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Picking up the Gauntlet for Professional Development

Monday, May 2, 2016  
Posted by: Federico Salas-Isnardi, Co-Director, CABEL
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It is time to have a serious conversation with colleagues around the nation about the type of profession we want adult education to be. The attributes and skills we think characterize an effective adult education and literacy teacher, and the role we believe professional development should have in our efforts to improve the profession and affect outcomes for our students. On September 24, 2015, Acting Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), Johan Uvin, and Gail Spangenberg, President, National Council for Adult Learning (NCAL) co-wrote a blog they titled Throwing Down the Gauntlet for Professional Development in which they ask us to

...rethink and restructure recruitment, training, and program staffing and benefits so that more of the current workforce is motivated to remain in the field and so that young professionals are inspired to enter Adult Education as a respected and fully professional career goal (Uvin & Spangenberg, 2015).

The authors point out that research on teacher effectiveness has shown that while the preK-12 system spends over $18,000 annually on professional development, the results are inconsistent, little improvement can be tied to PD and no one particular approach is guaranteed to shield positive outcomes (The New Teacher Project, 2015). At the same time, the adult education field, where 23% of the workforce is volunteer and 72% of the paid staff nationwide works part-time. The total amount spent on professional development activities is under $1,000 per student (p. 5). The field lacks sufficient data on teacher performance to judge what the attributes and skills of successful adult education teachers are and the available studies show tremendous disparity among states and even among programs within states. Uvin and Spangenberg refer to a previous blog published by the NCAL in August 2015, where experts on professional development agree it is time to figure out what characterizes successful teachers in our field and understand “how they developed their abilities to bring about strong outcomes” (p. 4).

One of OCTAE’s strategies to improve the outcomes for our students is to ensure that all students have access to highly effective teachers and Uvin has argued for the need to identify just what is an effective teacher saying that an effective teacher is not the same as a highly qualified teacher (National Council for Adult Learning, 2015). Having strong investments in model programs and community partnerships is important but it is not enough to impact student outcomes. The improvement of outcomes will come about as a result of the interaction in the classroom between students and effective teachers. Only if teachers have access to quality professional development programs that are supported and promoted by effective leaders that are stable, and in well-paid careers in adult education and literacy, expect to affect the outcomes of our students.

We must come to the table to answer a number of questions about our professional development efforts. Among them, Uvin and Spangenberg argue, we need to identify means to take successful models to scale; we must decide if personalized and job embedded approaches to PD are more effective than systemic models while retaining efficiency. So if we are to engage in this national conversation about teacher effectiveness and professional development, where are we to start? The two leaders set six priorities (pp. 8-12):

  1. Consulting with those who provide the services: we need to hear from AEL teachers and program leaders to understand what motivates to pursue a career in our field;
  2. Defining an effective adult education teacher: we need to understand how the most successful AEL teachers developed their attributes and skills. we must investigate the relationship between these characteristics and student outcomes;
  3. Identifying best practices and approaches in professional development: we must endeavor to identify successful professional development models and adapt them to our particular contexts. Uvin and Spangenberg argue that we need career pathways for teachers just as much as we need them for our adult learners;
  4. Building professional development explicitly into adult education planning: if professional development is to be a central component of a national effort to professionalize the field and affect student outcomes through an emphasis on teacher effectiveness, it has to be explicitly present in all planning efforts, in all operating budgets, and in all economic development plans;
  5. Improving data collection for professional development: the ongoing lack of data on the effectiveness and return-on-investment of professional development efforts impedes progress. It is important to develop longitudinal data systems for adult education and literacy. This will give the field higher visibility and guide state economic development plans;
  6. Developing clearer communications: If the field will renew efforts around professional development models, we must start by agreeing on what we are talking about. What is it we mean by professional development? Only if we agree on a definition can we then entertain questions regarding the types of PD we want to engage in.

OCTAE, the two authors of the blog, and a host of experts writing for NCAL have “thrown down the gauntlet for PD” challenging us to engage in this national conversation; who is going to pick it up? Who is going to come to the table to help the field define effective adult education teachers and identify best practices in PD? The Association of Adult Literacy Professional Developers (AALPD) picked up the gauntlet formally at the annual professional development pre-conference on Sunday, April 10, in Dallas, Texas, the day before the 2016 COABE Conference opened (For information on AALPD’s free membership, visit AALPD had a day devoted to discuss the six priorities involving over 25 professional developers and other AEL professionals interested in PD. A formal written response is soon going to be crafted after gathering input from other stakeholders.

The question is, though, what will other organizations like AAACE do. Are the members of the Commission on Adult Basic Education and Literacy (CABEL) going to be part of this conversation? Are other commissions interested in giving input as to the professional development of colleagues in the Adult Education and Literacy field? As a professional organization, what will be our role should we also decide to pick up the gauntlet?

I invite members to read Uvin & Spangenberg’s blog and share their thoughts with me. If there is enough interest, we can create an informal online group or host a webinar for discussion. Some people may be interested in affecting just one of the priorities while others may want to work on all of them. Although a response is urgent if we want the current administration to start work immediately, the conversation will take months and articulating a cohesive response will require thoughtful input. We must hear from colleagues in different employment contexts to determine just what motivates teachers in our field. We should take every possible opportunity to define teacher effectiveness across the nation, discuss national PD models that help to adopt, adapt, or take to scale. By the time we met in November for our Albuquerque conference, we should be able to discuss the outcome of our deliberations.

The field of adult education has been challenged by national leaders to step up to the plate and pick up the gauntlet for professional development. It is a call to make the professionalization of our field front and center of all our efforts in AEL. Is AAACE and join this national conversation?


National Council for Adult Learning. (2015). Moving PD Closer to the Top. New York: NCAL. Retrieved from (

The New Teacher Project. (2015). The Mirage: Confronting the hard turth about our quest for teacher development. Brooklyn, NY: TNPN. Retrieved from (

Uvin, J., & Spangenberg, G. (2015). Throwing Down the Gauntlet for Professional Development. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education . Retrieved from (

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