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Low-Skilled Adults

Making Skills Everyone’s Business
A Call to Transform Adult Learning in the United States

Skills matter. In the past year, a remarkable convergence of data, analysis, and policy informed us of just how much they matter to individuals, their families and communities, and to the economy overall. This report, presents a vision for making adult skill development—upskilling—more prevalent, efficient, effective, and convenient. This vision rests on an understanding that foundation skills—the combination of literacy, numeracy, and English language as well as employability skills required for participation in modern workplaces and contemporary life—are a shared responsibility of, and value and benefit to the entire community.

Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, US Department of Education, February 2015

Programme for International Student Assessment Releases
First Study of Adult Skills

A decade after the publication of results from the first round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), its seminal assessment of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds, the OECD has conducted its first Survey of Adult Skills (PIACC), which extends the assessment of skills to the entire adult population. The survey, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), focuses on skills – literacy, numeracy and problem solving – similar to those assessed in PISA; but the two studies use different assessment tasks, reflecting the different contexts in which 15-year-old students and older adults live.

OECD (2013)

Strengthening State Systems for Adult Learners:
An Evaluation of the First Five Years of Shifting Gears

The Joyce Foundation launched Shifting Gears in 2007 with the goal of helping six Midwest states significantly increase the number of low-skilled adults with the education and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century economy. Between 2007 and 2011, the Foundation awarded a total of about $8 million in grants to Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, with the expectation that officials in these states would pursue a systems change agenda for making existing education and skills development systems work better for adult learners. This evaluation specifically focuses on the innovative strategies that connected a state’s adult basic education (ABE) system with its community and technical college system.

The Joyce Foundation (2012)
Brandon Roberts and Derek Price

Building Pathways to Employment in America’s Cities
through Integrated Workforce and Community Development

This report explores ways that federal policy can better support cities’ efforts to integrate human and physical capital investments, particularly in the areas of public housing and transit oriented development. Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Surdna Foundation, Building Pathways to Employment is the result of a collaboration between NSC and local leaders in five cities—Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Twin Cities, and Seattle—who are working to bridge the worlds of community and workforce development locally.

National Skills Coalition (2012)
Rachel Unruh and Kira Dahlk

Achieving Ambitious Goals: Case Studies of Scale-Up Programs for Advancing Low-Skilled Adults

As Breaking Through proceeded, Jobs for the Future and the National Council for Workforce Education recognized that a small number of community colleges within the initiative had many program elements in place to effectively advance low-skilled adults toward credentials. In 2009, five community colleges received $40,000 grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to scale up their Breaking Through programs. JFF prepared the case studies in this report for practitioners, policymakers, foundation staff members, and others interested in strategies to advance low-skilled adults to increasingly higher levels of learning.

Jobs for the Future (2011)
Barbara Endel, Nate Anderson, and Jeremy Kelley

 Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success: A 48-Institution Study of Prior Learning Assessment and Adult Student Outcomes

With support from Lumina Foundation for Education, which works to ensure that 60 percent of Americans are college-educated by 2025, CAEL conducted a multi-institutional study on PLA and adult student outcomes, using the records of 62,475 students at 48 colleges and universities. The study attempted to answer the following research questions: Do adults who earn PLA credit have better graduation rates, compared with those who do not earn PLA credit? Do they have better persistence? Do they earn their degrees in a shorter period of time?

The Council for Adult and Experiental Learning (2011)

Closing the Gap: The Challenge of Certification and Credentialing in Adult Education

This report is the final outcome of a CAAL project to consider the state of adult education certification and credentialing in America. It summarizes a Roundtable discussion of experts held in New York City on June 22, 2010 and sets forth findings from that meeting and other CAAL research. It considers short- and long-term issues in credentialing, aiming to help improve programs and student outcomes.

Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy (2011)
Forrest P. Chisman


In 2007, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) launched the Student Achievement Initiative aimed at increasing academic achievement for all students, regardless of their program or starting level, by measuring student progress for the important incremental gains they make that lead to college success. The goal is to help more students reach the "tipping point” or beyond. These measures, called momentum points because their attainment can propel students forward, are in four categories: improving preparation for college-level courses, building towards a year of college credit, completing college math, and completing certificates, degrees and apprenticeships.

Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges

Getting Ahead - Staying Ahead: The Springboard Project

Business Roundtable created The Springboard Project as an independent commission to explore how Americans can obtain knowledge and skills they need to compete and succeed in the global economy. The commission was charged with focusing on adults, from age 18 to whenever they choose to leave the workforce, and with developing specific recommendations that would: encourage the building of relevant skills for today's and tomorrow's markets; institutionalize lifelong learning as an individual and collective imperative; and facilitate workers' capacity to adapt to dislocation and evolving labor markets. The Springboard Project recommends six goals to help our workforce succeed in the 21st-century marketplace.

The Business Roundtable

Workers in Declining Industries: Literacy's Role in Worker Transitions

The American Institutes for Research (AIR), under contract to the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration (ETA), uses data collected from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), to examine workers in declining occupations.

The American Institutes for Research (2010)
Lee Bruno, Y. Jin, and D. Norris


Bridge programs are a 21st-century idea for helping prepare low-skilled individuals for jobs that require more education. Known by many names—integrated education and training, contextualized learning, embedded skills—bridge programs assist students in obtaining academic, employability, and technical skills they need to enter and succeed in postsecondary education and training and the labor market. BridgeConnect is a national survey designed to help determine the depth and breadth of bridge programs throughout the country. Quantifying the number and types of programs in operation can help policymakers and funders improve both policy and practice related to adult education. A critical mass of bridge programs may suggest the approach is ready for rigorous evaluation; that an effort to formally identify standard of excellence is warranted; or that it is time to identify strategies for scaling up the most effective programs

Workforce Strategy Center
Julian L. Alssid, Melissa Goldberg, and Sarah M. Klerk

Reach Higher, America: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce

This report presents powerful evidence that our failure to address America's adult education and workforce skills needs is putting our country in great jeopardy and threatening our nation's standard of living and economic viability. The National Commission on Adult Literacy recommends immediate action to reverse the course we are on. It calls for strong, bold leadership from federal and state government, and it challenges business leaders, philanthropy, and the nonprofit sector to become part of the solution.

Report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy (2008)

Developmental Education in Community Colleges

Addressing the needs of developmental students is perhaps the most difficult and most important problem facing community colleges. Developmental students face tremendous barriers. Less than one quarter of community college students who enroll in developmental education complete a degree or certificate within eight years of enrollment in college. In comparison, almost 40 percent of community college students who do not enroll in any developmental education course complete a degree or certificate in the same time period. It will be very difficult to meet the Obama administration's goal of increasing the number of community college graduates by 5 million by 2020 without making significant progress on improving outcomes for students who arrive at community colleges with weak academic skills.

In this Issue Brief we first report on evidence about the effectiveness of developmental education and then provide information about the progression of students through the sequence of developmental courses. We discuss problems associated with the assessments that are used to refer students to either college-level or developmental courses, and we also make a brief statement about costs. We then describe three initiatives designed to improve the performance of remedial services.

Community College Research Center
Thomas Bailey & Sung-Woo Cho

The Developmental Education initiative

State policy can play a critical role in supporting the improvement of outcomes for underprepared students. States can create policy conditions that encourage the identification, dissemination, and implementation of strategies that improve outcomes for students who test into developmental education. They can provide incentives for institutions to test and refine bold new delivery and instructional models—and to scale up what works.

The Developmental Education Initiative builds on the foundation of Achieving the Dream, adapting it to the particular challenges associated with helping students in need of developmental education move efficiently and effectively toward their postsecondary credential goals. The framework specifies the levers that state policymakers have at their disposal to support more effective ways of changing the organization and delivery of developmental education—and public expectations of individual and institutional success.

Jobs for the Future and Achieving the Dream


Polices to Promote Adult Education and Postsecondary Alignment

This report is focused on helping adults with lower skills and/or limited English proficiency earn post-secondary credentials that open doors to family-supporting jobs. The Policy Brief examines obstacles to moving toward this goal – with major attention to lack of alignment between federal and state adult education efforts, job training services, and postsecondary education policies. It also draws attention to the financial, personal, and family challenges that prevent adults from seeking and completing programs. Numerous policy and action recommendations are given.

National Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy (2007)
Julie Strawn

Building Pathways to Success for Low-Skill Adult Students: Lessons for Community College Policy and Practice from a Statewide Longitudinal Tracking Study

This paper seeks to fill gaps in the literature by presenting findings from a study of the experiences and outcomes of low-skill adults in community colleges. It uses student record information to track the progress of two cohorts of adult students 25 or older with, at most, a high school education. The cohorts include adults who enrolled in adult basic skills programs as well as those who enrolled directly in college-credit courses.

Community College Research Center (2005)
David Prince and Davis Jenkins

To Ensure America's Future: Building A National Opportunity
System for Adults

Parallel lists of responsibilities for community colleges, adult education, state government, and the federal government in efforts that connect adult workers/students to postsecondary education.

Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy (2005)

Adult Learners and State Policy

An analysis of the impact of specific state policies (discouragers/neutral/encourages) regarding adult learners.
A Joint Publication of SHEEO and CAEL (2003)

R.A. Voorhees and P.E. Lingenfelter


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