Literacy and the Bridge to Opportunity
Lisa Soricone is associate research director for the Building Economic Opportunity Group at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States. Soricone works to help low-skilled adults advance to careers that can support families, while enabling employers to build and sustain a productive workforce.
Can you describe how the populations you work with end up without literacy or numeracy skills?
Soricone: A lot of them are people who dropped out of school and don’t have a GED, so they never got the education to become fully literate. We also work with immigrants whose education level could range from some primary school to college-level work, who are held back by literacy and/or a language barrier. There are also segments with undiagnosed learning disabilities.
But, there are also folks who have made it through a K-12 system and gotten their high school diploma, but never actually became fully literate. What’s worse is that for many of these people, it’s been such a long time since they engaged in any real literacy activity that the skills they did gain during their education have now deteriorated. So, if they want to go back to community college or train for a technical certificate, they don’t have the skills to complete those programs—even if they have the credentials needed to enter them.
I think there’s starting to be a greater recognition of this problem. In recent years, we’ve seen tighter expectations around high school graduation and efforts to not let folks get promoted to the point where they have a high school credential but still can’t read. States like Massachusetts instituted testing programs to make sure kids are getting these basic literacy skills as they move through the education system.
One thing that’s clear is that the problem of low literacy among adults isn’t just going to go away. Periodic national and international assessments of adult literacy have shown no real change in adult literacy levels over the last ten years. That creates this bimodal economy where you have the well-off, highly-educated on one end, and then this other group of mostly poorer people who lack the reading and math skills they need to access the education and training that could help them get ahead.
What are the consequences you see for people with poor literacy skills?
Soricone: The number one problem is that it limits the kinds of jobs people can attain. Without literacy skills, people are stuck in low-end jobs, which limits the income they can achieve. That’s why such a high percentage of the populations we serve tend to be lower income.
But it hurts employers too. Many companies have trouble filling what we call middle-skills jobs—occupations that require specialized education and training, but not a four-year college degree. There’s a shortage of people with those skills in many areas. But that, in itself, isn’t so bad. I hear plenty of companies say, “We’ll teach the technical stuff. Give me somebody who’s ready to learn, who will show up and work hard.” But the problem is, without the baseline literacy and numeracy skills, adults simply can’t learn the technical skills required for these jobs, even if employers are willing to teach them.
You’ve talked about “contextualized literacy” as a solution to this issue. Can you explain it?
Soricone: The idea of contextualization is that instead of just teaching these abstract literacy skills in a vacuum, you do it in the context of a topic that’s meaningful for folks. That means folding literacy and math lessons into the training required for these middle-skills jobs.
So, if someone with literacy issues wants to train for credentials to become a hospital employee, we’d teach them math skills using health-related examples. We’d develop their language, reading, and critical-thinking skills using information that relates to healthcare. It makes the literacy lessons much more concrete, and lets students work toward their career goals at the same time.
This is nothing new. The state of Washington has had a lot of success using contextualized literacy to teach adult students through its I-BEST program for over ten years. They’ve found that students learning basic skills in the context of, say, an automotive program or a manufacturing program were more likely to earn college credits, obtain occupational certificates, and make basic skills gains than non-I-BEST students.
What’s the best way to deliver this contextualized literacy education?
Soricone: You need a bridge between adult education and occupational training and a big part of that bridge is already built in community colleges. That’s where adult education is already taking place in many states. It’s where Washington’s I-BEST program has thrived, and at Jobs for the Future we’ve brought their model to community colleges in states like Kansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Georgia with great results through an initiative called Accelerating Opportunity (AO).bIn the classroom itself, AO uses a two-teacher model. There’s a regular adult education teacher attending to literacy development, and a technical instructor who conveys the relevant content around the job skills being taught. The two teachers are able to frame things in a way that is really accessible to those adults, which helps them grasp that material much more quickly. And, at the same time, they’re building their reading, writing, and math skills in the context of that work.
It not only accelerates the process, but it also opens up access to higher education to people who may not have ever entered college because it might have taken them too long, or they would have been discouraged by the difficulty of the material. An integrated approach like that of AO makes college education more accessible.
You can check out the results so far in our implementation report, Accelerating Opportunity. In the seven states where we’ve implemented the model so far, 35 percent of the 10,000-plus students who have enrolled have earned 12 or more college credits, resulting in over 1,400 job placements.
What’s the role of employers in these programs?
Soricone: We need employers to partner with community colleges to infuse these programs with really relevant skills, and ensure that people are learning the skills companies actually need. That can be a challenge in community colleges. The needs of employers change quickly, so they need to communicate with community colleges and help them keep curriculums up to date. While not all AO student sub-groups experienced earnings gains, AO students recruited from adult education in Kentucky and from Career and Technical Education (CTE) in Kansas had strong and sustained positive earnings impacts.
Employers can also help by providing work-based learning opportunities, on-the-job training, internships, that kind of thing. Those programs get students into the career pathways that are already built, more quickly.
What about apprenticeship programs and the like for younger folks? Could high schools be doing more to prepare students to move directly into jobs?
Soricone: I think there’s a lot they could be doing. There are some schools that offer career exploration as early as middle school. I’m not saying every kid should have to go to vocational school, but they need to be exposed to different career choices and have an understanding of what adults do all day. These things wouldn’t be all that hard to put in more classrooms, especially with today’s technology. Things like virtual job shadowing could easily be built into the curriculum and still work toward the traditional education goals of high schools. So I think it would really be great to see this approach at schools across the board, so that kids everywhere can be college and career ready. But I don’t think we’ve figured out how to do that yet.
One simple part of that is helping kids understand, “What kinds of things am I interested in? What do I like to do? And, based on that, what are some different careers that could make sense for me? How are the lifestyles different for different careers?” And the next, more complicated question for educators is, “How is work going to change over the next 20 or 30 years?” We need to figure that out to get kids in the best possible position to succeed.
Excerpted from Reading for Life, published by Kids Read Now. Copyright © 2017 by each contributing author. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.