OCTAE Acting Assistant Secretary Uvin’s Keynote Address to COABE 2015

This speech was delivered at the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) conference as a keynote on April 23, 2015. It was dedicated to two individuals who have passed away this year and who made significant contributions to the field of adult education: Eugene Owens, Senior Advisor for the Assessment Division at the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education; and Mary Jane Schmidt, co-founder of the Adult Numeracy Network and an Adult Numeracy Project Director at TERC.


Thank you, Jackie [Taylor], for that kind introduction and for all the work you and your COABE board have done to put on this conference.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

I want to start by saying, skills matter. They matter to our:

  • Health. We know that adults with higher levels of literacy and numeracy report themselves to be in better health condition and U.S. adults with low literacy skills are four time more likely to report fair or poor health than adults with higher skills. This is twice the international average.
  • Family well-being and quality of life. What makes up quality of life? Economic security, safe neighborhoods, children’s health and achievement, trust in authorities and a sense that your voice and opinion matter? These things are all strongly correlated with adults’ skills.
  • Employment and advancement on the job.  We know that youth and adults with higher skills are more likely to be employed, to work in jobs with higher wages, and to work at jobs that allow them to exercise and extend their skills.
  • Social mobility.  Another staggering finding in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills was the strength of intergenerational lack of social mobility. In the U.S., adults with low educated parents (that is, without any postsecondary education) are 10 times more likely to have low skills than adults with at least one college-educated parent. This relationship eases somewhat for younger cohorts, but it is still stronger here than in our competitive countries.

You know these facts. I know these facts. Our adult education colleagues know these facts. What is not clear is if our neighbors, employers, elected officials, and many adults with low skills know these facts. And, they ought to.

I’m not going to share a lot of data with you today except to say when the OECD Survey of Adult Skills was released in Oct 2013, the findings were stunning. 36 million of our fellow Americans struggle with literacy skills, 48 million struggle with numeracy skills, and an even larger number struggle with the technology skills needed to solve every day work-like problems. We’ve spoken about these findings for a year and a half, sounding the alarm that it is “time for the U.S. to reskill” and upskill.

What I’d like to talk about today is how we can do what is necessary to make significant, lasting changes in the skills profile of this country that are evident to all now and in the long run.

Don’t mistake me for Don Quixote de la Mancha with an impossible dream. I know that our efforts in adult education and literacy alone cannot address the vastness of the challenge. I also know that the efforts by our partners in health and human services and workforce development help a lot but those efforts, too, are simply not enough.

I may be eternally optimistic and express big dreams, but I am also a realist. I know that we need to tell the story in a compelling and transformative manner and that we need friends and partners in this quest. Lots and lots of friends.

We need to reframe the narrative, seek new and unlikely partners, and find fresh solutions. The current narrative does not match the severity and magnitude of the skills challenge. Skeptics have pointed at prior reports, data, and efforts and say this time can’t or won’t be different.

I believe it can be different this time if we start talking about the skills problem in a new way. Our skills challenge should not be the topic of policy conversations only. It is so big that everyone in America should talk about it over dinner, on the bus to work, or in the break room.

In adult education, we have a lot to learn from other successful efforts to change people’s minds and behaviors. Some previous public campaigns have begun under equally daunting and improbable odds. Let me share a few.

  • In 1955 during the height of the Jim Crow segregation era, a woman stepped forward to take a stand by taking a seat at the front of the bus. I’m speaking of Rosa Parks, of course, who, by the way, should be embraced as an adult learner: she had engaged in years of civic training at Highlander Center and in the NAACP where her skills and mindset were radically changed. She had prepared herself to seize an opportunity and she and her community were steeled with the conviction and determination to see the action through to radical change. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick; it was very public, in-your-face, and powerful.
    • Do we have the same level of grit, determination, and preparation to seize the opportunities in front of us and persist in our efforts to see them through to radical changes in assumptions and behaviors?
  • After WWII, thousands of troops returned home to a changed economy. Their high school diploma – or lack of it – did not prepare them for the jobs of the present. Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, which resulted in a $14 billion investment in a new generation of college-educated workers. Young men and women from all across the country were able to significantly, dramatically, and permanently change their destiny by investing in their own future with a college degree or training program. This investment alone is credited to a large degree with underwriting the post-war growth in the middle class, and generating prosperity for millions of families raising the largest baby boom generation in our history.
    • The President’s call for free community college is our generation’s call to action to lift the skills of a new generation to be ready for the jobs of today and tomorrow. But we know that many youth and adults are not yet ready for college-level academic or technical courses. How do we seize this wave of interest to ensure that the pre-requisite foundation skill needs of our learners are considered in the systems that get established?
  • In 2010, the Affordable Care Act was authorized with the radical notion that health insurance was a right, not a privilege reserved for the wealthy and healthy. Since the opening of the exchanges, the uninsured rate in this country has decreased by 10 million; individuals can no longer be denied health insurance because they might need it one day; and families are no longer under threat of bankruptcy due to a health crisis. Hospital emergency rooms are focusing on emergencies rather than serving as clinics, and millions of individuals are now routinely getting preventative care.  The debates around the Affordable Care Act have shifted our national conversation. No matter what happens in the political arena, the debate is no longer about whether people should have access to insurance but rather how that access should be structured and financed.
    • Are we bold enough to launch a campaign that proposes that adults have the right to learn the skills that will qualify them for a family-sustaining wage, skills that can support their families’ well-being, and improve their quality of life?

All of these bold, visionary campaigns have changed our country and have made it more secure, competitive, and more socially and economically just. But they started as a dream and a quest to right a wrong, offer a new paradigm, raise awareness, change behavior, and make an investment.

So how do we assemble the partners that we need on our quest? I suggest that we join forces with our colleagues in related services and also with unlikely partners in spheres where our students and potential students already are. If we want to achieve different results, we are going to have to take radical steps that are bold, creative, and determined.  I know our resources are modest and are for most service providers. But we must start; we cannot wait.

We have some amazing opportunities right in front of us right now. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) offers us the chance to restructure our system. It assigns us partners with similar missions serving similar populations. Let’s make sure we capitalize on this opportunity and realize the greatest benefit out of WIOA for our current and potential students. I encourage you to make your voices heard in the public comment period that just opened. Find all of our WIOA resources on the www.ed.gov/AEFLA webpage.

I hope that all of you have seen the report we launched in February, Making Skills Everyone’s Business: A Call to Transform Adult Learning in the United States. The call to action outlined in this report can help us begin to reframe the challenges, seek and nurture new and unlikely partners, and propose new solutions.

I started my remarks by saying skills matter. I want to end there, too. If poor skills hurt your job prospects, your earnings capacity, your health, your social mobility, your family’s well-being, your trust in government and systems, your ability to engage in civic life, and your overall quality of life, then you are basically missing out on any reasonable chance to make it into the middle class. That is wrong.

If 36 million of us are in that predicament, then we need to think of solutions of a different magnitude. 1.7 million learners in [WIOA] Title II programs should be viewed as a good start, rather than being the best we can do.

There is so much talk about inequality in earnings, income, and wealth and most certainly a comprehensive set of economic and social policies might be needed to address these ever growing disparities.

One of the better solutions we need to make a reality is a skills policy that matches the size of the problem. That requires we reframe the narrative.

We need to stand up, acknowledge, and without judgment accept that not everyone has had the opportunity the first time to get marketable skills or a degree that pays.

We need to stand up and amplify the notion that skills need to be upgraded constantly if one wants to be part of the economy that produces great incomes and benefits.

We need to stand up and keep the learner at the center of what we do and say.

We need to stand up and partner with business, industry, labor, and government to make investments in workers, as all will reap the benefits of such investments.

We need to stand up and treat skills and workplace flexibility as part of the same conversation and course of action.

We need to stand up and be honest about what works and what doesn’t and clarify that investments in what works make sense and others don’t.

We need to stand up and allow workers to develop their skills without assuming major debt.

We need to stand up and find new ways to create opportunity for responsible adults and youth who are committed to their learning, particularly young men of color and marginalized young women, returning citizens, and immigrant and refugee workers, and other vulnerable groups.

We need to stand up and have the courage to be accountable, commit to clear goals and milestones so we can monitor our country’s progress.

We need to stand up and bring forth the voices of others, particularly the voices less heard.

All of us have and share the responsibility for creating a path into the middle class for 36 million fellow Americans.

That is what we need to stand up for. That is what we ought to stand for

Thank you for your time and attention.