"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On adult education's critical role in social justice

Save Evans Adult School and all of LAUSD DACE Photo by Yoon Jung Lee.
Photo by Yoon Jung Lee
This essay first appeared March 13, 2012 on the National Coalition for Literacy site as part of their discussion series on "Cut the Excuses, Not Education! How SaveAdultEd.org Is Fighting the Proposal to Eliminate Adult Education in L.A."

The article series featured students, educators, and activists engaged in the struggle to save Los Angeles Unified School District's Division of Adult and Career Education from the designs of neoliberalism. Speaking on behalf of my fellow activists, we genuinely appreciate the National Coalition for Literacy bringing our struggle to a national audience. What happens in Los Angeles is often a bellwether, and we can only hope that our struggles won't be in vain and inspires people to stand up to what Freire called "neoliberal fatalism."

National Coalition for Literacy's mission is to advance adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the U.S. by increasing public awareness for the need to increase funding and programs; promoting effective public policy; and serving as an authoritative resource for the field on national adult education issues.

On adult education's critical role in social justice

Robert D. Skeels

"I'm an adult ed teacher, and I just want to say thanks to those of you outside of adult ed who understand the importance of what we do, and are willing to stand with us as we fight to survive this year. When I go back to work tomorrow morning and greet my class full of ADULTS studying basic math, GED prep, and high school subjects, I will feel better knowing that you who work in K-12 understand the importance of what we do for families and communities. Parents who can't read or do arithmetic can't help their kids learn." — Michelle Cohen

Public education is a nexus of many issues paramount to social justice. Whether we're discussing equity issues in terms of class and race, fighting neoliberalism and privatization in the guise of vouchers and charters, advocating for the human rights of undocumented peoples, or engaged in many other critical issues, public education is an intersection where they all meet. This is even more true with adult education. In cities like Los Angeles the Division of Adult and Career Education (DACE) programs represent a literal lifeline for tens of thousands of Angelenos and their families. These programs are particularly essential for the poor and immigrant communities.

There are more than 345,000 students are currently enrolled in various adult education programs. DACE serves English Langauge Learners, provides both High School Graduation and General Equivalency Degree Preparation, Citizenship Preparation, life-changing Occupational Programs, and so much more. It's almost unthinkable that anyone would consider eliminating these vital services, but that's exactly what Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is seriously considering. This is by design, as I wrote recently in Echo Park Patch:

The consequences of decades of regressive tax injustice combined with the economic crash engineered by Wall Street mortgage derivative malefactors, have allowed for the neoliberal dream of carving public education to the bone.

This carving has been going on for years, but the supposed recent budget shortfalls have provided cover for those inclined to further dismantle the district. More sickening is that LAUSD actually has money as evidenced by massive spending on useless assessments [1] and consultants [2], highly discredited value added methodologies [3], and nine figure real estate giveaways to lucrative charter corporations [4]. Instead of looking to cut the former expenses, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, a former Gates Foundation executive and a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, is a polished practitioner of neoliberalism and has targeted programs that our communities depend upon most — Early Education, Student Readiness and Language Development Program (SRLDP), and Adult Education. Superintendent Deasy, along with LAUSD President Monica Garcia and her allies on the LAUSD Board of Education (BOE), figured they would balance the budget on the backs of the poor. As social justice educator José Lara said "this is an educational injustice."

The pushback against Garcia and Deasy's unconscionable cuts has been inspiring to an activist that hasn't seen such passionate grassroots organizing since the 2006 marchas against the racist "Sensenbrenner Bill." Rather than explore the breadth and scope of organizing by United Adult Students (UAS) and Save Adult Education, I want to look at several anecdotes of how DACE transforms lives since, after all, we advocate social justice for people. In each of these instances we see how Adult Education touches and reshapes lives.

Save Los Angeles Unified School District's Division of Adult and Career Education! Photo by Robert D. Skeels..Save Los Angeles Unified School District's Division of Adult and Career Education! Photo by Robert D. Skeels..Save Los Angeles Unified School District's Division of Adult and Career Education! Photo by Robert D. Skeels..

Photos by Robert D. Skeels, see the entire set.

I was among the founding members of the Southern California Immigration Coalition (SCIC), an organization that unapologetically fights for the rights of immigrants. Many of the individuals involved in the struggle for immigrant rights were, in addition to working, attending English and other classes at various LAUSD DACE schools. In almost every case if you asked them why they were taking these classes, they would say to help their children with their homework and be able to speak with their child's teachers. The courage, tenacity, and willingness of these parents to sacrifice on behalf of their families is beyond admirable. Taking DACE away from them would be tantamount to stealing futures. It's not uncommon for us activists to encounter families at schools like Union Street or Logan Street Elementary Schools to have entire families enrolled in LAUSD, with the parents attending DACE.

My wife Yoon Jung Lee, an immigrant herself, began attending Evans Adult School several years ago. While she has a Masters Degree from her native Korea, she felt taking High School courses would help her English skills. Help would be an understatement. Because her Evans work necessarily has her reading books, her English skills have improved exponentially. This last point isn't just anecdote, it's supported by myriad research by language acquisition experts like Professor Stephen Krashen. However, it's been courses like American History that she has really appreciated. She has told me learning the history of her new home has made her understand the culture much more than if she had never been exposed the class.

Moreover, Adult Education has given her confidence to do things she never would have done before. Not only has she taken a leading role in the UAS organizing to save her school, she has been photo-documenting the struggle, and wrote her very first activism article for the Save Adult Education website: Big Evans Rally on February 29, 2012.

In addition to immigrants, Adult Education serves diverse populations, including some that people may never have heard of. I volunteer at a recovery center for inner-city men located in the Westlake McArthur Park area called the Royal Palms. These are men that society, to all intents and purposes, has given up on. Very often these individuals, predominantly men of color and from poverty, can barely read when they begin working on their education. LAUSD Adult Education provides these men with an opportunity to earn their GEDs, learn computer skills, and reintegrate into society. The loss of LAUSD Adult Education would be devastating to these individuals so desperately needing a second chance in life. I've seen countless graduates of these GED and computer classes go on to get jobs and, in many cases, careers.

The last anecdote we'll explore is from the UAS meeting I attended in support of my wife on the first Saturday of March. The young woman who shared her story was developmentally disabled, and many of us had tears in our eyes as we listened to her tale. She was from Venice Skills Center and spoke of her horrible experience prior to her current school as a person with a learning disability at community college. She explained that they had neither the facilities, nor faculty willing to work with her. This is important since the press and several BOE members are now insisting a report by the Little Hoover Commission demonstrates community colleges could take on some of the functions of LAUSD DACE [5]. The student said that it wasn't until she went to LAUSD Adult Education that she was able to get both the attention and resources she needed. She explained how hard it is for people with learning disabilities to obtain vocational skills anywhere else. She went on to say she is learning how to be an office assistant and listed all the skills she had learned at her school. She pleaded "Please don't close adult education!"

Each story above encapsulates the struggles of persons suffering under various oppressions trying to transform their personal material conditions through education. It's a testament to the importance of adult education that it serves such a broad layer of people. It's also important to note that adult education serves an important social justice role in that it allows people to improve their lives despite a system that benefits from their remaining underprivileged. There's more, in that the struggle to save DACE has given students a valuable experience.

"A deepened consciousness of their situation leads people to apprehend that situation as an historical reality susceptible to transformation." — Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

The fight to save their schools has deepened the consciousness of these students. Instead of accepting their plight, as some of the neoliberal minded school board trustees would have had them, they see themselves as agents of change. Blanca Perez and Evelyn Escalante had already experienced the power of organizing when they saved Menlo Adult School and several others a few years ago. The combined efforts of students recently to delay the budget vote has shown a whole new layer of students and activists that collectively they are capable of transforming their reality. The struggle isn't over, and there's a very good possibility that students will have to fight for the life of their programs for months to come. Seeing how the one percent doesn't prioritize programs like Adult Education is likely to radicalize more students and bring them into the struggle for social justice.

Do these cuts have to happen? It would be fatalistic and fallacious to say they do. Aside from the District making more rational budget decisions that place people before the profits of their vendors, there's the elephant in the room:

Given that California's economy is the ninth largest economy in the world, it's unconscionable that continual cuts now threaten programs like adult education. Instead of cuts, we need to demand tax justice. According to the California Budget Project, the bottom fifth of California income earners pay 11.7%, while the top one percent only pay 7.1%. Just raising the rate of the top to equal that of the bottom would make this discussion moot, and taxing the upper quintile at a fair rate would eliminate all budget issues in California. [6]

There's hope that fairer taxation could be on the horizon with movements like the Millionaires Tax gaining momentum, but LAUSD needs to craft a budget that would preserve vital programs until the additional funding arrives.

Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of lives will be disrupted and changed for the worse if the School District is able to shut down Adult Education. That would be an egregious attack on working class people during an already brutal economic crisis, and would further exacerbate already stark class inequalities. Social justice demands we do better than that.


[1] An excellent example of costly assessments that are neither State nor Federally mandated is the District's recent addition of DIBELS®, a product of a company called the Dynamic Measurement Group. Of course, standardized testing in general is resource depleting to our district and others. Professor Stephen Krashen cites an example of New York City spending some 542 million on computers to implement testing (In an unpublished paper entitled "The common core standards and national tests: We are backing the wrong horse." Much of that paper is covered in a series of talks he gave last year, including at the CTU). In another paper Krashen discusses the potential of "4.5 billion on new standards and tests." Of course assessment costs can't always be measured up front, but they instead are wasteful in other ways.

[2] There's a plethora of examples for this. "[S]upport the projected price tag of at least $18 million for outside consultants," a quote from the site of LAUSD's very own Tamar Galatzan. From the Daily News on consultants in general "[T]he audit found that $186 million was paid to 1,277 outside consultants in 2006-07, averaging $145,653 per person that year." The district's expensive boondoggle with payroll cost a fortune, and resulted in the recent hiring of even more consultants. We are still waiting for the price-tag on the ongoing Academic Growth over Time (AGT) fiasco, but by most accounts it will be very costly.

[3] The latest fad inflicted by right wing economists on education is Value Added Methodology (VAM), also known as Academic Growth over Time (AGT). There is no serious peer-reviewed research supporting VAM/AGT (henceforth VAM), but that hasn't stopped it's popularity among the corporate education reform crowd. On the other hand, there's copious research demonstrating that VAM is woefully inaccurate and, in the words of Professor Diane Ravitch, "should never be used for high-stakes decision making." The late Gerald Bracey was highly critical of VAM. The esteemed National Education Policy Center (NEPC) made short work of completely discrediting the Los Angeles Times' shoddy research and wildly irresponsible decision to publish VAM scores, which possibly may have led in turn to the suicide of one the slandered teachers. For more on VAM see this list of links, and also a reprint of Professor Mike Rose's response to VAM at the bottom of this post.

[4] LAUSD's deceptively-named Public School Choice (PSC) resolution gave district schools away to privately managed entities including Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). PSC was imposed on the District by school privatizer Yolie Flores, who was a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation employee at the same time that she held a LAUSD Trustee seat. Under PSC, dozens of schools were given away to private corporations, nearly all of which were brand new facilities. While no aggregate of the costs has been published, the cost of individual school sites are staggering. In my neighborhood, a brand new school called CRES 14 was given away to the CNCA Charter Corporation, that one school's construction alone cost 68.7 million dollars.

[5] The actual report Serving Students, Serving California: Updating The California Community Colleges To Meet Evolving Demands doesn't provide specifics as to how such a transition is to occur, nor would there be time to affect such a transition if LAUSD was to eliminate its adult programs straightaway.

[6] Quote from The struggle to save LAUSD's adult education program

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