Author(s): Don Soifer
Posted in: Education

Issue Brief

Most of the 11 million English learners living in the United States are adults. Their ability to learn English has a major impact on their economic future, but also on that of their families and the communities and regions where they live.

It has been estimated that poor English skills cost the U.S. economy $65 billion a year in lost wages. Census figures have shown that a growing number of American non-English speakers live in linguistically-isolated households where no adults speak English well. Linguistic isolation is widely associated with lower earnings, especially in Latino communities.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office identified 25 different federal Education, Labor and Health and Human Services programs that fund adult English language learning. But the absence of any mechanisms to coordinate programs or share information creates programmatic redundancy and limits their effectiveness. The GAO report cited numerous examples where programs, including different grantees under the same program, were rendered less effective by a lack of information about what others were doing.

The largest federal funding stream, the Adult Education State Grant Program, was allocated $564 million under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 2007. It served 1.1 million adult English learners, most with only beginning English skills. But the GAO report found results to be lacking: only 38.9 percent of participants increased their English skills by a level of achievement (the program uses a six-level system to measure mastery of English skills). Only 2 of the 25 federal programs that fund adult English instruction programs collect any data on their effectiveness.

Increasingly, education programs that integrate English instruction with occupational programs are becoming popular, with the support of private funding initiatives like the Joyce Foundation’s Shifting Gears project. Innovative public charter adult education schools, like the District of Columbia’s Carlos Rosario International, have also demonstrated success providing skills from basic English literacy to training for professional certifications.

In some states, like Florida, Georgia and New Jersey, qualified employers get financial incentives and state tax credits for training that includes English instruction. Community colleges, nonprofits and faith-based organizations frequently offer free or low-cost English lessons for adults, receiving Department of Labor or WIA funding.

Recent Congressional proposals by Senators Lamar Alexander and Kirsten Gillibrand and Representatives Mike Honda and Yvette Clarke, would inject new funding for adult English language skills, in part by offering 20 percent tax credits to employers who offer English education programs to full-time employees. They would also target new WIA dollars for teaching American history and civics to immigrant communities, an important step forward for these programs. Such initiatives have strong potential to help reduce the economic costs of poor English skills — but only if they can be shown to measurably improve the poor results and lack of coordination prevalent in existing programs.