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Beyond the GED: Can Adult Charters Help Close the Skills Gap?

August 8, 2014 09:30 AM

Last week, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) held a panel in Washington, DC that focused on adult charter schools' influence in preparing adult learners for today's jobs. The conversation emphasized the District’s 11 such schools, including the Academy of Hope, a charter that increased the number of students earning more than $30,000 a year from 10 percent to 50 percent in a few short years. The event was moderated by Kavitha Cardoza, Special Correspondent for WAMU. The panel included Kim R. Ford, Dean of Development and Lifelong Learning, University of the District of Columbia; Allison R. Kokkoros, Executive Vice President, Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School; Lecester Johnson, Executive Director, Academy of Hope; and Terry Salinger, Institute Fellow, American Institutes for Research.

Cardoza opened the panel by noting that the high school dropout rate has been halved since the 1950s. Yet today, there are still 40 million adults who do not have a high school diploma; 60,000 of them reside in the District of Columbia. The District has pioneered the concept of adult charter schools, centers of education that strive to provide adults with the assistance they need to pass the General Education Development test (GED). Outside of the District’s 11 schools, two in Minneapolis, Minnesota and one in Austin, Texas are under consideration. No other programs like these exist in the country.

Salinger noted that those adults without a high school diploma are underprepared for today’s job market, lacking necessary and fundamental skill sets. “The federal government recognizes adult learners’ needs,” she said. “But PreK–12 education always takes center stage. Federal and local funding for adult education is usually slim, often less than $1,000 per learner per year for nonprofit programs—maybe one-tenth of what is spent per student per year in many districts.” The adult charter schools in the District only have 8,000 slots available.

“There are challenges with being an adult charter school,” said Kokkoros. “The autonomy and stability from the charter also comes with a high level of accountability. Thirty percent of schools have had their charter revoked for failing to live up to the defined goals by charter compliance laws.” Johnson agreed, having recently seen the Academy of Hope transform from a nonprofit organization to a fully funded charter school in the District.

Opportunity exists in efforts to work alongside the charter schools. The District of Columbia Community College parallels their efforts to help adult graduates move into a streamlined career pathway. “With 70 percent of jobs in the District needing at least a high school diploma, getting that credential is critical,” said Ford. “We want to show students that the GED isn’t the endgame, however; they can also be successful in college.” DCCC offers integrated curriculum that helps students earn college credit while still attending a charter school.

The concern at the moment is the recent overhaul of the GED test. Updated and implemented in January of this year, the test takes full advantage of today’s technology and media. Unfortunately, many of the adult learners are coming to the test with little familiarity with the skills necessary to take the test. “While it’s not as difficult as we feared,” says Johnson, “the allotted amount of time is very tight. Test takers need to be brought up to speed on computer and English proficiencies as well as general knowledge, and that comprehension adds time and stress to the student.”

“To make the GED a credential that really opens doors makes excellent sense in a job market with a huge and growing premium on analytical, computer, and reading skills,” said Salinger. “But the endgame of adult education—a better job, a passport to college—also requires an accommodating learning environment and other practical social supports.”

Johnson indicated that other avenues to the GED are considered around the country, and that the DC schools do try to accommodate programs such as the National External Diploma Program (NEDP). “What we’re really seeing is that the Common Core discussion is forcing educators to examine what the high school diploma means today,” she said.

Salinger noted that with the District’s adult charter school program being unique in the country, opportunities exist for studies and research on their outcomes and programs. Such research can be used to help strengthen policies to bring new schools and funding opportunities to other states. “Adult charter schools have the funds needed to provide innovative instruction and the ‘wrap-around’ social support services that many adult learners need to cope,” she said. “A deep evaluation of the District’s charter programs would serve as a solid blueprint for policymakers to bring positive educational change to overaged and undercredentialed adults across the country.”


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