Another opinion on adult education

Since I’ve been hot and heavy on legislative matters this week, I recently received some thoughts from a loyal reader about my post regarding shifting the state’s adult education from the Maryland State Department of Education to the Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation.

Thanks for highlighting the discussion about Adult Education that’s being joined in Annapolis. From my personal perspective, its difficult to determine whether this effort is an inter-agency squabble and food fight, or whether it has its roots in the conflict between the Governor and the Superintendent of Schools. They have recently publicly reconciled after an in-person meeting. So we will see.

Adult Education is one of those non-sexy areas, and it doesn’t have a lot of high profile folks hovering on the periphery to advocate for it. Some of the ‘facts’ sent to you are at variance with ones listed by the Department of Education, and at this writing I’d give MDE a decided edge for accuracy since they have been running things.

But here’s the nub: most folks utilizing Adult Education services fall into 3 distinct groups: folks needing help with very basic educational (ABE) skills (think primary school skillsets); folks seeking help with secondary education (ASE) skills (generally plan to achieve their GED); folks seeking to learn English (ESL or ESOL). The mix varies from county to county.

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A high percentage of these folks are already employed, regardless of the program they are enrolled in so the notion that they are ‘found money’ in terms of being potential new entrants to the workforce is a pipe dream. As adults, they have come to realize that building their skills or achieving their GED is an important personal goal for a variety of reasons. So they come to class before or after work, while juggling family issues. On a number of levels they are every bit as motivated as the folks taking evening classes at SU, Wilmington, UMES, Wor-Wic or Del-Tech – just one notch lower on the skills/grade level scale – for now.

Nature is sometimes cruel; some of these folks work very hard to grasp basic reading and math skills but don’t have the innate ability to acquire higher level skills despite sincere and ongoing efforts.

Other folks left school, at a variety of ages and grade levels, for what seemed like good reasons to them at the time; their academic standing at the time they left varies widely, as does the number of years that have passed since their formal schooling ended.

There is a general misconception in the population that a GED is easy to acquire – a drive through window, if you will. Not so. I have heard that about 40% of our High School graduates cannot pass the GED exam; don’t have a specific cite to offer, but having seen the types of problems GED students must pass, and having seen HS students up close for several years, I don’t doubt it. The GED is a lengthy standardized test of 5 subjects and if you answer correctly you pass; if you don’t, try again. The only section with a smidge of subjectivity is the essay, but the readers who score them have a lot of training and experience.

If you peruse the catalogs at Wor-Wic, SU or UMES you’ll see quite a few remedial courses which are in place to help the students bring their skills to college level minimums before tackling the regular curriculum; pretty much the norm these days for colleges and universities across the land.

As you noted the 750,000 figure covers a lot of ground and lacks specifics. MD’s 2006 population estimate is 5.6 million so that would represent a very sizable chunk of the potential workforce. The state archives show a 2006 civilian workforce of 3,009,143, with 2,892,620 employed and 116,523 (3.9%) unemployed.

Viewed this way, even if 100% of the unemployed are included in DLLR’s figures, then the remaining 634,000 are gainfully employed or are not desirous of being in the workforce. There is generally a lot of volatility in the folks who are unemployed; many of them are folks who have all the skills DLLR wants to provide, they are just between employers at the moment, and thus ought to reduce the 100% of unemployed we credited to DLLR above, which would drive the number of happily employed folks with a missing skill or credential upwards.

“Limited literacy skills” covers a lot of ambiguous territory. Many, many folks enjoy their jobs and are good at them but would bog down making a speech or writing an essay; unless they have a burning desire to do so they may not regard themselves as lacking even though DLLR does. Same argument applies to self sustaining and satisfied folks without a HS diploma. English language skills issues are tougher to quantify; in many cases folks who are more recent arrivals may lack all 3 elements discussed. For purposes of my discussion I’ll assume they’re here legally to avoid getting off on a tangent.

From my observation the local ABE/ASE/ESL program operates efficiently and effectively. ASE students use it for GED prep. It has very modest funding but attracts a seasoned faculty with gobs of teaching experience, credentials and advanced degrees. They are retired teachers who love to teach; teachers who are moonlighting; ex-teachers raising younger children and desirous of a more flexible schedule before seeking F/T work again. They attract notable volunteers from a number of career fields including engineers and educators. Most positions are part-time and have no benefits. I think DLLR would be very hard pressed to recreate such a fertile garden, especially for the funding.

Because students are enrolled voluntarily, behavioral issues are rare and the emphasis remains on instruction and studying. ‘Class’ proceeds at the individual’s pace so folks who are better prepared, or have less rust on their skills, can proceed to take the GED more rapidly, while someone needing more time is free to take it. The GED exam is actually administered by the MDE at SU once a month.

I think our local One-Stop Job Market run by DLLR does a good job with its current tasks, but those folks are not trained or credentialed as teachers and educators. I’m sure MVA could take over licensing architects since they already do licenses; course it might take them a while to tumble to the nuances of the profession. Same story here.

In closing, I’m uncertain as to the motivation for this proposed switch, but I don’t think it would benefit the students or the state, either financially or on a results basis.

If DLLR has some sort of magic formula to guide and control ‘workforce’ development, then by extension we should also give them Pre-K through PhD so that we’ll have the perfect statist solution – all the time. Enough nurses, doctors, architects, waiters, farmers, poultry workers, etc. in exactly the proper towns and counties – all selected by the folks who know best what’s best for us. Or not!

Yes, it’s a long blockquote but well said. And further buttressing the argument on a financial level is the fiscal note from HB367/SB203. Pay particular attention toward the end when it’s argued by the MSDE that the DLLR is woefully underestimating some of their costs while the fiscal note only shows an additional annual expenditure of perhaps $200,000.

This is another in a series of bills that were introduced on behalf of Governor O’Malley, but what I find curious is that unlike most other items desired by the Administration such as the mortgage and foreclosure reforms, no one is willing to co-sponsor this measure. It seems like the only one who wants it now may be DLLR head Tom Perez since, as it was noted by my reader, Governor O’Malley and Nancy Grasmick have at least figuratively kissed and made up. Now that the hearings have been held for both the House and Senate versions, the next step is to see how the respective committees treat this proposal.

Crossposted on monoblogue.

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