May 16, 1996
University Gazette


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National Adult Literacy Center Established at Education School

The Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) has been awarded a new $12.5 million federal grant to establish a national research and development center for improving adult learning and literacy. The grant will support the creation of the National Adult Literacy Center at HGSE, a collaborative effort between HGSE and World Education, a nonprofit economic and social development organization with expertise in programs for adult literacy.

"Adults with limited literacy skills pay harsh penalties as citizens, parents, and workers," said HGSE Dean Jerome T. Murphy. "A lack of basic skills can keep people from even entry-level employment. By bringing together an ambitious program of scholarship with a focused, practical action agenda, the Adult Literacy Center will offer immediate assistance to educational programs that serve adults. We are delighted to be part of the solution to one of the nation's most urgent problems."

Recent studies, including the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), have underscored the urgent need to improve adult literacy in the United States. The NALS found that 21 percent of adult Americans, approximately 40 million people, have extremely limited reading, writing, and computational skills, and another 27 percent, almost 50 million people, have marginal skills and may have difficulty for example, understanding a simple appliance warranty. "Most U.S. adults could benefit from more education. Some need to improve literacy skills or study for a high school diploma. Others need to learn how to use a computer or acquire new job skills," said John Comings, an international expert in adult education who will head the new center. "This new center will conduct research and examine successful programs in order to improve all adult learning and literacy efforts."

The new center will be a collaborative effort between HGSE and World Education. Based in Boston, World Education has programs serving educationally disadvantaged people in Asia, Africa, and the United States. With funding from the Massachusetts Department of Education, World Education provides technical assistance to all adult literacy, English as a second language, and GED programs in the Commonwealth.

"World Education has been helping adult education programs improve their services for more than 45 years," said Joel Lamstein, president of World Education. "Our involvement ensures that the voice of practitioners and adult learners will be heard and that the center's research will have a direct and immediate impact on teaching and learning."

The center will convene a national leadership group composed of adult learners, practitioners, administrators, scholars, and policymakers to build its agenda. Using a consensus process and working collaboratively with a larger group via an electronic network, the leadership group will build the center's research agenda. The center will disseminate its work through electronic and paper newsletters and research bulletins. The center plans to establish at least three collaborations with institutions in other regions of the country. Its first collaboration is with the Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee; other regional partners will be located in the West and Midwest.

Research Agenda

The crux of the center's work will be researching critical questions about the effective teaching of adult literacy skills. The researchers have identified four broad areas for their inquiries and created specific projects within each area for the first phase of research. Areas of inquiry were selected because of their potential to improve the methods of teaching adult literacy skills. As the work progresses, the center expects to add to this initial list.

* Motivation of Adult Learners

HGSE professors John Willett and Richard Murnane will examine the motivations of adult learners in GED (General Educational Development) programs. Robert Kegan, Lecturer at HGSE, will examine factors in adult development. Center director John Comings will lead a multi-phase study of why adults persist in a learning program.

* Classroom Practice

Using the NALS data, John Strucker, a 1995 HGSE graduate, will test theoretical propositions about adult reading difficulties. HGSE Project Zero Research Associate Julie Viens and Silja Kallenbach, coordinator of the New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education, will examine the relevance of Multiple Intelligences theory to adult learning and literacy.

* Staff Development

Christine Smith, senior program officer at World Education, will investigate which approaches to staff development have the greatest impact on educators. Additional work will review current and best practices in professional development throughout the country.

* Assessment of Outcomes

Juliet Merrifield, director of the Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee, and Professor Hal Beder of Rutgers University will collaborate on an assessment study to help build an overall framework for defining goals and objectives. Center director Comings will oversee a longitudinal study on adult learner behavior and change that will examine learner motivation, classroom practices, and the effect that adult basic education has on learner's lives. HGSE Associate Professor Victoria Purcell-Gates will examine how adults acquire everyday literacy skills outside the classroom. Rima Rudd, lecturer on health education at the Harvard School of Public Health, will study the links between health and literacy.

The Adult Literacy Center is one of seven national centers supported by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Education Research and Improvement. HGSE is also a collaborator in the national center, which is dedicated to increasing the effectiveness of state and local education reform efforts. The six other centers address young children's development and learning, student learning and achievement, student assessment and educational accountability, the needs of a diverse student population, and improving postsecondary education.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College