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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue D ::: June 2002

New Directions for Professional Development: Kentucky's Journey

How Kentucky's professional development system was redefined to support new, aggressive, statewide goals for adult education

by Sandra Kestner
The strength of adult education in Kentucky is the dedication of the many teachers often serving under difficult conditions, without adequate support, and often with compensation and benefits less than teachers in the public schools. Recognizing the seriousness of the adult literacy issues in Kentucky, there is clearly a need for a statewide strategy to improve the professional preparation of adult educators in Kentucky.

Aims McGinness, Jr., 
Adult Education 
Task Force Report, 1999.

The National Literacy Act of 1991 required states to utilize a minimum of 10 percent of certain federal funds for instructor training and development. In response, Kentucky's Department for Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL) created a branch to focus on training and selected me to lead the effort. Before that, staff development in Kentucky consisted primarily of an annual adult education conference, sponsored by DAEL. Some regional workshops had been offered, but the information presented was often inconsistent from region to region. I observed that program quality varied, especially in the manner in which students were assessed and instructed. Too few professional development activities were offered to meet all of the needs of the system and certainly no comprehensive plan existed to improve the skills of our adult educators. Practitioners were doing the best they could with limited training.

One of my first assignments as the new branch manager was to create a plan for professional development. Working with other specialists in the field, our branch designed a practitioner-centered, comprehensive, long-range training plan for the continual delivery of professional development. Policy was established and requirements were put into place that included mandated training for new instructors, specific number of hours of participation each year, and professional development plans for all instructors. Professional development funds were allocated to programs by a funding formula to be used as incentives for instructors' participation.

To help make professional development more accessible and to meet growing demands for training, DAEL issued a request for proposals for professional development (PD) services. Submitted proposals had to reflect the department's newly designed PD system's policies and procedures. By 1996, six regional PD coordinators were contracted to facilitate, coordinate, and provide local professional development activities for adult education practitioners.

Issues Influencing Our System

Many issues had an impact on the efforts of our professional development system: part-time instructors, often with no background in adult education; rapid turnover in the field; many adult education supervisors who had numerous other responsibilities and limited time to devote to adult education and program improvement; large numbers of nondegreed paraprofessionals teaching in isolation; and instructors with underdeveloped teaching skills. To meet the needs demonstrated by instructors, we offered a wide variety of professional development activities, including workshops, inquiry-based projects, family literacy support groups, study circles, and collegial network groups. Our efforts resulted in a strong program for adult basic education (ABE) instructors, but we nevertheless struggled with the growing need for English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), workplace, and leadership training, while learning about new national initiatives such as Equipped for the Future (EFF), the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), and the National Reporting System (NRS).

Although the Department for Adult Education and Literacy had established goals and objectives for professional development, the needs of providers were so great that it was hard to focus our efforts. We tried to offer what new teachers needed, and what more experienced providers wanted, as well as everything in between. Balancing local and individual professional development needs and the growing needs of new state-level initiatives directed from the top added to the tension. Our regional professional development system was an effective model that accomplished a great deal; however, the adult education delivery system was about to change. As a result, the professional development system also had to change significantly. In the spring of 2000, with the passage of new state adult education legislation and the introduction of a new governing body, our contracted regional PD system, as we knew it, came to an end.

The Call for Change

Over the past decade, Kentucky has taken bold steps to improve its total system of public education: the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990 (K-12 education reform) and the Postsecondary Education Act in 1997. However, much remains to be done to educate the adults who missed the opportunities now being provided to young students (Sherman, 2000). In response to the need to enhance services for undereducated adults, and alarmed by the growing gap between the skill level of workers needed to attract new industry and that possessed by the majority of the workforce, the Senate passed a Concurrent Resolution (SCR) in 1998 to create a Task Force on Adult Education. The goal of the Task Force was to "develop recommendations and an implementation plan for raising the literacy level and educational attainment of Kentucky's adults who have not graduated from high school, have poor literacy skills, or lack the skills for job advancement" (Task Force, 1998). Chaired by Governor Paul E. Patton, task force members (six senators, six representatives, and six members appointed by the Governor, including a community leader, health care leader, correction administrator, and three adult educators) were to study the "state of adult education in Kentucky."

The Task Force's Findings

The Task Force met 10 times over 18 months to address the directive of SCR 126 and heard testimony from representatives of adult education, business and industry, students, and the community. Task force members visited local adult education programs across the state and talked with providers about their concerns. DAEL's former Commissioner presented an overview of adult education in Kentucky to the Task Force, pointing out that while total funds for adult education are at an all time high of $21 million annually, this funding is serving about 40,000 Kentuckians per year (1999), or only about five percent of the target population.

 Concerns voiced by key stakeholders outside the adult education system included an increasing number of single-parent families; decreasing education participation by men; continued high dropout rates that feed the adult literacy problem; low number of four year degrees being awarded; an aging population; and, changing workplace needs. In short, Kentucky lags behind other states with too many undereducated adults.

Concerns voiced by adult educators included significant disparities among counties in the basic grant funding allocations; lack of a comprehensive financial policy that addresses the issues of performance, continuity, and equity; inconsistent scope and quality of adult education services from county to county; and no clear policy or political support to deal with low-performing, inefficient providers (McGinness, 1999).

At that time, DAEL had no statutory mandate to lead a statewide strategy to see that the target population was served, which the task force recognized: "A fundamental problem is that Kentucky has focused on implementing a federal law and allocating resources to programs, rather than establishing a statewide strategy to address the fundamental, far-reaching problem of adult literacy" (McGinness, 1999).

Although the Task Force heard about weaknesses in our system, they also heard testimony to its strengths. One of the strengths is the dedication of its many teachers often serving under difficult conditions, without adequate support, and often with compensation and benefits that are less than those of teachers in the public schools. Testimony before the task force characterized this work as "missionary" in nature (LRC, 2000). The absence of a comprehensive approach to the professional preparation, development, and support of adult educators was a major concern. Although DAEL had taken action to improve the skills of adult educators, the conclusion of the Task Force was that more was needed.

The Act for Adult Education

Recommendations of the Task Force, guided by the belief that adult literacy is a fundamental barrier to every major challenge facing Kentucky, resulted in the passage of Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), an act for Adult Education. This bill, sponsored by the Senate President with the backing of several key legislators, outlines reforms designed to improve the state's adult education delivery system and dramatically increase the percentage of Kentucky's residents served by adult education programs. In addition, the bill calls for the credentialing and professional preparation of adult educators.

At the same time, postsecondary education received a mandate to increase its enrollment by 80,000 students by 2020. A low birth rate in the state meant a lack of potential students feeding into the postsecondary system, as well as a potential dearth of workforce members. Legislators soon realized, however, that postsecondary education could draw from the large number of adults who did not finish high school or who needed remediation. A significant number, however, would have to enroll in adult basic education (ABE) to feed into the postsecondary system. To increase enrollment, encourage improvement, and stimulate reform of adult education services, the Kentucky General Assembly appropriated $7 million in new adult education funds for fiscal year 2001 and an additional $12 million for 2002, and established the Adult Education and Literacy Trust Fund to finance the various mandates, initiatives, and activities set forth in SB 1.

Policy and decision-making responsibilities and oversight of the adult education trust fund were given to the Council on Postsecondary Education (referred to as the Council), while the DAEL, which remained in the Cabinet for Workforce Development, continued to coordinate adult education services in Kentucky. The Council, in collaboration with DAEL, was directed by legislation to develop an Adult Education Action Plan allocating the Trust Fund according to two criteria: all investments should be capable of expanding to increase the number of participants in adult education programs; and all investments should help build community adult education capacity. The plan is shaped on the premise that all initiatives should be assessable, accountable, and avoid duplication of services to leverage and maximize resources (Action Plan, 2000).

The Task Force's Charge

One of the recommendations of the Task Force was the "professional preparation, development and certification of adult educators" (Task Force, 1998). To support change initiated at the policy level, we needed to design a new, statewide professional development system with an infrastructure capable of supporting a large-scale reform effort while still being responsible to the needs of practitioners. The professional development system had to be able to support 900 adult educators, 51 percent of who teach less than 24 hours each week and 49 percent teach 24 hours or more each week. These practitioners would be required to serve 300,000 adult learners by the year 2020, in contrast to the approximately 65,000 adults a year currently being served.

Early in 2001 a team was formed to guide the renovation of our professional development system. Consisting of key stakeholders from all levels of adult education and all service delivery areas, the collaborative partners included representatives from public universities, community and technical colleges, Kentucky Educational Television, the Kentucky Virtual University (KYVU), the Kentucky Virtual Library (KYVL), the Council, public libraries, business and industry leaders, and adult education practitioners, approximately 20 people in all. The new system needed to include standards and competencies for adult educators and the development of a coordinated, integrated, and searchable database for centralized resources for instructors.

The adult education professional development team worked for more than seven months crafting a plan that would meet the charges set forth by the Council. Wanting to know what other states were doing, we invited Lennox McLendon, Executive Director of the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortia (NAEPDC) for state directors, to attend our first meeting to provide us with a "national perspective" on professional development. In addition, Senate Bill 1 infused new resources into adult education, which offered extended possibilities for our PD plan. For example, through our partnership with the Kentucky Virtual University, we had opportunities for distance learning for the first time. Based on previous knowledge of research and "best practices" for professional development, the new system would support program improvement, link standards for adult educators to demonstrate performance, and offer methods to improve performance and learner outcomes. Our previous system targeted the improvement of instructors' skills but had been ineffective in measuring student learning as an outcome; we wanted evaluation to be an integral part of our new PD system (Kutner et al., 2001).

Our New Professional Development Plan

In July 2001, our new comprehensive professional development plan was presented to the Council. It called for an integrated system in which all processes and activities sponsored by the collaborative partners support the practice of adult educators, provide long-term opportunities, are data-driven, guided by administrative practitioners, and utilize multiple delivery methods of professional development. The Council, committed to raising the skills of our providers, awarded DAEL $1.3 million from the adult education trust fund to offer a comprehensive professional development program for adult educators currently in the field.

As part of the new professional development plan, DAEL will continue to offer orientation training for new providers (instructors and program managers) and offer online training so that instructors can remain in their programs while participating in orientation. Through the use of technology, new instructors can access training online immediately after being hired; they will no longer have to wait until a workshop is available. To address the needs of our more experienced instructors and program leaders, a new center for professional development, financed from the Trust Fund, was established at Morehead State University. The Adult Education Academy for Professional Development (referred to as the Academy) is a university-based center for the professional preparation and development of adult educators. Through research, instruction, and model demonstration sites, the Academy will offer continuous, high-quality learning opportunities for all adult educators. Morehead was selected as the location for the Academy because it is the only postsecondary institution in Kentucky offering a master's degree in adult education, which will eventually tie into an adult education teaching credential. The Academy will also serve as the "hub" that will coordinate and work closely with other state universities to offer quality instruction for adult educators.

The Collaborative Center for Literacy Development (CCLD), housed at the University of Kentucky, was created in 1998 to strengthen the literacy skill development of Kentucky's citizens from early childhood through adulthood. CCLD currently provides research-based, in-depth, innovative professional development activities designed to improve the instructional practices of preschool-12 teachers of literacy (reading and writing). Finances from the Trust Fund were allocated to CCLD to address the instructional needs of adult educators by offering the Kentucky Adult Educators Literacy Institute (KAELI). KAELI will provide intensive instruction in adult reading and participants may earn three hours of graduate credit after completion of project requirements. The project will include four days of intensive instruction with follow-up activities twice a year at the three state universities sponsoring KAELI, and two coaching visits during the year from the KAELI professor.

Located at the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville is the Kentucky Institute for Family Literacy (KIFL). KIFL was created in 2000 to expand and improve Kentucky's family literacy programs. Because of their expertise in family literacy, the Trust Fund awarded KIFL funds to provide all of the required family literacy implementation training to all new DAEL-funded family literacy staff, provide technical assistance to all DAEL-funded family literacy programs, and coordinate regional family literacy network opportunities for instructors.

To sustain adequate, continuous funding for professional development, and to provide evidence to document effective professional development, an essential component of the PD system will be the continued and systematic evaluation of each initiative (Guskey, 1997). University staff will be involved early in each project to develop a plan for collecting learning and behavior measures that will include both qualitative and quantitative data. The following components will be measured: instructors reactions to the professional development experience, participants gain of new knowledge and skills, changes in instructional practices, and, changes in learner outcomes (Kirkpatrick, 1994).

Although funding for the three programs is from the Trust Fund, DAEL remains the policy-making body for professional development. The adult education action plan set the vision and established appropriate goals and guiding principles for statewide professional development.

Identifying Standards and Competencies

Early on, Kentucky recognized a need to identify the knowledge base necessary for instructors' success. As a result, a group of "expert" adult educators identified standards and competencies for adult education instructors, which were officially adopted in our state in 1995. One of the challenges for the new PD team was to create a standards-based professional development system built on using the competencies of adult educators. Since we already had the 1995 standards and competencies in place, we decided to revise and update them and add measures. For example, old language was replaced with terms representing newer initiatives, such as technology: when the standards were first developed, few programs had computers. In addition, references to Equipped for the Future and the National Reporting System were also added. The vision of the PD team is to have a competency-based credential through which educators can demonstrate that they have the required knowledge and skills to facilitate student learning. Activities conducted by the Academy will provide the foundation for future credentialing requirements. Acknowledging that we lack the necessary resources to meet salary requirements for credentialed instructors, we will continue to strive for the professionalization of adult education.

Technology and Online Resources

Another piece of the adult education action plan was a mandate for an electronic resource database for adult educators that would become part of the Kentucky Virtual Library. Leaders wanted Kentucky's adult education instructors to have access to online resources and web-delivered curriculum products. We struggled with the assignment, knowing that a national resource database already existed. The Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS), a cooperative electronic network for literacy information provided by the National Institute for Literacy, is collaboratively built by educators to benefit all stakeholders. However, DAEL and the Kentucky Virtual Library have collaborated with NIFL to build a version of this database that allows users to access the LINCS database using their own user interface and simultaneously perform cross-database searches.

To help instructors supplement their current instruction with Web-based curriculum applications, a centralized Web-based system provided through the Kentucky Virtual University (KYVU) will improve access to adult literacy programs. Web-based curricula will enable Kentucky's adult education system to reach beyond the barriers of time and place to deliver education anywhere, anytime, freeing learners from the need to attend traditional learning centers. These Web-based applications are rich in content and visual impact. A new Kentucky Virtual Adult Education website (www.kyvae.org) hosts Web-based curriculum products (PLATO, WIN, and Destinations) free for adult learners in Kentucky and will offer an online reading literacy course for first level learners.

The Future

Given new, aggressive statewide goals for adult education, what does the future hold for adult educators in Kentucky? Will our new professional development system work? Will Kentucky be successful in implementing a credential for adult educators? Enormous opportunities for shaping and reforming professional development now exist in Kentucky that were not available before. We received state funds for professional development for the first time. We have collaborative partners to help us with our vision of creating a professional development system that will support adult educators who will be required to serve increasing numbers of diverse adult learners.

It is too soon to determine the effectiveness our reformed PD system. The goal is to move from a system that depends on instructors with limited knowledge of adult learning to one in which professional competence is a basic requirement. It is a system that will use technology for professional development and that will offer instructors more options in order to serve more learners. The new system will have online learners working independently, allowing instructors to serve more students than they can in a traditional learning center environment. The challenge will be to have our teachers embrace technology and the new virtual classroom as a response to the need to participate in intensive professional development opportunities.

The call for action is clear. Unless Kentucky makes a commitment to improve the employment structure and preparation requirements of adult educators now in the field, it may not be able to offer a brighter opportunity to those who will be entering the adult education profession in the future. We believe the foundation is in place to move this system forward. It includes the support of key stakeholders who have helped to shape the content and delivery methods of professional development. The need is great and the challenge is daunting. As we look to 2020, we will continue to re-examine our goals and strategies, access our progress, and redesign our professional development system as needed (CPE Adult Education Action Plan, 2000).


Belzer, A., Drennon, C., & Smith, C. (2001). "Building professional development systems in adult basic education: Lessons from the field." In J. Comings, B. Garner, C. Smith (eds.) The Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Volume 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

CPE Adult Education Action Plan. (2002) Home page. April 1, 2002. http://adulted.state.ky.us

Guskey, T.R. (1997). "Research needs to link professional development and student learning." Journal of Staff Development. 18(2), 36-40.

Jennings, E.T., (1997). Kentucky Adult Literacy Survey of 1995. Lexington, KY: James W. Martin School of Public Policy and Administration, University of Kentucky, Lexington.

Kirkpatrick, D.L. (1994). Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Kutner, M., Sherman R., Tibbits, J., & Condelli, L., (2001). Evaluating Professional Development: A Framework for Adult Education. Washington, DC: USDepartment of Education.

McGuinness, A.C. (1999). Task Force Report: Adult Education in Kentucky. Boulder: National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

Legislative Research Commission (2000). Adult Education and Literacy in Kentucky. Research Report No. 126. Frankfort, KY: Legislative Research Commission.

Senate Bill No. 1 (2000). General Assembly, Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Sherman, R. (2000). Forward: Research Report No. 126. Frankfort, KY: Legislative Research Commission.

About the Author

Sandra Kestner is manager of the Professional Development and Instructional Support Branch in the Department for Adult Education and Literacy, Frankfort, KY. A former classroom teacher, she has 15 years experience in adult education and holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Kentucky.

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