Beyond Neoliberalism in Adult Literacy Education: Review of the New Special Issue of ProLiteracy’s Research Journal
Posted by Jessica Gilmour on April 23, 2020 in categoryFacts & ResearchcategoryAdvocacy

Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education (Ret.) shared some insightful thoughts on the new special issue of Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy, guest edited by Stephen Reder, in “Beyond Neoliberalism in Adult Literacy Education.” Sticht’s article is highlighted below.

Beyond Neoliberalism in Adult Literacy Education


Concerns about how to go about evaluating the outcomes of adult literacy education programs lead the roster of articles in ProLiteracy’s most recent biannual publication, “Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy.” This latest issue is guest edited by Stephen Reder, and focuses on problems in assessing adult literacy skills, the evaluation of adult basic skills programs, and the nature of and outcomes of adult literacy education.

Self-Reports by Learners vs “Objective” Data in Program Evaluation

In the first article, co-authored by J. D. Carpentieri, David Mallows, and José Pedro Amorim, questions are raised about the credibility of methods widely used to evaluate adult basic skills programs, with a focus on the differences arising from evaluations using self-reports by adult learners of their perceived benefits of program participation in contrast to the use of post-program measures of employment and earnings gains. They express the need for more longitudinal studies of the effects of program participation, citing Reder’s Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) which indicated that learning outcomes of adult basic education programs may take years to show up using standardized tests in pre/post program skills testing.

I found the discussion of the use of self-reports in evaluating adult basic skills programs of special interest in light of earlier work in which I commented on the large differences between what national assessments of adult literacy skills using standardized testing reported as a national adult literacy problem, and what adults themselves thought about their basic skills (Sticht, 2004). I noted that in 1992 standardized test scores led the U.S. Department of Education to report that 90 million adults were deficient in literacy while 93 percent of the tested adults reported that they read “well” or “very well.”

Forum: Broadening the Lens on Adult Literacy Education Outcomes

The three articles in this Forum section concern what the field of adult literacy education should be about. Reder kicks off the discussion with an argument for lifelong and life-wide adult education. He argues that by the 1980s “Neoliberalism narrowed the purpose of adult education to increasing human capital as measured by increases in educational attainment and standardized literacy and numeracy test scores.”

This argument is consistent with my historical review of adult education (Sticht, 2002) in which I identified four themes that reveal critical social forces involved in the formation of the Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) in the United States. 

One of these themes I labeled Liberal education versus human resources development” and went on to discuss the conflict between those individuals and organizations favoring a national adult education system focused on broad, liberal education for all adults and those favoring a “human resources development” point of view, seeking education for the least well-educated adults to enable them to contribute to the security and economic productivity of the nation.

The latter is the “neoliberalism” point of view Reder identifies as the ideological foundation for contemporary policy and practice of adult basic skills education in the U.S. and which he argues should be supplanted by or at least broadened in adult literacy education through transformative ideas of lifelong and life-wide education.

I was particularly pleased to see Reder call for measures of the effects of adult literacy education on the children of the adults, “Such a transgenerational impact has often been suggested for adult literacy programs, whereby programs positively affect the educational and literacy outcomes of the adult students’ young children (Sticht & Armstrong, 1994).”

The two articles responding to Reder’s argument, one by Judy Mortrude of World Education and the other by Ira Yankwitt, of New York City’s Literacy Assistance Center, both agree with Reder’s call for a more broadly construed adult literacy education system that goes beyond neoliberal economic considerations in assessing important outcomes of adult education.

Mortrude calls for going beyond test scores and educational credentials as outcomes for adult basic skills education and for putting “…the focus on adult education as a solution to tangible community problems, e.g.: Latinx injuries and deaths on construction sites; aging community members in need of home care; historic, systemic trauma impacting individuals and community systems. There is so much to be learned from this way of reframing adult education’s impact.” This approach to program evaluation is clearly in line with Reder’s idea of “life-wide” adult education.

Ira Yankwitt wraps up his discussion of Reder’s ideas for lifelong and life-wide adult literacy education with the conclusion that, “I am inspired by and deeply committed to Reder’s vision of a lifelong and life-wide framework for adult literacy education, one that moves beyond the neoliberal paradigm and embraces the diverse goals and full humanity of all of our students and their communities. And I believe that it is only by building alliances, working in solidarity, and engaging in intersectional movement building with grassroots racial, social, and economic justice organizations that the field of adult literacy can truly achieve this vision.”


Given the contemporary times of high unemployment, shuttered businesses, and group and individual isolationism for health purposes, I suspect it is unlikely that an accommodation of neoliberalism with this expanded liberal vision of lifelong and life-wide adult education will be rapidly forthcoming, if at all. And especially not with funding from government sources which remain deeply rooted in the ideology of human capital development for national security and economic productivity gains. But it is a vision worth pursuing in the Adult Education and Literacy System of the United States.





ProLiteracy. (2020). Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy.” Volume 2, Issue 1. (Articles by Carpentieri, Mallows, Amorim, Reder, Mortrude & Yankwitt are included in this journal issue) 

Sticht, T. & Armstrong, W. (1994). Adult literacy in the United States: A Compendium of Quantitative Data and Interpretive Comments. (Available online using a Google search)


Sticht, T. (2002). The Rise of the Adult Education and Literacy System of the United States: 1600-2000, in J. Comings, B. Garner and C. Smith (eds.) Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, vol. 3, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp.10-43.

Sticht, T. (2004). How Well Can U.S. Adults Read? Government-Centered vs. Learner-Centered Estimates. In: K. Goodman, P. Shannon, Y. Goodman, & R. Rapoport (Eds.). Saving Our Schools. Berkeley, CA: RDR Books.

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