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Adult Literacy Professional Development

NEW: Adult Education Personnel and Volunteers
This NRS FastFacts presents the national picture and trends in data for adult education personnel and staff for 2004-2009.

—Developed in collaboration with the Association of Adult Literacy Professional Developers (AALPD)

What is Adult Literacy Professional Development?

  • Adult literacy professional development provides training and sustained learning opportunities for adult education practitioners, i  including adult education, family literacy, and English language learning teachers and tutors, program directors, paraprofessionals, and program staff.
  • Research shows that sustained professional development leads to improved student outcomes. ii

What is the Need?

  • The President has set a goal of having the most US college graduates in the world by 2020. Yet, there are not enough high school graduates projected to graduate in the timeframe needed in order to meet this goal. Adult education practitioners must be prepared to help adult learners transition to postsecondary education. They will need training and support to accomplish this.
  • We need to not only serve more students but we must invest in serving them well. This means investing more in sustained professional development while at the same time creating the conditions needed to access and learn from it and to stay in the field.
  • It is critical to modernize the adult education field. Doing more of the same will not facilitate the changes needed across the pipeline to help adults get jobs with family sustaining wages, transition into postsecondary education and training, integrate technologies in teaching and learning, and achieve outcomes.
  • Until federal leadership sets expectations for programs to make the majority of adult education teaching jobs full time, with benefits, good salaries, and paid professional development release time and preparation time, potential teachers will not see adult education as a career, but as an accidental job choice.

What must adult education practitioners be able to do to meet this need?

The 21st century adult educator must: iii

  • Prepare adults with the basic adult literacy and critical thinking skills they need to compete in the 21st century workforce.

  • Prepare adults to transition into postsecondary and vocational credit-bearing classes, including teaching in integrated education and training settings and other work contexts.

  • Prepare adults to be digital age learners using existing and new technologies in creative ways.

  • Teach adults with learning and other disabilities to close the life outcomes gap.

  • Instruct a linguistically diverse classroom made up of learners at all different levels of language proficiency to improve their language proficiency.

  • Increase political literacy and civic participation among our nation’s adults.

  • Strengthen programs to be scalable and flexible to meet new demands in communities.

 What current conditions prevent the adult education field from meeting the need?

  • Unlike their K-12 counterparts, 4 out of 5 adult education teachers are part time; thousands are volunteers. iv
  • Most adult education teachers do not have formal training in teaching adults, even if they have been K-12 teachers.
  • One survey indicates that the adult education field in Massachusetts is “aging out.” v More research is needed to determine whether this is reflective of the field as a whole. Experience tells us that it is.
  • The professional development offered is disproportionate: More professional development is focused on assessment and other practices needed to orient new teachers and in “teaching to the test.” vi We’re teaching teachers how to work within the system more than we are providing the instruction-related, sustained professional development they need to improve practice.
  • Many adult education practitioners do not have access to paid professional development release time and benefits. Even if the professional development is available, it is not accessible because they are not paid release time to attend.
  • Paid professional development release time, paid preparation time, access to full-time, stable employment, career ladders, and pay on par with professionals commensurate with performance, experience, and qualifications, are all “working conditions” that could be improved through leadership at federal, state, and local levels.
  • Working conditions have been cited as some of the main reasons why adult education teachers say they would leave the field of adult basic education. Therefore, working conditions may be related to both the efficiency of the PD system and to retention of teachers in the field. vii
  • It is reasonable to assume that without job stability and benefits, many adult educators leave the field when given the opportunity to pursue a K-12 career with family sustaining wages. You get less return on investment of professional development dollars gleaned from talented and experienced adult educators and spend more on orienting and inducting new teachers.

What can Congress do?

Create legislative support for the National Coalition for Literacy Professional Quality Policy Principles:

Increase Access to Professional Development

  • Increase access to professional development for practitioners, based on practitioner needs, credentialing requirements, and funding priorities. 
  • Insure that a minimum of 15% of any funds made available at the state level are dedicated for professional development activities.
  • Provide the resources necessary so that professional development is high quality, sustained and meaningful, using a variety of evidence-based models and approaches.

Provide Opportunities for Credentialing and Career Advancement

  • Provide federal initiatives (policy and funding) that support states to develop, implement, and sustain state-level licensing and credentialing systems.
  • Establish pathways to careers through credentials, degrees, and career ladders that are linked to compensation commensurate with performance, experience, and qualifications.

Improve Working Conditions

  • Link credentialing initiatives and professional development to supports that enable practitioners to access and benefit from them. 
    • Examples of these supports include stable, full time employment, paid benefits, paid professional development release time, paid preparation time, career ladders; and pay on par with professionals commensurate with performance, experience, and qualifications.

Provide for Research in Professional Development

  • Fund research that explores the relationship between professional development, working conditions, and student outcomes, and guides decisions about improving the professional quality of the adult education workforce.

i Practitioners who work in the field are those who provide adult education and literacy services as defined in Title II of the Workforce Investment Act. Retrieved December 15, 2009 from .

ii Taylor, B. M., Pearson, P. D., Peterson, D. S., & Rodriguez, M. C. (2005). The CIERA School Change Framework: An evidence-based approach to professional development and school reading improvement. Reading Research Quarterly, 40, 40–68.

iii Taylor, J., Silver-Pacuilla, H., Nash, A., Segota, J., Weng, B., Greiner, J. (2008). Teacher Quality and Career Pathways: A Proposal for the Reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act. White paper prepared for the National Coalition for Literacy.

iv Office of Vocational and Adult Education .

v Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education

vi Smith, C. (2009). Accountability Requirements and Professional Development in the US Adult Basic and Literacy Education System. Literacy and Numeracy Studies, 17:3, 27-41. Retrieved February 20, 2010 from

vii Smith, C., and Hofer, J. (2003). The Characteristics and Concerns of Adult Basic Education Teachers. Boston, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. NCSALL Reports #26. .

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