U.S. Department of Education Releases Report on Adult Learning


On February 25th, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) released a new report, Making Skills Everyone’s Business: A Call to Transform Adult Learning in the United States. Developed in response to international survey results which found that adults in the United States have low basic skill levels compared to their peers in other countries, the report examines the consequences of these findings and suggests seven strategies for improving adult skill levels. The authors stress sharing responsibility—across levels of government and sectors—for “upskilling” America’s adult population through effective learning and training opportunities. The report outlines broad-based approaches, highlighted by promising examples from around the country.

Confirming what many in the world of adult education have long known, the report draws on data to show that higher skill levels among adults can lead to improved health, better educational outcomes for their children, increased productivity in the work place, and contribute to overall economic growth. These findings may be particularly useful to programs and initiatives in demonstrating the imperative of high-quality adult education work.

The report’s seven strategies for improving adult skill levels are interrelated and incorporate many of the promising practices widely circulating among those involved in adult education, such as competency-based education, prior learning assessment, and collective impact approaches. The report also includes extensive discussion on how the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)—signed into law in 2014—may catalyze these upskilling efforts. A brief summary of the seven strategies is below.

1. Act Collectively to Raise Awareness and Take Joint Ownership of Solutions.This strategy touts the power of structured, measured, and long-term cross-sector collaboration to improve adult skill levels.

2. Transform Opportunities for Youth and Adults to Assess, Improve, and Use Foundation Skills. The second strategy focuses on expanding access to and the efficiency of educational opportunities and includes many of the adult education field’s hot topics: competency-based education, prior learning assessment, badges and certificates, and distance education – among others.

3. Make Career Pathways Available and Accessible in Every Community. Another strategy likely familiar to those in adult education, “Career Pathways” seek to develop linkages between education, training, and employers to provide participants with marketable skills relevant to their area’s job market. The authors look at current efforts to determine common themes of successful initiatives.  

4. Ensure That All Students Have Access to Highly Effective Teachers, Leaders, and Programs. The report calls for enhanced professional development opportunities for adult educators, noting they often lack professional development resources as many work either part-time or on a volunteer basis.

5. Create a “No Wrong Door” Approach for Youth and Adult Services. Strategy five also emphasizes collaboration, suggesting that service providers of all types (adult education programs, workforce development programs, social services, etc.), work to actively coordinate amongst themselves so that adults seeking assistance in any capacity are made aware of the full range of options and benefits available to them. 

6. Engage Employers to Support Upskilling More Front-Line Workers. This strategy encourages employers to support their employees in skill development, through approaches such as increased on-the-job training opportunities, apprenticeships, tuition assistance, and flexible scheduling. 

7. Commit to Closing the Equity Gap for Vulnerable Subpopulations. The report notes that certain subpopulations, including those for whom English is a second language and adults with disabilities, are more likely to fall into the low-skill category. As a result, the authors call for targeted outreach to vulnerable groups.


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