School & District Management Opinion

Learning From Adult Education

By Josh Middleton — October 08, 2013 7 min read
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After spending 27 years as a classroom teacher, building administrator, and district superintendent in Florida and Montana, I’ve gained a new vantage point on K-12 learning during the past year-and-a-half from my current role as the executive director of adult education in Billings, Mont.

In my former job as the superintendent of another Montana district, I knew we offered adults a variety of hobby and craft classes, hunter-safety instruction, and some General Educational Development, or GED, prep work. In the past 18 months, I have learned quickly how larger communities reach out to adult learners.

Billings is Montana’s largest city and school district, educating approximately 17,000 K-12 students. In addition, its adult education program is fully staffed and works with 800 students a year, either preparing them to pass the GED or helping them to brush up on skills before they attend a postsecondary institution. We serve another 1,000 adult learners in our professional-certificate programs, preparing them for entry-level jobs in the medical and business fields. The district also offers a host of lifelong-learning classes.

Now having lived, worked, and breathed both the K-12 and adult education worlds, I believe there are numerous lessons elementary and secondary educators can learn from their colleagues in adult education. Consider the following:

• Adult education funding in Montana is based on seat time and performance. Federal and state funds designated for Montana’s adult education program rely on a formula based on enrollment, or seat time (70 percent of funding), as well as the achievement of various cohorts of adult students (30 percent). Each spring, before a new school year begins, state officials set achievement targets for groups of adult education students. How those goals are met determines up to 30 percent in program support.

• Adult education addresses students’ academic needs and deficits individually. Elementary and secondary school leaders have always walked on eggshells when it comes to student placement. Educators acknowledge that chronological age is not a determinant of whether students can perform at higher levels, yet we continue to compartmentalize students on the basis of age. In adult education, age and past education do not matter.

Teachers use baseline data and some common assessments to determine adult students’ individual academic plans. The K-12 world revolves around whole-class instruction, with students sitting through that day’s lesson on how to multiply fractions whether the skill is timely, mastered, or overwhelming, while adult learners in a math class enjoy more flexibility. They could be working on basic division or finding the area of a triangle. Instruction is individualized, based on where each student is in his or her understanding of concepts.

We talk and talk about this approach in K-12, but generally we end up teaching to the middle—boring the upper-level students and hoping the lower-performing students catch on.

• Adult education is not driven by an activities calendar. Activities help many K-12 students stay engaged in school, and there have been studies to support the conclusion that students involved in a sport or club tend to perform better academically. I am not proposing eliminating activities; I am simply suggesting that some schools adopt a solely academic focus because some students just do not give a rip about homecoming. In adult education, we do not have proms, key clubs, or basketball tournaments, but we do have students serious about attaining their learning goals while balancing many other parts of their lives.

• Adult education builds time for professional development. My adult education predecessors had established professional-learning-community time long before any other district schools had, and to their credit, they utilized teacher-leaders to guide discussions on data analysis, technology integration, and best classroom practices.

• Adult education is becoming a year-round endeavor. Surprisingly, our schools continue to cling to the agrarian calendar when it comes to instruction, although more K-12 districts are moving to year-round calendars. For adult education, we see adult learners willing and able to commit to varied blocks of learning time, and our goal is to provide opportunities to accommodate them throughout the year, letting students choose what fits best into their busy lives.

Our adult education program is now keeping its doors open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. As with year-round school, we recognize that all adult learners cannot attend classes during the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day. We are committed to meeting the individual needs of students this year, and one day soon, I hope we can stretch our learning day further, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Instruction is individualized, based on where each student is in his or her understanding of concepts."

In K-12 education, our bus routes and athletic schedules often dictate when school meets. So be it, but let’s work toward an extended/alternative schedule with hours for elementary and secondary schools that deviate from the norm.

• Adult education celebrates an individual’s accomplishment of a goal. Afterward, individual students go on to their next academic challenges until their work is done. If a 9- or 10-year-old masters the essential elements of 4th grade by March, he or she becomes “a teacher’s helper” or is given more work (yes, thankfully there are exceptions to these options). In adult education, once students master a concept, they move on. In a K-12 setting with individual academic plans, you could be teaching algebra to your advanced 4th grader, and guess what, it would be OK.

• School improvement in adult education is site-based and realistic. In 2011 under the guidance of Montana State University, I researched the role of superintendents as instructional leaders in my state and found a recurring theme in my study of district chiefs whose schools had significantly outperformed the rest of the state over a five-year period. These leaders, I learned, would satisfy state requirements for school improvement plans and templates. But they would take things a step further, by developing and working from their own district-designed improvement plans, which were meaningful specifically to them.

Adult education is similar. There are some basic parameters for it, but the depth and breadth of a program’s improvement plan are determined locally.

• Adult education finds success in small class sizes. Individual academic plans require small classes. Many will contend that class size is not a determinant of student performance. I could read that as, if you want more of the same results, keep doing the same thing. To make deep change in student performance requires a change in class size and pedagogy.

It is time to throw out the “tried and true” lesson plans and make student learning personal for each and every student. Adult education does just that, with class sizes of 15 students or fewer. I know, I know—85 percent to 90 percent of school budgets are already allocated to personnel, so how can you ask to grow your teaching staff by another 25 percent to 30 percent? That is a conversation for the local, state, and national levels; however, if you look to class size in the adult education model, you find success.

• Adult education focuses on the students’ goals. Students take an entrance exam to provide teachers with baseline data on their skills. They also attend an orientation and an individual meeting with a counselor. At this latter meeting, the prospective adult learner discusses his or her academic goals: passing the high-school-equivalency test, developing skills to get or keep a job, or preparing for postsecondary study. In our program, we also provide entry-level vocational skills and certificates to launch students into careers.

Change is slow in education, as we spend time overanalyzing the possibilities and impossibilities. Not all aspects of adult education are transferrable to elementary and secondary instruction. I do know, however, that using the federal hammer to reach 100 percent proficiency was an unrealistic goal from Day One, but that accountability and examining whole-group and subgroup populations have made us more data-savvy and deliberate in our approach to instruction and student learning.

Now it is time to make education personal for every K-12 student. Let’s learn from adult education, and let’s apply what we discover to focusing on individual students’ needs and strengths in our public schools.


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