English Language Learning:

Diverse Federal and State Efforts to Support Adult English Language Learning Could Benefit from More Coordination

GAO-09-575: Published: Jul 29, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2009.

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Millions of adults in the U.S. report that they speak limited English, and English language ability appears linked to multiple dimensions of adult life, such as civic participation and workforce participation and mobility. GAO examined (1) the trends in the need for and enrollment in federally funded adult English language programs, (2) the nature of federal support for adult English language learning, (3) ways in which states and local public providers have supported English language programs for adults, and (4) federal agencies' plans for research to identify effective approaches to adult English language learning. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed Census and enrollment data and conducted interviews with federal officials within the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Labor and the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL); semistructured telephone interviews with state adult education officials in 12 states; site visits to 4 states; and reviews of relevant laws and literature.

The number of adults who speak English less than very well grew by 21.8 percent between 2000 and 2007, to roughly 22 million. The Adult Education State Grant Program, the key federal program for adult English language instruction, reported enrollment of about 1.1 million English language learners in 2007--which had remained relatively stable since 2000. However, most state adult education grantees we contacted reported increased demand. Also, there are many federal programs that allow for adult English language instruction for which national enrollment data are not collected. Federal support is dispersed across diverse programs in Education, HHS, and Labor that allow for English language learning in pursuit of other goals and do not collect data on participation in English language learning or the amount of federal funding that supports it. The agencies have undertaken initiatives and provided technical assistance. However, while there has been some collaboration among federal offices on behalf of English language learning, there is no ongoing mechanism to share information on resources or strategies to expand and capitalize on the agencies' individual efforts. States GAO contacted generally did not distinguish funding for English language learning from the other components of adult education, but they did vary greatly in the state matching funds contributed to their programs. GAO found states and local providers collaborating with other federal- and state-funded programs that serve populations likely to need this help. Yet such ef-forts to coordinate were not universal, and some local providers said they did not know how to access additional instructional or financial resources. States and local providers also supported English language learning in various ways. Education had one research study under way to test the effectiveness of an approach to adult English language learning, and Education and Labor had some ongoing work related to adult English language learners. Education officials said that there had been little research on what approaches are effective for adult English language learning, and noted that federal funds for rigorous research are limited. However, while agencies cited efforts to collaborate, they had not coordinated research planning across agencies to leverage research resources for adult English language learning.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On January 12, 2010, representatives of the Departments of Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and the National Institute for Literacy held an interagency working group meeting on English language learning. At this meeting, the agencies agreed to a strategy for routinely and systematically sharing information on the agencies' initiatives and efforts to be disseminated to help improve the effectiveness of state and local service provision. Specifically, the agencies developed a framework document for the agencies to populate on a routine basis; and established a system for routine monthly communication between the agencies on any updates and changes to the framework. The agencies have begun to use this framework and provide monthly updates in order to share information on each agency's activities related to English language learning.

    Recommendation: To ensure that federal programs, states, and local providers are able to optimize resources and knowledge in providing adult English language instruction, the Secretary of Education should work with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, and other agencies as appropriate to develop a coordinated approach for routinely and systematically sharing information that can assist federal programs, states, and local providers in achieving efficient service provision. Such coordination may include the following activities: (1) developing interagency agreements for sharing information on resources that states and local programs may leverage for adult English language learning, (2) devising a plan for routinely sharing information on available technical assistance, (3) reviewing the extent to which federal guidance assists local providers in leveraging resources, (4) meeting regularly to discuss efforts under way in each agency and to consider potential for joint initiatives, or (5) establishing clear time frames for the accomplishment of joint objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Representatives of the Departments of Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and the National Institute for Literacy established an interagency working group meeting on English language learning to share any research sponsored or identified by the agencies using a framework document. The agencies committed to update each other on proposed research in order to add to the body of information in the field of English language learning and spur additional research in the field. Since then, the agencies have coordinated research projects through this framework. For example, Education is coordinating with its federal partners on research to identify strategies to better support immigrant integration, including English language learning, such as supports for immigrant professionals.

    Recommendation: To ensure the most efficient use of available research resources and to inform practitioners and other stakeholders in the area of adult English language instruction, the Secretary of Education should work with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, and the National Institute for Literacy to implement a coordinated strategy for planning and conducting research on effective approaches to providing adult English language instruction and disseminating the research results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

 

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