GAO: Adult English-Learning Efforts Need More Coordination

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 30, 2009 2 min read
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In a report released this week, the United States Government Accountability Office says that the health, education, and labor departments of the federal government need to do a better job of sharing information and working together in providing English classes for adults. The authors of the report aim to describe federal and state funding for English-as-a-second-language classes and the classes’ availability and quality, but they find gaps in information that is available for other areas of education.

For one, the three federal agencies that provide funding for ESL classes do not collect data on participation of adults in English-learning courses nor can they say how much money they provide for those programs. That’s mostly because English instruction is combined with other goals such as job training and adult education in general. So the GAO couldn’t come up with a figure of what the U.S. government spends on English classes for adults.

I mention this report because it gives insight into the opportunities that parents of English-language learners in schools have to improve their English skills.The report cites one source that found that only 44 percent of adults who read English less than well in this country are taking English classes or are interested in taking them. Some who are interested in taking such classes but aren’t doing so say they lack time or money to attend classes, don’t know of classes in their communities, have child care demands, or lack transportation.

The most prominent federal program that pays for English classes for adults is the Adult Education State Grant Program, which is administered under the Workforce Investment Act. In fiscal 2007, that program provided $564 million for English-language instruction as well as adult basic education and secondary education. The GAO authors add that $53.6 billion in appropriations for the state stabilization fund of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is being administered by the U.S. Department of Education. They imply that school districts could use some of those stimulus funds to provide adult ESL classes.

Personally, I don’t think stimulus money will go for adult ESL classes. The news clips that come across my desk indicate that states and school districts are cutting back on adult ESL classes during the economic downturn. See these stories from New York City and San Francisco.

I get the impression from the GAO report that the provision of adult ESL classes in this country is rather ad hoc. I suspect that picture will not change anytime soon, given the economic difficulties in the nation.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.