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Women’s Education and Economic Opportunity: The Role of Literacy
December 1, 2010

Over seventy advocates and researchers gathered at the historic Charles Sumner School in Washington, DC on December 1 to discuss promising policies and practices that improve women’s education and economic success. The event was co-sponsored by the National Coalition for Literacy and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

This collaboration brought together practitioners and advocates from the adult education field and from women’s issue organizations to “discuss what we know about women’s literacy, what data we have, what we are missing, and how to speak about common issues with common understanding and purpose,” said Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, President of the National Coalition for Literacy.

NCL tweeted photos and updates live from the forum. Check out @NCLAdvocacy for our Twitter snapshot of the day. This article provides an overview of the presentations and a sense of the positive energy at the event.

NCL President, Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, welcomed the attendees and set the stage with a presentation that insisted that literacy is a policy lever. “In all the challenges facing individuals, communities and the country, improved literacy is a big part of the solution. With improved literacy and educational attainment:

  • poverty decreases
  • health and wellness improves
  • employment, productivity, and income rises
  • parental involvement with education improves
  • crime and incarceration rates decrease
  • community volunteerism and civic engagement, including voting, improves.

She continued, saying, “For women, literacy is very personal. Challenges with poverty, educational attainment, economic opportunity, work advancement, and civic engagement cut to the quick of how we value ourselves as women, mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, workers and citizens.

“Consider Edna Barrera who received with Betsy McKay of McDonald’s Corporation the National Coalition for Literacy Leadership Award for the English Under the Arches program this past September. She told her story of how literacy and English attainment offered in this innovative workplace education program reverberated through her self-esteem, her family life, her relationship with her children’s teachers, her work opportunities, and her community.  It is time we recognize, as the international community already does, that to improve the literacy of a woman is to improve the life and conditions of her family, community, and nation.”

Women’s success in transition to postsecondary education was the focus of the first panel. The panelists addressed the role of literacy in women’s successful transition into, through and to completion of postsecondary education.

Kevin Miller, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, shared a fact sheet on literacy indicators for student parents in postsecondary institutions.

Margaret Patterson, Director of Research, GED Testing Service and National Coalition for Literacy Board Member, shared data on women GED takers and passers between 2002 and 2009. Women represent less than half of all U.S. test takers (40%) and passers (43%). In a recent study conducted by GED-TS, Crossing the Bridge , GED passers were followed into postsecondary institutions.  Half of those GED credential holders who enrolled in postsecondary education were women. A remaining challenge is helping those women persist and complete degree programs. [PPT]

Andrea Sáenz, Broad Fellow, Office of Vocational and Adult Education , U.S. Department of Education, discussed the imperative in the country to focus on engaging adult learners in postsecondary education if we are to meet President Obama’s goal of raising our college degree rate by 2020.

Deborah Santiago, Vice President for Policy and Research, Excelencia in Education, discussed the issues that face Latinas, focusing on financial literacy and generation 1.5.  She focused specifically on helping students and families understand how to save for and pay for college and pointed attendees to publications on what works for Latinos. She then spoke eloquently about the challenges of young, native-born Latinos and Latinas who live in Spanish-speaking homes and do not possess adequate academic literacy in either English or Spanish, called generation 1.5 students.

Keynote speaker Jonathan Gueverra, CEO and President, Community College of DC , discussed the nation’s need for a more educated workforce and national pressures on the traditional workforce sectors.  He also shared a story of how literacy and an attitude of lifelong learning of two women impacted their lives, families, and communities. He answered questions about collaborating with public high schools and providing differentiated dual enrollment programs to accelerate young learners as well as how to provide flexible, quick monetary resources for low-income students, especially those who are student-parents. [PPT]

Immigrant women and literacy, especially identifying the barriers for low-income, immigrant women, was the focus of the second panel.

Jane Henrici, Study Director, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, set the stage for the panel by sharing data from a project that looked at the role of faith and English proficiency in Latinas’ lives.

Margie McHugh, Co-Director, National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, Migration Policy Institute, shared a wealth of data about immigrant women and how their literacy and educational attainment level impacts their integration into the community and workplace. In addition, she provided some analysis of the impact that the DREAM Act or other immigration reform might have on women, and on adult ESL programs. [PPT]

Manuela Raposo, Director, Welcome Back Center, Dorcas Place, provided an overview of the national Welcome Back initiative which serves adult certified and licensed students, 78% of whom are women.  In the Rhode Island Center, they are focused on the health care sector, and she shared data on how women are faring in that program, as well as the specific challenges they face in integration into the community and the health care workplace, including: lack of familiarity with the U.S. health system, loss of professional identity, and structural barriers such as existing state certification regulations. In Rhode Island, she has been able to influence regulatory language, but she shared a timeline of how long such a policy change can take. [PPT]

Heide Spruck Wrigley, Senior Researcher, Literacywork International, discussed promising practices for transitioning immigrant women with limited literacy in English and Spanish to work and college.  She focused on the importance of considering learners’ incoming literacy levels and level of educational attainment in program planning in order to accommodate, accelerate, and differentiate program strands. She also shared examples of promising programs that offer dual language instruction and certification, emphasizing that “English is not the only literacy that counts.”[PPT]

The economics of literacy was the focus of the final panel. Panelists discussed how the recession has been devastating to low-skilled women and how can policy changes could help women job-seekers find family-sustaining employment.

Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, Senior Research Analyst, American Institutes for Research; NCL President, opened the panel with a few key indicators. Referencing the Half in Ten campaign, she showed that the Census Bureau poverty data released in 2010 revealed that poverty has risen exponentially in the country, including such sobering statistics as 43.6 million people in the United States lived in poverty in 2009, which translates to

    • 20% of children
    • 30% of female-headed households
    • 25%+ of African Americans
    • 25%+ of Latinos

From a report by IWPR, The Great Recession of 2007-Present, it is clear that even while women are holding their own in employment numbers, families are falling behind:

    • Overall unemployment is hovering close to 10%
    • Women’s unemployment is 8.8% at end of 2009
    • More women are head of households
    • Yet women’s wages are traditionally lower than men’s.

“The issues of poverty and literacy are inescapably entwined and deeply embedded,” she said. [PPT]

Mev Miller, Director, WE LEARN, presented an overview of the WE LEARN network of women literacy learners, which she called the “heart work” of literacy. She then shared a selection of women’s written reflections, shedding light on how women perceive the multiple meanings of literacy in their complex lives.[PPT]

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Law and Social Policy, provided an overview of the policies that govern TANF, Temporary Aid for Needy Families. Of the 8.8 million families who are eligible in the United States, only 1.9 million are receiving such benefits now, and only 19% of those recipients are receiving education and training. She provided some leverage points of how to work with more collaboratively with TANF offices to include more women in education and training opportunities.[PPT]

Gloria Cross-Mwase, Program Director, Jobs for the Future, rounded up the day with a rousing presentation that provided plenty of hope and optimism around promising practices and programs for accelerating women’s chances of success toward a family-supporting wage job, such as the Breaking Through initiative. She closed with how to move all that attendees and presenters of the day had discussed and take that to advocacy on legislation such as the workforce investment act and more investments in robust evaluations that can provide data on how programs are successfully serving learners. [PPT]

Formal proceedings from the day as well as a policy brief by NCL and IWPR are forthcoming.


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