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The Changing Direction of Adult Education

Every year, Maine’s adult education programs enroll nearly 100,000 students, with an array of personal goals – from learning to read to finding a better job. But a new federal law is raising concerns within many of those programs about the new direction that adult education could be heading. Robbie Feinberg reports.

Inside a small, humid classroom at the adult education building in Turner, Maine, Sagal Issak scribbles down notes from teacher Stacey Keniston. The class is English, and today, Issak is learning basic concepts like capitalization and punctuation. Sagal arrived in nearby Lewiston from Somalia about three years ago, and she barely knew the language.

“I try so hard to learn how to speak and how to read and write,” Issak says. “Still, I’m still not perfect, but I’m trying.”

Issak started taking classes here on top of her 60-hour work weeks. Her eventual dream? To become a translator, so she can help out her mom and others in her community who don’t know English.

“I have to learn English,” Issak explains. “I have to get my diploma. Go to college for two years. I have to take the test.”

Nearly 100,000 students like Issak are enrolled in adult education classes across Maine, many for similar reasons. Getting a diploma, learning English or simply learning to read. But a new law has some educators worried about how that mission may be changing.

Shirley Wright, the executive director of the Maine Adult Education Association, says, “The law brings business to the table and really wants those conversations [around education], but it’s more focused on the employee, not the employer.”

Wright is talking about the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). It was passed by Congress two years ago, and since then adult education programs across the state have been trying to adapt to all of its new requirements.

WIOA offers federal funds for adult education programs across the country. But it also brings new requirements, specifically in terms of collaboration. Districts need to develop plans for educators, businesses and workforce development groups to work together to get workers back into jobs.

Gail Senese is the director of adult education for the Maine Department of Education. She says when a student used to arrive in adult education, the process was for a student to go to class, then get a diploma, then get a job. Now, the mission has changed. From the first day, it’s “how can we find you a job? And how can we do it fast?”

“It’s not that we don’t value learning for personal development,” says Senese. “But most people want to learn for a job. And they need to work to support themselves and their families.”

Senese says this change has already taken hold in districts across the state, particularly since legislators passed a new, statewide “Career Pathways” program in 2012. Senese says now, when hospitals need nursing assistants, or call centers need workers, they partner with adult education to create specific training programs.

Peter Caron, the adult education director for SAD 27 in Fort Kent, says he’s already seen new programs in industries like forestry lead to higher-paying jobs in high-poverty regions.

“We are trying to match them with jobs that get them off welfare as we know it,” says Caron, “but get them out of poverty.”

But MAEA director Shirley Wright thinks the new law may go about this the wrong way, putting too much focus on quickly getting students into low-paying, entry-level jobs, from which they may not be able to get out.

“Some of these people have been part of welfare programs for three, four generations,” Wright says. “And they’re going into a job for 40 hours a week, then expected to climb up the ladder. They’ve got to commit 10, 15 hours for school. Some of us can do that, but it’s different. And it’s really hard.”

The other challenge is that these programs are brand new, and require educators to think of adult education in a new way – to put job training on the same level as basic reading and family literacy.

Thelma Regan, the director of the Pisqataquis Valley Adult Education Cooperative, says “Philosophically, it rubs me a little bit, because I’m into helping people improve their lives first. Then the rest will fall into place.” But it’s just the way I have to think. I think slightly differently now, and that’s okay. As long as people feel we’ve helped them, things have gotten better, we help them reach their goal.”

Gail Senese, with the state Department of Education, thinks the new laws will eventually lead to a better system – and one that’s more in tune to what students want.

“Change is hard,” Senese says. “But we all have to change now, because we have to align with the purposes of the federal money being given to us.”

Shirley Wright of the Maine Adult Education Association says what will make her feel better about the new plan is if the focus is really on the student, not the employer. She wants to make sure the goal isn’t to simply help businesses fill jobs. She says that means companies need to pay well, be fair to workers, and perhaps contribute some of their own money to help students get trained. If that happens, she says, then she thinks adult education programs will be fulfilling their mission to improve students’ lives.