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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue C ::: September 1999

Equipped for the Future: The Evolution of a Standards-Based Approach to System Reform

by Sondra Stein
The National Institute for Literacy believes that the vision shaped in these adult perspectives constitutes a customer-driven mandate for change. We propose this vision be adopted as a mission statement for our field and that we begin — as a field — to explore what we would need to do differently, as teachers, administrators, counselors, support staff, providers of technical assistance and staff development, funders and policymakers, to assure that every aspect of our delivery system is dedicated to achieving Goal 6 as defined by these adult students.

"Executive Summary"
Equipped for the Future: A Customer-Driven Vision for
Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning (Stein, 1995)

The Beginnings
The 90s marked the beginning of a heightened interest in accountability at both the state and federal levels of government. Members of Congress wanted evidence that public dollars were being used well. While they continued to be moved by first-person testimonials of individuals whose lives were transformed through participation in adult literacy programs, they were looking for aggregate data to support these anecdotes. They were concerned that adult educators could not document the overall effectiveness of the programs supported by the Adult Education Act (AEA). As a result of these concerns, the National Literacy Act of 1991, which amended the AEA, included stronger provisions for accountability for adult education programs.

The National Literacy Act also established the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). As part of this focus on accountability, the Act included, as one of NIFL's duties, monitoring the progress of the states and nation toward achievement of the National Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning Goal. This Congressional mandate was the impetus for Equipped for the Future (EFF).

Acting in partnership with the National Education Goals Panel, the national agency charged with reporting states' progress toward achievement of all eight National Education Goals, NIFL initiated a broad-based effort to define and set standards for the existing national adult learning goal. The goal reads: "By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate, and possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship." NIFL's hope was to engage the various stakeholders in the adult literacy and basic skills field — including practitioners, researchers policymakers, adult learners, and all the other "customers" of our system — in developing a clear, specific, and measurable picture of what attainment of this goal would look like. We began our effort by sending an open letter to adult learners around the country. More than 1,500 adults, studying in 151 programs in 34 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, wrote to tell us what achieving the goal meant to them. They spoke with astonishing unanimity, identifying four fundamental ways in which literacy prepared them for their roles as workers, citizens, and parents. These four purposes are:

The team at NIFL involved in analyzing the data was excited about the potential significance of these responses. In July, 1995, NIFL released the report that summarized them at a national meeting of adult learners. We called the report "Equipped for the Future: A Customer-Driven Vision for Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning" to emphasize that it was based on the voices of our customers. We invited the field to listen to the voices in the report, and to consider whether these four purposes (combined with the three roles focused on by learners) might serve as a starting point for rethinking what we teach and how we define and measure success.

Explicit Consensus
In 1995, NIFL announced a program of planning grants intended to encourage this process of thinking about and discussing the implications of the framework of purposes and roles expressed in Equipped for the Future. The parameters we defined for the planning grants put EFF, along with national efforts to achieve the other goals, on the path of standards-based reform.

Standards-based education reform is part of the total quality management movement. This movement assumes that once you know what your customer wants, you continuously adjust all your systems to assure that you get there as effectively and efficiently as possible. The eight national education goals represented the first step in articulating what the customers of our national education system wanted. The next steps in defining desired educational results involved building an explicit national consensus for each goal on content standards, which articulate what students need to know and be able to do to achieve the goal, and performance standards, which identify the level of achievement to which students should aspire ("how good is good enough" in standards lingo). This consensus on results serves as the starting point for system reform. Standards are adopted and teachers begin the task of figuring out what new curricula and teaching approaches are necessary to achieve these standards. System results are assessed regularly: are more students leaving the system with the knowledge and skills defined by the standards? If not, system workers and managers try to identify what changes can be made in programs and policy to support the teaching learning process.

The need for such a process related to the adult literacy and lifelong learning goal was brought home, in 1995, as the Adult Education Act came up for reauthorization by Congress.1 Congress had asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to tell them how the program was doing, and the GAO responded with a troubling report (1995). "The broad goals and flexibility of the AEA and its State Grant Program have resulted in a federal program that is serving many different populations, yet has difficulty determining its target populations, objectives, or a means to measure program results.

"Although the broad goals and corresponding flexibility give state and local officials the latitude to design programs and quality indicators tailored to their particular needs and priorities, some state officials and experts have voiced concerns that the federal government has not provided sufficient vision and guidance. The program lacks a coherent vision of the skills and knowledge adults need to be considered literate. This poses a challenge for developing accountability measures" (p. 23).

The report concluded, "the [federal] program has had difficulty ensuring accountability for results— that is, being able to clearly or accurately say what program funds have accomplished" (p. 33). NIFL hoped that the customer-defined vision articulated in Equipped for the Future could serve as the starting point for a standards-based reform effort in our own field that would enable us to meet the GAO's challenge and be more accountable for results.

A Journey
The process of moving from broad national goals to standards is complex, and the NIFL was lucky to have the example of a range of standards efforts on which to build. Once the National Education Goals were in place in 1991, the Federal Government supported the development of standards for all of the academic disciplines in K-12 education: math, science, geography, history, social studies, and English language arts. In most cases, the actual standards development work was carried out by professional teachers' organizations: for mathematics, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM); for English, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA). The government also supported the identification, by unions and industry associations, of skill standards for workers in 22 industries.

As NIFL studied the public reception given these standards, we saw that involving key constituencies throughout the process was critical to success. The broader the customer involvement, the more likely it was that the standards would be an accurate reflection of what students, or workers, in the case of skill standards, needed to succeed in the real world. The broader the involvement of teachers and other stakeholders in the education system, the more likely it was that the standards would actually be used to drive teaching and learning.

We felt we had a good customer base for our standards-based system reform effort. Since the EFF framework of four purposes and three adult roles (parent, citizen, and worker) had come from adult learners, we felt confident that it accurately reflected these customers' perception of their needs. The planning grant process would give us an opportunity to see how other customers and constituencies responded to the framework. We would also see whether teachers and other adult education professionals who were invested in the existing system responded to this new approach to defining the results of the system.

The eight organizations awarded planning grants in October, 1995, became our partners in figuring out how to build broad investment in a common set of results for adult literacy and basic skills and how to undertake a nationwide process of system reform to achieve those results. They engaged adult learners, practitioners, and representatives of key stakeholder groups in focus groups, discussions, and inquiry projects. All eight grantees reported that participants were — for the most part — excited about the way the EFF purposes defined the goal of adult literacy and basic skills education. It fit their experience of the real needs of adults. The data collected through these activities also showed there was no consensus among all these participants on what adults had to do in their roles as parents, citizens, and workers. We couldn't begin to develop content standards that defined the skills and knowledge needed to carry out these roles until we took a closer look at exactly what adults do in these roles.

Thinking about Results
To get a clearer picture of what adults do, the next round of Equipped for the Future grants was organized by role. A technical assistance team with expertise in developing occupational skill standards worked with teams coordinated by the three grantees: the National Center for Family Literacy (family role), the Center for Literacy Studies at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville (citizen role), and the University of Maine- Orono (worker role). Together they developed a uniform structured feedback process we used to build consensus on the major responsibilities of adults in each role. Each team worked with an advisory group and state partners to make sure participants in these feedback sessions represented a broad array of effective role performers. Frontline workers as well as supervisors and managers participated in the worker sessions; they were from unionized and nonunionized workplaces, in five different industries, in five states. Participants for the citizen role included a similarly broad range of activists, from "good neighbors," to leaders in community organizations, to public officials. For the parent/family member role, sessions were held in family literacy programs, schools, churches, and on Indian reservations, with parents and family members representing a broad cross- section of cultures, races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. Altogether, 1,100 adults participated in sessions to debate, refine and eventually reach consensus on "role maps" that identified a purpose of each and the broad areas of responsibility and key activities essential to carrying out that purpose. Agreement required finding a language that respected differences across culture, race, and religious background, and finding a level of specificity in descriptions that left room for local variation.

These role maps provided a picture of role competence that was our starting point for defining the knowledge and skills that adults need to draw on to carry out their responsibilities as workers, and as members of families and communities. In response to feedback from participants urging us to develop only one set of standards for adult learning, we combined the data collected for all three roles to identify the Equipped for the Future list of necessary skills: the basis for our content standards.

Since the picture of adult role competence with which we start is so inclusive, the Equipped for the Future list of necessary skills — the basis for our content standards — is also inclusive. It starts with the skills adults need for access to information: reading and writing, listening and speaking, and viewing. It also includes the skills adults need to use the information they access to carry out their responsibilities: to speak and to act effectively in their roles as parents, citizens, and workers. This includes both the interpersonal skills that are sometimes talked about as teamwork skills, and the decision-making and learning skills that are often described as "higher order" or critical thinking skills.

The EFF team worked closely with our technical assistance team to develop the first draft of EFF content standards. Then we invited states that were interested in helping us refine the standards to identify programs within their states that could serve as field development sites. Through a competitive process we identified 25 programs in 12 states that have worked with us since October, 1997, to help answer a set of questions about the standards and standards framework:

Are they appropriate for framing assessment of learning and reporting learner success and program results (to the state and national levels)?

The data provided by these field development partners — and by experts in assessment and standards who participated in a separate round of review — have helped us refine the content standards so that they focus sharply on the aspects of skill use that are most important for effective role performance. Field reports also have helped us understand how the standards can be used with adults at every level of skill. Feedback from teachers and administrators in these sites has also helped us understand that, to really use the EFF standards to guide instruction and assessment, broader system reform must occur.

Counting What Matters
The EFF Content Standards are a first step toward focusing the adult learning system on helping adults achieve their goals and be successful in their roles. However, standards-based system reform also requires that programs be able to assess and report progress toward those achievements. That depends on the development of good criterion- referenced assessment tools that enable teachers and programs to assess adults' abilities to use the whole circle of EFF skills to achieve their goals. It also requires that state and federal agencies responsible for governance of adult learning adopt the standards and establish policies and provide resources and incentives that support the alignment of instruction, assessment, and reporting with important goals. Such alignment is the hallmark of standards-based reform and it requires substantial investment and commitment at every level.

This is what EFF is aiming toward. Over nearly six years, our field-based research has expanded from adult learners to involve representatives of all the customers and stakeholders in the adult basic education system. We have put many of the elements of the EFF framework into place. Through the field development process, we have developed a number of goal-setting and instructional tools that enable learners to take increasing control over their own learning. We have developed content standards for each of the skills that teachers find useful in diagnosing specific strengths and weaknesses. We know a lot about what kinds of tools and approaches need to be included in an assessment system if it is to be useful for the whole range of assessment, credentialing, and accountability purposes defined by learners, programs and other system customers.

More investment, more field-based research, and more consensus building must be done, this time to determine the levels and benchmarks associated with performance standards. But what the EFF team and our partners have learned through our work so far makes us feel that the journey ahead will bring us closer to our goal of a system that really does help adults equip themselves for the future.

1 In 1998, Congress replaced the Adult Education Act with Title II of the Workforce Investment Act, entitled Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, underlining the connection between adult education and broader national goals for a skilled workforce and for children's educational development.

Stein, S.G., (1995). Equipped for the Future: A Reform Agenda for Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

US GAO (1995) Adult Education: Measuring Program Results Has Been Challenging. Washington, DC: 

About the Author
Sondra Stein, senior research associate at the National Institute for Literacy, directs the Equipped for the Future Initiative. Prior to joining NIFL, she worked in Massachusetts, where she taught, directed education for a community-based organization for women, was chief education planner for the state employment and training agency, and was deputy director and director of Governor Michael Dukakis's Commonwealth Literacy Campaign.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL