In “There Are No Hard-to-Serve Learners, Only Ill-Served Ones,” author Erik Jacobson of Montclair State University examines the idea of students being labeled as hard to serve. He questions why certain barriers, like being an ex-offender, being foreign born, or having a disability classify a student as being harder to reach compared to any other learner.
This article is featured in the current issue of our peer-reviewed research journal Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy.
Since it was signed into law, the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) has been the subject of continuing scrutiny. One commonly shared concern is that the evaluation metrics of the Act (e.g., employment, salary, etc.) may incentivize programs to work with learners who will more readily meet expected outcomes (Pickard, 2016). Others suggest this concern is misplaced, pointing to the fact that the Act explicitly notes that the models created for State and program evaluation will be adjusted to recognize the priority given to serving students who face significant barriers (Wilson, 2015). These barriers include low levels of English and/or literacy, disabilities, limited work experience, lack of stable shelter, economic vulnerability and being an ex-offender. Learners who face these barriers are often identified as being part of hard-to-serve populations, both in policy documents and in commentary in the field. However, it is unclear what the term actually means. These populations may face difficult barriers, but why do those barriers make them harder to serve than other students? Why are certain populations singled out in this way? What purpose does it serve to attach a pejorative label to them?
Within the language of WIOA, it often seems like the definition of hard to serve is tautological in nature – that is, it is defined by the hard-to-serve populations it describes. In the WIOA Final Rule, it explains how the evaluation process is intended to account for the nature of the student population served in this way:
the model will increase the performance levels required if a State or local area were to serve lower-than-anticipated percentages of hard-to-serve populations with barriers to employment because it would presumably be easier to serve these individuals. Similarly, performance levels (or targets) would be decreased if a State or local area were to serve a higher-than-anticipated percentage of individuals with barriers, because these individuals are harder to serve. (U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Education, 2016, p. 55866)
In other words, it is more difficult to serve students with barriers that make them hard to serve. This truism does not provide any more clarity on what about those barriers make hard-to-serve learners so different from other learners.
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