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Focusing on What Matters Most

November 2, 2013

As a former member of the federally funded adult literacy system, I believe that the prevailing culture within the current delivery system is too heavily focused on program accountability, and not on instruction and learning.  What I mean by that is that professional development and staff meetings tend to focus primarily on keeping programs compliant, and preparing for the next round of grant applications.  As a result, the prevailing classroom culture consists of providing students with just enough skill to pass the GED test versus on learning and instruction.  This practice of focusing on only those skills required to pass the GED test limits the definition of functional literacy and numeracy within adult literacy programs. 


This limited focus is partially due to the fact that the materials that are available to new teachers are materials that are solely designed for GED preparation, and partially due to the fact that many teachers are not trained as educators, nor proficient enough in the content areas that they are charged to instruct to extend lessons beyond the tasks required for success on the GED test.  Teachers often enter into adult literacy education as if “by accident,” meaning that is was not their chosen career path (Smith & Hofer, 2003).  They are handed whatever materials are present, and in the words of a past workshop attendee “try to stay one lesson ahead” of students.  Teachers do not have time to become masters of the content areas they are teaching, especially in mathematics; they simply follow computational procedures as outlined in GED texts.  Students then learn the same computational procedures, with no conceptual understanding.  This orientation limits the scope of the curricula, the type of instruction typically observed in literacy classrooms, and therefore the quality of instruction that students receive in many adult literacy classrooms. 


How do we change the culture of our programs to focus more on what matters most to the students and instructors?  I would say that our first step has to be changing our own focus.  We can do what is required (tracking student outcomes) while doing what matters.  We can start by truly setting our own sights beyond the GED test, and thinking about how our work impacts instructors in the different roles they fill in their lives (parent, caregiver, job seeker, worker).  Is simply passing the test going to prepare them for those roles?  What specific knowledge and skills will they need to be successful in those roles?  How can their time in your literacy class get them closer to obtaining that knowledge and skills?


If you do just one thing this week, help your students to see this bigger picture. Talk to your students about all of the reasons they are taking literacy classes or pursuing the GED.  You could have students list the different roles they fill, and list the skills they need for each role, and focus on using those skills to complement the GED curriculum used at your site. 


Dr. Carmine Stewart


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