Throwing Down the Gauntlet for Professional Development

Co-authored post by Johan Uvin, Acting Assistant Secretary of Education, OCTAE, researcher and teacher; and Gail Spangenberg, President, National Council for Adult Learning

Moving PD Closer to the Top was the theme of an August 25th blog hosted by the National Council for Adult Learning. A group of prominent Adult Education leaders contributed essays to that blog. They were Mary Ann Corley, John Fleischman, Daphne Greenberg, David Rosen, Cristine Smith, Jackie Taylor, Randy Whitfield, and the co-authors of this essay. They gave their perspectives on the high importance of professional development in our field and suggested many excellent priority actions in PD to meet current and future demands for outreach and effective service.

It is time to throw down the gauntlet for PD.  A serious conversation and commitment to Adult Education professional development is long overdue.  We should be talking more extensively and with higher-level commitment about the conditions we need to create for work and learning in our field, for the good of adult learners and our nation.  All the more so as we work together to prepare for a full and robust implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.  NCAL’s blog was a start.  We hope the following discussion will add usefully to that beginning and encourage others to weigh in with their own ideas.


A recent report from The New Teacher Project concludes that school districts spend an average of $18,000 per teacher annually on professional development.  The report summarizes the results of a survey of over 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders in three large public school systems, as well as the results of interviews and analyses of teacher ratings. This huge investment produced underwhelming outcomes. Only 30% of teachers saw improvements in their practice over a 2-3 year period. The report also notes that no particular approach helped teachers get better, and among teachers who did improve success was not linked to any systemic efforts by the districts.

Looking beyond our own borders, in a TED talk posted at, Amy S. Choi speaks about what the best education systems in the world are doing right.  Korea and Finland are compared in detail in her presentation.  Both countries, using very different approaches, have succeeded in transforming their terrible education systems into systems that today produce outcomes that are the envy of most nations. In Finland, for example, school is now viewed as the center of the community, providing education and social services. Teachers play a central role in this vision. There is deep respect for them and their academic accomplishments. Finland selects only 1 in 10 applicants who want to become teachers and has eliminated 80% of its teacher preparation programs because they were deemed ineffective.  This has elevated the teaching profession.  The country asks its teachers to teach 600 hours per year (contrasted to 1,100 in the U.S., or 21 hours a week on average) and requires them to spend major additional time on professional development, meeting with colleagues, and engaging with students and families.

PreK-12 is obviously not the same as Adult Education, and Finland and Korea are most certainly different than the United States. But the data from The New Teacher Project report and the experiences of the Finns and Koreans are instructive for Adult Education in the U.S. in terms of recruitment, training development, teacher retention, compensation and benefits, and support for growth.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates [1] that the current size of the U.S. Adult Education teacher labor market is just under 80,000 jobs. In 2012, some 77,400 jobs were held by adult literacy and high school equivalency diploma teachers.  According to DOL, the median pay was $48,590 per year, a bachelor’s degree was the entry-level education requirement, and work experience was acquired through on-the-job training.  The job outlook for the period 2012-22 is 9%, and the projected employment change for that same period is 6,700 jobs.

In 2014, the labor force supported by the Adult Education and Literacy Act was 85,660.  This included 56,204 teachers, 13,731 paraprofessionals, 11,608 local administrative staff, 3,679 counselors, and 438 state-level staff.  Twenty-three percent of these professionals were unpaid volunteers.  Fifty-five percent were part-time paid staff, and only 22% were paid full-time staff.  Part-time staff represented 72% of all paid staff in publicly funded programs.  Of the total labor force, nearly 99.5% were working for 2,390 local grantees. Moreover, states reported that in 2014 about 35,000 paid professionals or 42% of local paid staff (62% of the teaching force) had some certification, primarily in Adult Education, K-12/Special Education, and TESOL.

Judging Adult Education Teacher Performance.  Very little national data is available by which to judge current teacher performance in Adult Education, but the data that is available shows enormous variation between and within states and local grantees on key performance indicators.  Depending on which state or local program they enter, adult learners face very different prospects for success. The likelihood that an adult learner will achieve a positive outcome in a given year can be three to four times higher in some states than in others, almost certainly due at least in part to differences in teaching effectiveness.  From an opportunity perspective alone, this issue warrants attention; the role of teachers in affecting outcomes is clearly important.  The NCAL blog speaks to this issue in various ways.  The point is that we need to understand far better than we do what attributes and skills effective adult education teachers have and how they developed their abilities to bring about strong outcomes.

No matter how strong community or regional partnerships are or how well designed our strategies are, if teachers of the basic foundation skills are not engaged, prepared, and supported by effective leaders and by programs that deliver high-quality instruction, and if our teachers do not have access to appropriate professional development opportunities and well-paid career paths, student outcomes are unlikely to improve.  Note that Strategy #4 of OCTAE’s Making Skills Everyone’s Business aims to “ensure that all students have access to highly effective teachers, leaders, and programs.”  It states that “success in helping low-skilled youth and adults enrolled in programs to reach higher levels of education and employment hinges ultimately on what happens between students and teachers.”

Judging Adult Education Investments.  Neither state nor local data are available to firmly determine our investments in adult education professional development nationwide.  Our rough estimate shows it to be paltry in the extreme. If all States and outlying areas were to invest all their State Leadership funding in professional development – which they don’t – and if we added all National Activities funding available, then the average national investment in professional development per adult educator in a given year might be around $1,000 per paid and unpaid volunteer staff member.  Of course, the actual expenditure is far lower than this, even after adjusting for local program investments.  But the important point is that the investment for Adult Education PD contrasts sharply with the $18,000 reported in The New Teacher Project research.

Retention, Compensation, and Full-Time Status.  Some states know how much teachers make and what benefits they have, and some may know about teacher years of service with a grantee or within the system, but most states do not.  We have strong, compelling anecdotal evidence that teacher retention is poor and that compensation is low, but we simply do not have solid or extensive enough national data to know with precision what the facts are.  Obviously, the large share of part-time professionals in our adult education workforce is a complex phenomenon.  We believe it is explained in part by funding inadequacies, but it is also explained by the fact that our system relies heavily on part-time positions as a function of institutional practice and choices made by most state and local leaders.  A recurring theme in the NCAL blog – and we agree with it – is that we need to shift to a program structure that uses more paid full-time professionals. Fortunately, there are several good models to provide guidance to the field.  For example:

  • The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (GPLC) grew from just two staff members in the mid-1980s to 40 full-time employees and many volunteers in 2012. It has an explicit policy of hiring only full-time staff (with rare exceptions at staff request). GPLC provides services to 8,000 students annually and has 12 area offices in community centers, churches, and social agencies.
  • In Colorado, when a new director arrived at the Durango Education Center (DEC) in 1999, the only full-time staff was the director and assistant director. DEC decided to diversify funding sources and raise new revenue to create full-time teaching positions, add health and dental benefits, and increase pay. Retirement benefits were added later for those staying at least two years. DEC credits these changes with virtually eliminating staff turnover. Having full-time staff also has allowed them to expand hours and programs, which has led to nearly tripling the number of students served. DEC also believes having more full-time staff has led to higher student test scores and GED® attainment, and those better outcomes in turn have attracted additional funding. Performance pay, while not addressing the problem of part-time jobs, can provide an incentive for focusing on improved student outcomes and can sometimes attract support for higher teacher pay in a way that simple pay raises may not.
  • The City Colleges of Chicago has begun paying performance bonuses to adult education teachers when their programs reach or exceed overall targets for student achievement and enrollment. Teachers received the first round of these bonuses in September 2013. The amount of the potential bonuses will rise each year, along with the targets. By 2016 they could amount to as much as 7 percent of teacher base pay.

The Case Is Strong and Growing.  The emergence of WIOA – to say nothing of the sobering and as yet too little appreciated data from the powerful PIAAC assessment – makes it clear that the adult education and teaching and training workforce must adapt to the rapidly evolving adult skills reality.  Among the reasons are the scale of the need for service, the growing emphasis on college and career preparation, increasing attention to transitioning to credit-bearing college-level coursework, and new efforts to link high school equivalency exams to rigorous college and career readiness standards.  Moreover, there is more and more appreciation for the importance of developing career pathways and integrated teaching models, strengthening employer engagement, meeting the needs of ESL adults, and enabling technology integration.


Many difficult questions face us at this juncture. For example, how can we take our efforts to scale? What service delivery training models should we choose?  Can we craft activities that are both efficient and effective? The New Teacher Project found that systemic district efforts did not significantly contribute to improvements in practice.  Are more personalized models needed for adult education? Are current job-embedded models providing the needed level of personalized support for educator growth? Do we need a Watson-like super computer [2] for adult educators that would provide personalized instructional support as teachers seek effective ways to facilitate learners’ mastery of the adult college and career readiness standards? Can we rethink and restructure recruitment, training, and program staffing and benefits so that more of the current workforce is motivated to remain in the field and so that young professionals are inspired to enter Adult Education as a respected and fully professional career goal?  Tough as these questions are, we need to get moving now, make a commitment, and do the best we can with a well-considered plan of action.

To that end, we list our six near-term top priorities below, recognizing that not everything can be done at once or accomplished overnight. The goal, we believe, should be to achieve a data-driven overhaul of adult educator recruitment, retention, compensation, support policies, and practices, and the funding to support an effective adult education and training system. NCAL’s essayists were the spark for this OCTAE blog. We urge readers to also consider their ideas and recommendations firsthand at

  1. Consult With Those Who Provide the Services. We think it is important to initiate a wider conversation with adult education teachers and managers themselves, to learn from the source what it would take to motivate teachers to pursue and stick with a career in our field and what they think can be done to improve working conditions for our professionals. The conversation should include but reach beyond state adult education directors.  This outreach could be initiated by OCTAE and/or one of our national advocacy/research organizations.
  2. Define What Constitutes an Effective Adult Education Teacher. In 2015, OCTAE concluded its four-year Promoting Teacher Effectiveness in Adult Education project.  It provides the best available evidence base on teacher competencies, effectiveness, and induction models.  It identifies the instructor competencies of effective teachers, and field-tested a teacher induction model.  It is supported with a toolkit of interactive online courses and print resources.  Several research briefs were produced that investigate the relationship between teacher characteristics and student achievement in adult education.  This was a substantial body of work that the field can draw on now, but we need to further identify the skills and attributes of highly effective teachers and leaders. We should know how these effective practitioners developed these attributes and skills, including the acquisition of adult education degrees, certificates, and licensure.  And attention should be given to how to provide training that is broad and flexible enough to be responsive to the various needs of students. For many adult learners, especially lower skilled adults, college and job readiness, acquisition of an alternate high school diploma, or moving along a career pathway might not be their personal goal, at least not immediately.
  3. Identify and Adopt/Adapt Good Training Models and Approaches. As with most areas of adult education, professional development is not without a laboratory of exemplary experiences to draw on.  Good models already exist, including group purchasing options, where planners and providers have come together to solve the part-time employment dilemma, and often with a special focus on very low skilled learners.  We need to identify these models, examine their operations and elements of effective teaching, and encourage planners to adopt or adapt them to local realities. Career pathways are needed for adult educators just as they are for adult learners and there are some examples of effective models on that front as well. Career pathway models cannot be based exclusively on occupational progression, but the idea of developing career pathways based on mastery of specialized skill sets holds great promise.  (As we do this, we should keep in mind that private, nonprofit organizations sometimes have more latitude in prioritizing full-time teaching positions than local public adult and developmental education programs.)  Good examples are the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, the Durango Education Center, and the City Colleges of Chicago cited above. There are also useful models specific to Adult ESL, such as programs at Bunker Hill Community College and the Community College of San Francisco. [3]

    Wider deployment of technology is essential if we are to provide services to the many millions of adults we know we need to reach. We must find ways to motivate many more professionals to want to integrate technology and distance learning into their programs and services and to have the training needed to do that effectively. The NCAL blog (Fleischman) points out that the one-shot workshops and webinars we tend to rely on are useful but not sufficient to bring about real change in integrating technology into adult education services.  He urges the wider use of mentoring, coaching, and professional learning communities for technology professional development, as well as the wider use of blended learning models.  One example of this done well is the 10-year old TIMAC initiative of California’s OTAN program and the blog cites others with a track record.

    Finally, it is worth noting here another recommendation offered by NCAL’s blog (Smith):  OCTAE is urged to “fund an experienced program administrator with research experience to interview program directors around the country who have been able, with currently existing funds, to organize their programs so that the majority of teachers are full-time with benefits and paid prep time.” The posting  stresses – and we add our voices to that call – that “part of our message to funders should be that new infusions of money should go into improving working conditions of practitioners rather than simply into serving greater numbers of adult learners.”

  4. Build Professional Development Explicitly Into Adult Education Planning. WIOA calls for all stakeholders in the states to be at the planning table.  This includes both the business community and adult education professionals.  We strongly urge that Adult Education and adult education professional development be explicitly incorporated into all existing state and local education operating budgets, state and regional economic development plans, Congressional legislation that provides for adult education/workforce skills development, and federal WIOA implementation efforts.
  5. Improve Data Collection for PD. There is no question that a paucity of data impedes our work in professional development, and indeed in Adult Education generally.  Many research and policy groups have called for the development of longitudinal data systems in adult education at the state and regional levels, for updating elements of the National Reporting System, for gathering data that will inform return-on-investment judgments, and for fuller and more visible incorporation of adult education into the broader purpose data systems that guide state economic development.  Doing so is vital to an understanding of the role and needs of Adult Education, and for effective planning.  These data improvement efforts should also include professional development variables. WIOA, with its emphasis on integrated data systems, can be a great lever.
  6. Develop Clearer Communications. One NCAL blogger (Greenberg) stresses that we are too often unclear about what we mean by “professional development” in Adult Education.  She suggests that we would do better if we could come to some agreement on definitions and terms that would enable us to more clearly determine how much and what kind of PD should take place.  Other bloggers stress the importance of communicating in a way that shows respect for adult education teachers and treats them with dignity.  In fact, this matter of clear and respectful communications was a recurring theme expressed by other professionals in the return-on-investment work done recently by NCAL’s predecessor organization, the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy. [4]


PIAAC shows that skills matter a lot and we need to use and heed that data consistently over time. Poor skills hurt job prospects, earning capacity, health, social mobility, a family’s well-being, trust in government and systems, the ability to engage in civic life, overall quality of life, and the opportunity to make it into the middle class.  Some 36 million of our fellow Americans are in that predicament.   Solutions of higher magnitude are needed in response.  There are approximately 1.6 million adult learners in Title II programs now, [5] but this number has been declining in the past few years as budgets have shrunk.  It is a shockingly low number considering the scale of the challenge.  It is not the best we can do and we should not accept it. We need a skills policy and better solutions to match the size of the problem.  It is time to openly and persistently acknowledge that a vast number of Americans (out-of-school adults aged 16 and older) have not had the opportunity to engage in the kinds of educational activities that the rest of us take for granted.  And it is time to step up actively to the funding challenge.

The funding cloud casts its shadow over everything we have said.  How do we tackle this seemingly intractable problem of access and effective instruction and professional development with a budget that in real dollars has not significantly grown for years, while need and demand continue to grow? We have expanded our thinking, as evidenced by WIOA, but we not expanded the means with which to implement our new understandings and ideas. This despite the fact that Adult Education is the primary route to upgrading low basic skills and lifting adults up to readiness for job training, employment, and success in college; it cuts across the work of nearly every other kind of development work our nation undertakes.

Adult Education is still too little understood and appreciated by philanthropic and other entities. It is fundamentally different from PreK-12.  It is fundamentally different from higher education.  Yet, even though it is vital to the success of workforce, economic, human resource, and community development, even though it is a vital tool in efforts to overcome poverty, injustice and inequality, and educational disadvantage in our nation, Adult Education is seldom mentioned in the planning and funded activities of either public or private entities.  PIAAC shows that our nation is in trouble, but we will not lift ourselves up until we place greater value on those 36 million low skilled adults, and on conditions for the workforce that guides them.  We simply cannot expect to remain stable and to thrive by continuing to leave so many of our fellow citizens behind.

We need to use existing resources in a much more effective way and we must leverage funding not traditionally thought of for Adult Education. The launch of UpSkill America is a significant step in that direction because it opens the door to the billions in resources that employers and labor-management leaders have to increasing the skills of low-skilled or low-wage workers.  Employer partnerships provided in both WIOA Titles I and II provide further opportunities to expand investments in skills upgrading.  Similarly, the fact that integrated education and training is now allowable under WIOA Title II and that concurrent enrollment is a central feature in a more unified workforce system are significant steps to resource diversification and expansion. The partial restoration of Ability to Benefit Pell Grant provisions tied to career pathway programs also helps, because it opens the door to the postsecondary education system for those without a high school credential.  Efforts to incentivize technology innovation and access are promising and can move us toward an adult learning system where, for example, the use of hand-held devices, with proper supports, has the potential of extending services dramatically and in cost-effective ways.  Hand-held devices are possessed by many of the 36 million low-skilled adults we aren’t serving now, and they have potential as a medium through which to offer basic services way beyond the 2,390 face-to-face points of access our local Title II-funded programs provide now.

All of these developments show that we are at least thinking in new ways with respect to funding and service provision.  We are making modest gains.  But, still, there is no avoiding the fact that the field cannot be expected to do a great deal more without a major infusion of new funds.

When the PIAAC data were first rolled out, one presenter stressed that where federal funding is concerned, despite sequestration and other regressive forces, choices about what to fund and what not to fund are made all the time.  If, as a nation, we had a more broadly shared understanding of the implications of poor skills, we would make a firm commitment and we would choose to look at our adult education and professional development activities as strategic investments.  We should also be open to considering trade-offs with federally funded programs that may not be so fundamentally urgent for our nation’s future.  We have begun to share resources across stakeholder agencies throughout federal and state government.  We need to do more. A larger philanthropic engagement is also part of the solution, particularly in the area of research into local and state systems that facilitate learning and effectiveness.  And states, too, have an important leadership role in funding both Adult Education and professional development.  In fact, the NCAL blog (Rosen) stresses that states need to make it a priority to incentivize and reward teachers for investing their time in professional development.

One of NCAL’s contributors (Corley) argues that we should create a National Adult Education Training Alliance dedicated specifically to professional development.  It “would be charged with developing and delivering a sequence of standards-based, evidence-based experiences for adult educators aimed at ensuring quality instruction for adult learners. It would work with states to certify teachers as they complete and master various levels within the sequence. It would develop and certify a cadre of trainers for each state to (1) ensure that its adult education teachers progress through the PD sequence, and (2) provide feedback and coaching.  This ideal world would have adequate funding for teacher benefits and prep time, which would require significant funding to states, but the return on investment could be staggering in terms of student gains.”   This bold idea may be worth exploring further, perhaps as a center based at one of our universities.  It would definitely take a funding partnership of public, private, philanthropic, and business interests to achieve something like this.

In sum, the problems of recruitment, preparation, support, and development of adult learning professionals are evident and it is time to solve them.  We’ve offered some ideas above, the NCAL initiative offers some as well.  Our hope is to generate action, and a national conversation focused on creating solutions.  Our learners deserve a stable and effective teacher and leader workforce. Responsible teachers and learners deserve greater respect, visibility, opportunity, and compensation.  We need to make this happen.

Image of Gail Spangenberg, President, National Council for Adult Learning, and Founder and Managing Director, Adult Learning Partners, LLC

Gail Spangenberg, President, National Council for Adult Learning, and Founder and Managing Director, Adult Learning Partners, LLC

photo of Johan Uvin

Johan E. Uvin is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education

At  For information on similar jobs such as high school teachers, see:

IBM developed the Watson initiative and implemented it in health and other sectors.  Watson uses cognitive computing and enhances, scales, and accelerates human expertise. It is built to mirror the power of the cognition learning process, the framework that humans use to inform their decisions: Observe, Interpret, Evaluate, and Decide. For more information, see

See Torchlights in ESL: Five Community College Profiles, at

See ROI reports OT15 and OT16 available at

Source: NRS data for the last year for which full data are available (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014).  See