About the Open Door Collective The Open Door Collective (ODC) http://www.opendoorcollective.org/ is dedicated to reshaping U.S. society to have dramatically less poverty and economic inequality and more civic engagement and participation in all our society has to offer. ODC is made up of professionals working in adult basic skills, social services and poverty reduction, who believe that adult basic skills and lifelong learning programs can open doors of opportunity to healthier, more prosperous and more satisfying lives. ODC members have expertise in connecting adult basic skills to healthcare, employment and training, corrections and family and social services. We advocate including adult basic skills, including English language acquisition, basic literacy, numeracy, high school equivalency, college readiness and technology skills as an integral part of a larger agenda of reducing poverty and income inequality, broadening social participation, and moving us closer to the kind of society in which we all want to live.
Our Purpose In today’s climate of uncertainty, the US needs a collaboration among adult educators, workforce boards, social service agencies and community-based organizations that supports the linguistic, economic and civic integration of refugees and immigrants. The Network for Integrating New Americans (NINA) framework suggests that such collaboration can create a powerful synergy, amplifying the reach of all organizations involved (Kallenbach, Lee, Downs-Karkos, Brennan & Nash, 2013). Such collaboration is especially important at a time when immigrants and refugees from some parts of the world are depicted as outsiders to be feared, rather than as neighbors making important social and economic contributions to society. This collaboration should make the case that refugees and immigrants are not only survivors looking for assistance but also individuals deserving equitable access to resources. This paper makes the case that an investment in the education of immigrants and refugees strengthens individual families, their communities, and the nation as a whole (Spence 2010).
The Vital Need for Immigrant and Refugee Education Though increasingly more linguistically diverse, the US is predominantly an English monolingual country. English proficiency, the ability to express oneself and understand others, is a key factor in immigrant integration, economic success, and full civic participation (National Academy of Sciences, 2015; McHugh and Morawski, 2016), English proficiency helps immigrants and refugees exercise their rights, secure jobs that pay a living wage, and fully support the education of their children. These are not special privileges but opportunities universally recognized as important for full participation in our society.
Federal and state funded English Language Acquisition (ELA) programs, as part of the Adult Basic Education (ABE) system in the US, support the development of English proficiency and provide opportunities for learners’ civic education about the American values that are shared and grounded in the political history of the US, helping them adjust to a new society. Additionally, ABE/ELA programs can contextualize instruction in a manner that helps learners gain language proficiency and communications skills to advocate for themselves and others on key issues, such as housing, wage theft, and workplace safety. By directly addressing these concerns, rather than simply making referrals to partnering programs, ABE/ELL programs can ease the burden on resettlement and integration agencies.
Linguistic integration, possessing language proficiency required to participate in one’s community, is a critical component of the resettlement journey (Kallenbach, Lee, & Downs-Karkos, Brennan & Nash, 2013). Funding the education of newcomers helps speed this process and thus lessens the duration and negative impact of resettlement. Sustained, high quality, and timely language instruction of adequate intensity helps equip refugees and immigrants with the linguistic resources that mitigate the potential for poverty caused by displacement – poverty that threatens to become intergenerational.
Issues with Current Adult Education Policy Despite the pressing need for educational services, the current adult basic skills education system is limiting these opportunities for the most vulnerable groups, individuals with limited English and low levels of education in their home countries. Nearly every state reports a waiting list (McLendon, Jones, and Rosin, 2011); this is particularly concerning for programs that serve the lowest level English language learners, which includes newly arrived refugees and mothers of young children who often need immediate access and need to participate for a longer period of time before they can achieve even intermediate levels of proficiency. Our current system of offering only a limited amount of support for resettlement (including learning English) means that many adults who endured hardship, civil strife, and starvation before coming to the US will face difficulties in moving beyond the entry level jobs they need to take to feed their families.
At the federal level, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which provides support for adult basic skills education (including English language classes), focuses on work. While prioritizing career pathways in ABE/ELA recognizes that adults need access to jobs that can sustain a family, the performance-based accountability measures required by WIOA tempt programs to first support easy-to-serve populations, those who have higher skills and are more English proficient, because they can more easily transition to work or higher education. Nearly 50% of learners in the system receive English language education services, yet measures of program success under WIOA do not provide incentives for serving vulnerable, but harder to serve, populations who take longer to reach the level of language proficiency required to benefit from job skills training and career pathways programming (McHugh, 2017).
Additionally, current WIOA provisions regarding the use of English Literacy and Civics Instruction (EL/CI) funds provide a disincentive for serving beginning level learners. In the past, lower level learners had access to programs that helped them understand the basics of US history and government and to prepare for the citizenship test. Yet, under WIOA, programs receiving targeted funds under the EL/CI provision are expected to provide ESL and civics in combination with services that integrate language education with job skills training (Uvin, 2016), a requirement that programs serving beginning level English learners find difficult to meet. This provision tempts programs to give priority to higher skilled adults who have at least intermediate levels of proficiency and, therefore, are more likely to transition to job skills training.
Less English proficient immigrants and refugees are not the only group adversely affected by the one size fits all approach that predominates in the current system (Jacoby, 2015; Wrigley, 2008). For those newcomers who are fortunate enough to have received advanced education in their home country, the current system limits their opportunities to receive the kind of English instruction (e.g., English for Professionals) that would accelerate their transition to postsecondary education (Bergson-Shilcock, 2015) or enable them to become entrepreneurs. Further, learner goals beyond occupational objectives are ignored. For example, parents need to learn enough English to support the education of their children, navigate a complex educational system, and advocate for their children’s success. Under WIOA performance measures, programs with these goals are not rewarded for the progress their students make in acquiring English, becoming more engaged in communities and schools, and supporting the linguistic and academic progress of their children.
Supporting the Linguistic, Economic and Civic Integration of Refugees and Immigrants Collaborative support among agencies that serve English language learners in different ways could produce a holistic resettlement and integration experience for both newcomers and immigrants who have been here for a while. All collaborating agencies, working in closer alignment and explicitly advocating for each other’s work, could build on shared goals, including outreach and education, direct service and ongoing policy and legislative action that results in quality programming to support English language learning. The work of all of these agencies is critical to the integration process (Wrigley, 2012). Careful coordination would enable adult learners to make the most of the limited benefits and support that resettlement, integration, social service, and workforce development agencies can provide. ABE/ELA programs already do much to support the work of such agencies, referring learners, and scaffolding their experience by helping develop the language proficiency required to make the most of services.
As we are learning to work together, we ask for support in advocacy for ABE policy change at the federal, state, and local levels. To help refugees and immigrants fully integrate into their communities, the US needs a different type of programming. We put forth the following recommendations to support educational reform leading to linguistic, economic and civic integration of refugees and immigrants.
Recommendation One: Open Access to Education A collaboration among agencies should advocate for maintaining and extending programs that offer work authorization for immigrant youth who came to the US as children (known as DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), including provisions that allow for participation in English language education and job training programs (Unruh, Feb. 2015). At a time when, according to a CNN poll, most Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented adults who speak English, funding should be available for ELA programs for adults who may need to meet legalization requirements in order to stay in the US (Wrigley, 2015).
Recommendation Two: Support Access to Diverse and Relevant Curricula Refugees and immigrants should be provided with focused language acquisition services that are flexible and tailored to meet individual learners’ needs. Educational providers should work with learners and other collaborating agencies to develop contextualized and relevant curriculum that addresses students’ goals in the areas of employment, citizenship, their role as parents, English for health purposes, and basic rights. Students need to be prepared to advocate for themselves, their families and their communities in multiple contexts. Taking action for educational, economic and legal justice should be part of the curriculum, with direction provided by the learners themselves.
Recommendation Three: Increase Funding for Family Literacy Programs Lack of investment in parents, particularly women, creates the potential for poverty caused by relocation to develop into intergenerational poverty. A high percentage of refugees are women and children. In 2015, nearly half of the 69,920 admitted refugees to the US were children and 33335 were women, 35% of the women were principal applicants (Table 15. Refugee arrivals by relationship to principal applicant and sex, age, and marital status: Fiscal year 2015, 2016). However, funding for family literacy has been gutted, severely limiting access to adult education for mothers of young children who need access to English language services (Park, McHugh, & Katsiaficas, 2016). Funding for programs that support immigrant and refugee parents and families should be included in both federal and state funded programs.
Recommendation Four: Integrating Foundational English Classes with Workforce Training WIOA includes both workforce development training services funded through the Department of Labor (Title I) and Adult Basic Education services, including English language acquisition (Title II). In offering guidance to the field, WIOA suggests that in all Title I adult funded services, priority of service be given to “basic skills deficient” adults, which includes English learners. WIOA also prohibits exclusion from services based on race and national origin. Under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), the legislation that defined ABE programming before WIOA, very little Title 1 funding was spent on training immigrants; only 0.5% of participants in Title I training services were individuals with limited proficiency in English (McHugh, 2017). To provide more equitable access, the current practice stemming from past policy implementation established in the WIA era of referring “limited English proficient” immigrants and refugees to general English classes should be replaced with Title I funded programs that integrate English instruction with job skills training, rather than expecting English learners to go through a sequential program of “English first, then training.” Career focused on-ramps should be created for individuals whose lack of English puts them into the “skills deficient” category.
A Call for Unified Advocacy Some of the recommendations above will require successfully challenging current public discourse about immigrants and refugees that sees them as a drain on resources rather than as contributors to society. Indeed, advocating for non-discriminatory policies is especially important at a time when the rhetoric and actions of our highest ranking public officials and strident enforcement of immigration law has had the effect of creating a climate of fear in many refugee and immigrant communities. ABE professionals know that the demands on the time of most adult educators (most of whom are part time) leaves little time for advocacy efforts, which makes this work seem daunting. However, adult educators can join allies in collaborating agencies to form a chorus of voices that make the case for supporting refugees and immigrants as New Americans.
In the US, a great many organizations “touch” immigrants and refugees and increasing collaborations are in place, many in response to WIOA requirements. However, we lack a large-scale collaborative effort to advocate for access to language services that are of sufficient quality and intensity to help adults with limited English proficiency meet the demands of, and thrive in, a modern society. Adult educators, advocacy groups, resettlement agencies, social services and immigrant serving CBOs need to work together to assure equitable access to programs and fair distribution of funds for refugees and immigrants. Such collaboration can help us find common ground and meet a common goal: linguistic, economic and social integration that benefits newcomers while at the same time strengthening communities. By uniting in support of the integration of immigrant communities, we can succeed in our efforts to mitigate poverty more generally and change the discourse around refugees and immigrants in the United States.
Authors Jen Vanek, University of Minnesota/Independent Consultant Heide Wrigley, LiteracyWork International Erik Jacobson, The New Jersey Association for Lifelong Learning Janet Isserlis, RI Adult Education Professional Development Center
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