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Adult Basic Education & Professional Development: Strangers for Too Long

Adult Basic Education and Professional Development: Strangers for Too Long

by Bruce Wilson & Dickson Corbett 
In 1999, the National Center for the Study of Adult Learningand Literacy (NCSALL) invited us to evaluate the impact it was having on the quality of practice and policy in the adult basic education (ABE) field. We set out to determine the extent to which ABE practitioners accessed and used research in their work, with a special interest in NCSALL's work. As we conducted our interviews, we kept hearing laments about the dearth of almost any professional exchanges. This led us to explore the broader topic of professional development and the obstacles ABE practitioners face in taking part in it.

The 60 adult basic education decision-makers and practitioners from 10 states whom we interviewed describe ABE practitioners as starved for professional development and having little opportunity to sate their appetites. The people we spoke with argue that professional development does occur and that it is high on most people's job-related wish lists. However, few individuals participate in these activities to the extent that they think is necessary to grow as educators, and many participate only on their own time and at their own expense. Five factors negatively influence the ability of these people to find paid, professional time to acquire, process, and practice new knowledge and skills. These are distance, time constraints, information gaps, goal mismatch, lack of face-to-face interaction. We will detail them and conclude with some thoughts about possible remedies.


First, professional development is rarely offered locally: events established by an employing institution or workshops or meetings in close proximity to educators offered by experienced and knowledgeable agencies. The reasons for this are readily acknowledged. The predominance of sparse, dispersed teaching staff (i.e., a small number of teachers having multiple work locations and differing time schedules) makes it difficult for more than a handful of people to be physically proximate very often, especially in rural areas. Traveling to regional, state, or national conferences is usually the only choice for local professional development. Employers vary considerably in the extent to which they encourage and facilitate their staffs' attendance at these events by paying for travel to or participation in professional development activities.

Time Constraints

Because of limited program resources, many ABE educators work part-time. Some welcome this, but many struggle with its professional implications. Essentially, teachers argue, they are paid to teach and do little else. Some are given the equivalent of a class period every so often in which to work on lesson plans but are allotted almost never any paid time to attend conferences, access materials and research, or share information with colleagues. The latter are done on practitioners' own time, if at all. Professional development, therefore, is a sporadic phenomenon in ABE educators' work, dependent upon their almost heroic efforts to participate rather than the concerted, systematic focus of their employing institutions.

Information Gaps

Because the lack of time and money rarely puts practitioners in a position to obtain information about research and practice directly, they must depend on other ABE professionals to steer materials, workshop announcements, and other professional resources their way. As a result, program directors, resource center staff, state coordinators, and teaching supervisors inadvertently become de facto professional development gate-keepers. Some of the people we talked to who are in these positions acknowledge and embrace the knowledge-brokering aspect of their jobs. Others, like the teachers, say that passing along information and encouraging participation in professional development is only a minuscule, and often not formally designated, part of what they have to do. The flow of research information and professional development opportunities, therefore, is hit or miss and mostly a function of the individual people in these gate-keeping positions.

Goal Mismatch

Practitioners see a connection between the nature of the goals of their programs and the content of their professional development opportunities, which sometimes prevents them from participating in the kinds of training they want outside these limits.  For example, several programs seek student outcomes in terms of "lifelong skills," with students becoming constructive workers, citizens, and parents. Teachers in these agencies tend to have access to training on topics such as multiple intelligences, motivation theory, and health and literacy: information that improves their chances of instilling continuous learning skills in their students. Other institutions - either because of an executive director's predilection or a state's mandate - define their purpose in a more short-term, utilitarian way and place a premium on students passing the tests of General Educational Development (GED) and completing the program. Such programs, by necessity, keep an eye out for information that directly enhances GED performance and ensures that their local program operates in compliance with state requirements. In these programs, teachers who want to learn more about how to promote lifelong learning among their students say that they are generally frustrated in their wishes.

Face-to-Face Interaction

ABE educators repeatedly voice a preference for face-to-face interactions about their work, and yet this is the one medium that is most closed to them. They say that they gain the most from sharing experiences directly with others, discussing their successes and failures in an intimate setting, and making sense of new information in concrete terms. Through these face-to-face interactions, they understand better the practical applications of what they learn. This preference, quite obviously, sets educators up for frustration, given all of the reasons above why opportunities in which they can talk with one another and experts so rarely occur. Moreover, only a small minority of ABE educators routinely access print media and the Internet for information: Focus on Basics is a popular source.


Limited local professional development, the predominance of part-time positions, the individual inclinations of de facto information gate-keepers, the occasional mismatch between agency goals and practitioners' professional interests, and the disjunction between educators' preferred ways of learning and the avenues most available to them combine to stifle the flow of important research- and experience-based knowledge to ABE educators. At a minimum, a two-pronged strategy is needed to address these issues. First, those generating important information for educators must begin to adopt ways of sharing what they know, taking into account the constraints that educators face. This would require more direct contact between researchers, research disseminators, and educators, with the former actually going out into the field instead of having the field come to them. And, just as importantly, the ABE field - led by those in prominent positions - must address the lack of structural and occupational supports for educators to grow professionally.

Currently, the conditions of the ABE occupation are such that those in the field will never be able to participate systematically in the very activities they see as necessary to doing their jobs well. Educators claim the desire for professional development is present; readily accessible opportunities to fulfill that desire are most notably not.

About the Authors

Bruce Wilson and Dick Corbett are independent educational researchers. Their primary focus is K-12 educational reform, but they also maintain a keen interest in studying efforts to strengthen adult education. They have written about their work in numerous educational journals and several books, the most of recent of which is Listening to Urban Kids: School Reform and the Teachers They Want (State University of New York Press, 2001).