was an Accountant in his/her home country? Believe it or not there are MANY adults working in  American factories who cannot read or write. I had many adults go through my training program who had been laid off of their factory jobs after 30 years of US employment. Some were totally illiterate even in their own native language. Most could not read even at 3rd grade level. Many could not speak nor understand spoken English.

We’re already seeing libraries picking up the slack in low-literacy instruction; but it will be interesting how they handle the coming capacity. Library literacy programs have been around for decades and they continue finding new ways to meet community needs such as adult literacy. In California, the State legislated library-based adult literacy programs 30 years ago; but I do not believe we’ll see a shift in federal funding for it. There are also many community development corporations providing literacy-based education as well. These organizations depend on volunteers to maintain their literacy programs; but, as one agency’s Volunteer Coordinator says: “it will be hard to have enough long-term volunteers as finding volunteers who want to commit for a long time is already challenging…”

How can organizations prepare for the growing dilemma? Here are a few suggestions:

 Increase Partnerships and Service Locations

  • Partner with local churches and/or religious assembly.  Ask them to make adult literacy a part of their regular Religious Education programming, offering literacy at the same time and location as their other “study” meetings. Get volunteers from these organizations to teach/tutor the learners.
  • Partner with local Family Literacy programs; think of a way to effectively combine k-5 homework clubs with literacy help for their parents.


Leverage Use of Technology

  • Spend time now teaching higher-level literacy students more digital literacy and collaborative learning skills. Transition cohorts of students into learning quads that use eLearning and collaboration for 75% – 80% of their instruction, and a live teacher/trainer for the remaining 20-25%.
  • Beef-up your distance learning program and curriculum. Build in more expectations and accountability measures for participants.


I know it will be tough getting learners and educators to think differently about these changes. Plain and simple, instructional delivery will be different. As these restrictions play themselves out everyone will have to accept the inevitable. Acceptance is the first step to empowerment!