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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue B ::: June 1999

Learners First

Deciding that it was accountable to learners first, this rural program is reinventing itself with positive results

by Shirley Wright
Five years ago, our adult basic education program in rural Maine was small and attendance was poor. We served about 50 people. We enrolled anyone who had a need — from illiterate adults to college-bound high school seniors who needed an algebra credit to enter a nursing program — quickly putting them into classes. Replicating what I had done as a high school English teacher, we taught to passive learners who clutched their English and math texts and spat back knowledge onto our multiple-choice tests in a quiet, sanitized environment. We felt that accountability was related to the tests we were giving, the grades we were posting, the credits students accumulated, and the diploma we handed to each student who met these criteria in May.

Our program had missed the boat on accountability. We were highly accountable to our school system. It said that 16 credits equaled one high school diploma, and we would never issue a diploma to someone who had not met this requirement. The system said that an "A" meant   achievement. We gave out lots of A’s. So why were our adult learners still unable to find employment? Why were they still on welfare? Why couldn’t they remember anything that we had taught them? In our small town, we saw students often and asked them about the impact that attending our program had made in their lives. Participation had, in many cases, not made a difference and had not improved their quality of life.

Our program team, which consisted of the director (me) and four teachers, began to scrutinize what we were doing and why. We asked ourselves: Who are we really accountable to? Our answer was that we were accountable to our learners first and to the system second. With that in mind, we began to build a new program, one that focused on the learner while satisfying the state and federal government as well as our local school district. We are still in the process of making this change, and it is working extremely well.

The Whole Person

We resolved to build a comprehensive learning program that taught the whole person, not a program like the one we had before, which put people into disjointed classes. Before, if a student came to me and said that he or she needed an algebra class to enter nursing school, I put that student into algebra class. Nine times out of ten, the student did not succeed in a nursing program. Now, before talking about classes, we do a comprehensive intake with the student, discuss his or her goals and needs, and create a plan with a timeline for that student. Then, we put him or her into class.


The Learner's Viewpoint

Staff at the Atkinson Learning Center surveyed program participants to learn about their views of accountability and adult basic education. The approximately 75 participants who responded said that that they were accountable for their actions and their learning; 95 percent felt responsible for their learning and attendance. They also felt that by going to school, they were  modeling good behavior for their children. In response to the question, "How do you know that you have  learned?" more than half the learners said that they know where to look and how to find the answer [to questions].

"It seems to me when I was young,
I couldn't wait to get out of high school and just be done with learning," said program participant Sherri Ames. "Though I really wanted to go to college, I was a little relieved when it didn't work out. Now here I am, 32 years old. The world has changed a lot in 13 years. I now understand that in order to get ahead in life, I must continue my education and soak up all the information I can get."

Another learner, Lisa White, talked about accountability and responsibility. "Accountability is being responsible for my own actions. It is up to me to get places on time, do what I agree to do, and to use tact and manners. I understand that I need to learn more in all three roles of parent, worker, and community member. This year, I have learned lots of new computer skills. I have also learned to solve problems on my own. I know that I'm learning because I can do  things without asking for help all of the time. It's nice to feel more confident."

Early in the process of planning a program that taught the whole student, we surveyed our learners. They said that their attendance would be better if they could attend classes during the day, while their children were in school. We had been offering classes four nights a week and a few hours during the day. We knew that to offer more day classes we would need space, especially because, with new welfare- to-work legislation, more learners were participating every year: 200 in 1998 compared to 50 in 1995. A local director was retiring, so the district offered to share my directorship between two districts: we combined two programs into one, thus leveraging financial resources. The neighboring district also offered a building that was not in use – and they offered to pay building expenses. Thanks to a superintendent with vision, we were given
an out-of-use elementary school that handily happened to be between the two districts. We opened the Atkinson Learning Center in 1996. Our school has three large classrooms, a small library, and a kitchen. It also has a huge outdoor area that can be used for learning. At this point, we had a little more funding, and we had space. Two critical problems had been resolved.

Our staff asked, "How do we design our delivery system so that it is learner-centered and active?" At the time, we provided classes in English, math, social studies, and science, much like regular K-12 education. Many of our students had already failed in this system; we could not set them up for failure a second time. We were ready to try something new.

We decided to drop the myth that all subjects exist independent of each other. English class cannot focus on just reading and writing. Math cannot focus solely on calculations, and so on. Learning is an integrated process; many things occur at once. We realized that we needed an integrated curriculum.


We still needed funds for this. In Maine, adult education teachers are usually hourly employees who are expected to teach during all paid hours. I guess that teachers are expected to write curriculum because they want to - on their own time. I do not expect my teachers to do this. About this time, in 1995, we happened upon and received a grant to participate in the National Institute for Literacy’s Equipped for the Future (EFF) project. Via a survey, EFF identified four reasons why adult learners attend literacy classes: for access, to  develop a voice, to support action, and to provide a bridge to the future. EFF applies these purposes to three roles adults play: worker, family member, and community member, and has identified a set of common activities that cross all roles. Managing resources is one common activity, for example; work together is another. EFF has also developed a subset of skills — which they call generative skills — that adults must have in order to be able to perform the common activities. Generative skills fall into four broad categories: communica-
tion, interpersonal, decision-making, and lifelong learning. Within each skill is a means for measurement, with standards. With $6000 provided by EFF, we had money for planning. We spent five full days working on our curriculum and started to hold one- to two-hour weekly staff meetings.

Our new classes would be focused around the three roles outlined in EFF: worker, family member, and community member. Within each of these three roles, the content areas are very important. Each class would address standards from each content area while addressing certain generative skills, such as problem- solving or speaking clearly. We had established the framework for our adult learning environment. By the fall of 1997, we had made many changes, but much work still remained.

Community Member Role

Focus on local community, town government, state government, and federal government Underlying study is U.S. history

Essential Common Activities

  • Develop and express sense of self
  • Manage resources
  • Work together

Generative Skills to be Evaluated

  • Plan
  • Listen actively
  • View critically
  • Use mathematical concepts and techniques
  • Solve problems
  • Reflect and evaluate

Once the framework was established, we had to specify the content and skills that would be addressed and evaluated, keeping in mind that we are accountable to teach content specified by the state of Maine. Teachers worked together to do this, organizing them by adult role. The list we developed of the common activities, generative skills, and content area for the role of community member is in the box to the left. The common activities form the basis for classroom activities. Learners begin by looking at the personal histories and then at the history of the towns around us. It is an inside-out approach that helps learners connect to the subject matter more easily than if they started with abstract historical dates and places. All testing, portfolio documentation, presentations, and other assessment activities are done so that a particular generative skill, such as solving problems, is evaluated in relation to the EFF standard for that skill. Learners build portfolios that are set up according to the generative skills so that they can see and be responsible for their progress toward meeting each standard.

We taught using this framework and curriculum for
a year, and then evaluated what we were doing. We realized that we were not all working from the same underlying assumptions about teaching and learning. So, we took time to articulate and develop a consensus around our program’s teaching principles. Here is the list we developed: learning is active, not passive; teachers are facilitators of learning; every student can learn; each student learns differently; assessment must be done in a variety of ways if it is to be valid; all learning gains must be documented.

Not Done Yet

Teachers and facilitators agreed to be held accountable for and provide to our learners an educational program based on these principles and built around the EFF framework. But we were not done yet. Changing our schedule to make our program more accessible to learners, we now run three 10-week sessions from September to May and a fourth summer session. New students enter programs only at the beginning of a session. We split students into three levels based on their reading skills, as tested by the Wilson Reading Test and an informal reading inventory.

Teachers developed more specific curriculum documents, listing requirements students would have to meet. The documents were in draft form because the staff agreed that students would discuss and refine all classroom expectations and then reach agreement with each teacher about individual expectations. Learners need to know how they will be evaluated, on what, and why. This needs to be very clear to them or trust can be broken early on in the learning experience. This sounds simple but it was sometimes difficult for staff to be clear enough so that learners were not intimidated.

Right now, we measure student progress by testing reading level and evaluating generative skills. We document learning in portfolios based on achievement within each generative skill. For example, the learners in the community class have been studying government all year and have decided they would like to see it in action. They are planning a trip to Augusta, our state capital. They outlined a plan to raise money for the bus, developed a schedule of events for the trip, and designed a means to evaluate their success. It is very important that they talk about evaluation often throughout the process, so that they know where their grades will come from. After they complete the trip, they will evaluate it against their performance standards and then document their gains in learning in the generative skill areas of planning, using math, problem-solving, and reflection. They will document their gains within their portfolios. At the end of the year, our program will be able to count how many students improved their reading levels and how many increased their skills in each generative skill area.

We award Maine high school credit to students who meet the expectations that they and their teachers agree upon at the  beginning of each session. Expectations must align with the curriculum. In addition, all classes have a mandatory attendance requirement. We explain this to students and they usually all agree that their presence is extremely important to learning. In Maine, 45 class hours are necessary for one credit and 16 credits are needed for a high school diploma. If all expectations are met, learners in our community class will receive half a credit in government, half a credit in US history, and half a credit in math. Classes built upon the other roles offer similar credit. Other classes are available for students who want to progress more quickly in math, art, and lab sciences. Some of these still use the old approach to teaching and learning, but it is our program goal to have all  courses using the EFF framework by June, 2000.


Our program is now in the fourth year of building an accountability system that meets the needs of learners first. We are not done with this process. Equipped for the Future has provided us with an appropriate framework and standards for measurement. It is now my job as program director to support teachers and help them build a program that maximizes their potential to create an excellent delivery system. Accountability is a tough issue for everyone in education. Our program is determined to pursue true accountability to our learners. We owe it to them.

About the Author

Shirley Wright is the Adult Education Director for two rural programs in Maine. She has spent several years developing welfare-to-work and employment skills programs for displaced workers. MSAD #41 and MSAD #68 Adult Education, programs in Dover-Foxcroft and Milo, are both partners in the National Institute for Literacy’s Equipped for the Future Project.
Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL