Evidence-based practices and performance-based funding are on the rise in adult education. The explicit goal of these strategies is to use data to more effectively manage and improve ongoing programming. We want to hold administrators and educators accountable for the failures of our students. Attrition and student failure are presumably symptomatic of poor teaching.

Having been an adult education instructor, administrator and grants manager, I understand that our goals for success are not always compatible with each other’s. An effective educational environment is not always efficient. Efficiency is not always effective when we talk about student progress and transitions to career pathways. Students need time and meaningful connections. We need success stories, level gains, and satisfactory enrollment and attendance.

If we truly care about adult learners and providing resources that may enable student success, we need to rethink the structure and function of adult education programming today. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I think we should propose these alternatives:

  1. Evaluate unproductive and unnecessary hierarchy. In the spirit of Paulo Freire there’s a new focus on student-centered classrooms. We want students to actively participate in making meaning of their own learning; educators should serve as facilitators and partners, not lecturers. We should all work as collaborators. Unfortunately, educators are not always treated like collaborators beyond the classroom. We espouse a top-down hierarchy in which staff must go through “proper channels” in order to have issues resolved. We expect them to be gifted educators, but don’t tap into their expertise as diverse professionals with varied professional experiences, especially when we administrators are in uncharted waters.
  2. Reduce (I dare say eliminate) the dependency on state and federal funding. Collaboration is essential for quality programming. At times funding regulation can present a barrier against collaboration. In other cases, funding is administered later than scheduled due to the political tide. This may force organizations to scramble and overburden (and undervalue) committed staff. Funding is essential for sustaining service organizations, but if funding sources are at odds with the organization’s explicit mission, perhaps we should find other ways to fund our dream.
  3. Reflect on and reduce staff attrition. If we plan to use data to determine program effectiveness, we need to do the same regarding attrition of staff. It cannot be and should not be normal and regularly accepted to have an ongoing stream of data entry assistants, managers, deans, principals, program coordinators, etc. regularly leaving the organization. If student attrition is symptomatic of poor teaching, staff attrition is symptomatic of poor leadership. 

One thought on “Designing Effective Service Programs

  1. Wow this article is loaded with great insight. I agree with the explicit goal of using data to more effectively manage programs. If a program is performing well it makes sense to continue or increase funding and vise versa. The challenge is that funders often do not have adequate measurement tools for generating data about a programs performance nor are their comparisons of programs reasonable. For example, the long debated TABE test that is used for ABE GED programs lacks significantly in its content as an academic measurement tool. Furthermore, the TABE test lacks reliable results because it allows users to enter invalid scores into the database system without being flagged. This acceptance of meaningless invalid scores can inflate or deflate an organizations data/ranking. There is also no enforceable system for ensuring that the test is administered consistently, ie no pretesting on computers and post testing on paper.
    The second point is that programs are being compared unreasonably. In ranking, often ABE GED prison programs are compared to 17-24 year old youth programs with attendance being one of the performance criteria. Prison attendance will always be higher! Likewise, ESL programs get compared to ABE GED, this is apples and oranges. I wrote a post about the Inadequacies of Performance Based Ranking if you want to read more. http://www.adedtalk.com/?p=9
    I agree we need diversified funding. Funders don’t want to fund progress; they want to fund results. Funder’s want High School Equivalencies, job placements, embedded career readiness coursework. This is a tall order when you accept a student on a 5th grade reading level into your program. On average it takes 50 quality instructional hours per subject for a student to improve one grade level. With that said you may see great progress but no outcomes and funders want outcomes despite how unrealistic they may be. With that said, organizations can either start “creaming” taking only the 9-12th grade testers or they have to find funders who reward progress because they understand how education works. It’s frustrating and tough.
    Finally, we have to address turnover. Thank you for bringing that up. I think a big part of why so much turnover happens is because labor is disrespected. Why hire an expert if you aren’t prepared to listen to your expert? I would never hire a dentist and then micromanage the process, because I am not a dentist. We need to let our experts be experts by listening to their ideas and including them in decision making processes. This includes teachers, administrators, clerks, etc. Additionally, we should always be asking ourselves about the motivation of an employee. Why is this person here? What do they want? If it’s experience in a specific area, we have to provide that. If it’s the opportunity to serve for a purpose, we have to let them do that. Understanding what an employee wants or needs is the key to retention. A great book on turnover is the Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly. https://www.amazon.com/Dream-Manager-Matthew-Kelly/dp/1401303706


Comments are closed.