Six educators in varying stages of retirement: retired, just retired or still a few years gathered at two locations in May and June to discuss the state of adult education in New York City. They longed for yesterday, agonized about current affairs and offered suggestions for making the Organization of Adult and Career Education (OACE) true to its mission. Four of the teachers preferred to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.
OACE provides free courses to adults 21 and older lacking a high school diploma. While taking courses for a diploma, students can also learn a skill. According to a flyer, the Adult Learning Center, located at 475 Nostrand Avenue between Macon and Halsey Streets, offers Computer Literacy, Digital Technology, Microsoft Office A+ Certification, Network+, ESL.
Looking back, teacher Stephanie Mnere found a thriving program in 1976–a student-centered school culture, respectful of teachers whose recommendations for materials and interventions were welcomed. “There was a time when the needs of the adult students were foremost not the needs of the program. Now we use the students to help our program,” says another teacher.
All agreed with one educator who arrived to OACE fourteen years ago. She found administrators recognized the difference between adult education and K-12 education, conducted workshops addressing the adult learner and purchased reading materials respectful of the adult learner.
Declining Enrollment. About three years ago, they noted an abrupt shift in how business in the program citywide is run. According to one teacher an assistant principal told staff, students “only need one gain per term, so we hold them back in order to keep them longer.” The longer students are in the program, the more funding. However, this practice resulted in the opposite effect. More ambitious students left OACE for other high school equivalency (HSE) programs which did delay them from taking exams. In addition, new immigration policies have also contributed to declining enrollment,” noted Kim. “I know my students well, including which ones are undocumented.”
Lack of Adult Education Expertise. Now, according to Kim Walker, with over twenty years’ experience, adult education as a discipline is not recognized nor is the expertise of the experienced adult education teacher. She maintains that supervisors with no adult education experience have evaluated her lessons.
Of all the adult education programs in the state, New York City serves the largest number of students with Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens leading the pack.
Overemphasis on Testing. Since adult education is funded based on a student’s signs of progress as measured by the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), these teachers assert getting funding has become the priority at the expense of educating the whole student as they had been trained to do for decades and professional respect for the knowledge and skills veteran teachers has diminished. “The new name of our school should be the TABE factory,” says Mnere. Walker maintains while she was waiting for a student to return to finish a test, a score for that student was posted. “How could she have a score if she never completed the test?”
If Mayor de Blasio is searching for how to improve adult education, these teachers say he does not have to look far. They recommend he:
- Create a collaborative environment respective of staff and students.
- Hire administrators with at least 5 years of experience teaching adult learners.
- Allow teachers to invite an objective 3rd party into the observation process. (No one should rate a teacher if their livelihood depends on issuing U-ratings.)
- Include teacher-collected data in the data-based decision-making, not just testing data.
- Reduce the emphasis on testing and increase emphasis on student.
These teachers fear they are witnessing another example of the death of public education. Enrollment levels have declined. At least one charter school has swallowed up most of the classrooms at a Manhattan site. “This is a system-wide problem,” says one staff member.
Dining outdoors and conversing amongst themselves, above the noise of car horns, EMT sirens, children playing, one group of teachers wished they could make their voices heard by the DOE as clearly as they heard each other that Monday evening.