Since the end of World War I, when compulsory schooling was established nationwide, the notion that more education would make Americans smarter, richer, and better able to deal with all aspects of family, community, and national life has been a universally held belief. Statistics support this view—and also reveal the reverse to be true: In addition to their reduced earning potential, high school dropouts are more likely to be arrested, absent from their children’s education, uninformed about health care, and unable to attend to or establish credit or live within their means.
This discouraging picture is a compelling argument for remediation. But aggregating the individual lives reveals an even broader, national problem. In 2005, for example, there were 150 million people in the U.S. workforce. In the same year, 3 million students graduated from high school, illustrating that, at best, only about 2 percent of the workforce comes each year from the public schools. That leaves today’s adult population as the source of most workers, according to the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education. In a 2006 report, the group warned: “We cannot afford to wait 50 years for education reform to reconstitute the workforce. We must move at least 12 million of the 93 million [undereducated adult Americans] through the [General Educational Development program] and on to community college within the next five years.”
Complicating the issue is the fact that both the problem and the solution are in the same hands—the very hands that have failed before, the dropouts themselves.
I knew most of this when I decided to teach GED students. What I didn’t know was how I would do it. I’d never seen a GED classroom, much less taught a GED class, and I’d been hired on the basis of some published work and two short teaching stints, one teaching graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania and the other teaching high school students in a summer program at Bryn Mawr College. Neither of these, I worried, had prepared me for what I was about to do.
As in almost half the states, there is no certification for teachers of adults in Pennsylvania, so perhaps I was as prepared as most of the 7,000 other teachers across the state who work with older learners, trying to teach the 14.4 percent of adult Pennsylvanians who lack a high school diploma.
“Your teacher’s goal is to help you achieve yours,” the poster on our GED classroom door proclaimed. Students and teachers alike hoped that a different educational experience would produce a different result. We hoped that the so-called Pygmalion effect—teaching, coaching, and other behaviors fostering high expectations—would shape performance, and that better performance would produce better outcomes.
The classroom contained few clues as to how I would do that. There was a series of workbooks, one for each of the five subject areas tested in the exam—math, science, social studies, writing, and reading—a filing cabinet filled with instructional materials (some from the days of mimeographs), and two blackboards. But my predecessors had managed to teach these students without the computers and audiovisual equipment available in my other teaching stints. Now it was my turn. I was as eager as anyone to see what I could do.
I’d brought a copy of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a list of “word demons”—those words that are easily confused, such as “coarse” and “course” or “advice” and “advise.” Word demons were first. I put several on the board and we discussed them as soon as the students arrived. Then each student selected one newspaper article, read and summarized it, found the main idea, and reported on it to the rest of the class. These discussions frequently led to topics in geography, health, science, and American history or civics.
Next was workbook time, an opportunity for students to work alone, or with me, on the problems identified on their intake tests. And most days, this included that most difficult of tasks for most students, an essay.
So we talked. What might make a good opening sentence? What would the rest of that paragraph look like? How many more paragraphs would there be, and how would the details included in each paragraph be selected? How would they be linked together? How would the conclusion be stated? How would words be chosen and sentences created? And what is the main idea being communicated?
More students failed than passed. Of the 71 who walked through the door at least once, 24 percent came regularly and passed the test. But if we assume that those who came only once or twice were less serious students, and subtract them from the denominator, then about 35 percent of students passed the test. Some came and worked diligently, but then illness, an accident, or family responsibilities derailed their plans. Others drifted back to the lives that they had come to school hoping to escape.
One of my students, Lenny, wanted to know why I bothered, why I taught GED students instead of working in a “regular” school. He said I should teach younger, elementary-school-age students because it would be “better for me.” In an elementary school, he explained, I’d be teaching young people, people who are just starting out in life and who need all the education and guidance they can get.
His point, that older people are already set in their ways and, since younger people are just starting out, they’re the ones who really need my help, interests me because it seems to be asking a fundamental question: How should we allocate educational resources? Who will produce the greatest return on our educational investment?
Is it the workers, citizens, and parents of tomorrow who should be the focus of our educational efforts? Or should more resources be directed to the workers, citizens, parents, and future parents of today?
Ninety-three million people, or 45 percent of the American adult population, have literacy skills that place them below high school level. “In 14 states,” as Linda Perlstein’s 2007 book Tested reports, “more than half the adults are illiterate.” It is not only the good jobs that are out of their reach; this population is more than three times as likely to be arrested. A shocking 75 percent of state prison inmates are high school dropouts.
And because it has long been known that the most reliable indicator of a child’s success in school is the educational attainment of the parents, especially mothers, the future we’d all like to see—one with good jobs and happy families living in a country that leads the world economically, politically, and socially—requires that we look more carefully at the present. It requires that we teach every student, regardless of age.
So I disagree with Lenny. It is worth my time to teach him, and it’s also worthwhile to stay in touch with the students who seemed not to make it, like Stacey.
After failing the math portion of the GED exam twice, Stacey decided that this route to a credential wasn’t for her. But that hasn’t stopped her quest for an education. Her husband is working two jobs so that Stacey can pay for an online high school diploma program from Ashworth University High School. “I feel that if I fail, I’m teaching my kids to fail,” she says. “Families have a pattern of sorrows and problems, and basically it’s up to you if you want to break it or not.”
It just takes an education.
A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Why I Teach GED Students