In a society driven by data, technology, and complex systems, numeracy empowers individuals with reasoning strategies and economic skills to move through a digital world with financial, occupational, problem-solving, and technological fluidity.  

Adult education helps develop and enhance numeracy skills for individuals. It’s also a new research space for WestEd in our commitment to supporting high-quality and equitable education from cradle to career.  

In 2021, WestEd’s Carnegie Math Pathways (CMP) and World Education, Inc., received a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES)—embarking on a five-year research partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) to develop a 10-week course and corresponding instructor supports designed to improve adult numeracy and digital literacy among adult learners in the state.  

Together, CMP and their partners in the IES grant developed the Adult Numeracy in the Digital Era (ANDE) project, which is part of the CREATE Adult Skills Network, a national initiative to build knowledge about using technology effectively to support adult learning.  

While the ANDE project draws from the CMP team’s experience in designing impactful learning experiences for postsecondary mathematics learners—and their research and design experience in education technology at the K–12 and postsecondary levels—their team is continuously learning throughout the phases of the project that their prior research approaches in the K–12 and postsecondary levels do not always translate to the adult education space.   

Pathways and their partners’ interactions with adult learners and instructors, and their initial exploratory research into adult numeracy and digital literacy, provided critical insights into ways that the adult education field demands more flexible and creative research and development solutions that account for the realities of adult education.   

The Adult Basic Education Field Differs in Many Ways

The field of adult basic education differs from K–12 and postsecondary education, from the ways that students and instructors participate and the many things they juggle to the course structures, funding, and policy structures.  

Ann Edwards, WestEd’s Director of Mathematics, Director of CMP, and the grant’s Principal Investigator, said her previous experience teaching math to adult learners early in her career gave her some insight into the variation prevalent in the field, and doing this research amplified that.  

“Funding structures and policies between programs and states and between states and the federal government are vastly different than my previous experience in K–12 and postsecondary,” Edwards said. “And arguably, the effects of those kinds of larger structures of policy and programmatic system structures have an even more dramatic impact on the perspectives and practices of teachers and students in adult basic education.”  

WestEd’s Bryan Matlen is the project’s Co-PI in charge of leading research and evaluation. His previous experience includes working on efficacy studies at the postsecondary level. 

Matlen said it’s common for many adult learners to repeat the same course or end up not finishing the course, which means there’s going to be a lot of attrition in an adult education study that a researcher needs to plan for—contributing to the high degree of variability that makes it difficult to know if one’s interventions are a success.  

Although research in the adult education space presents challenges, there are also unique opportunities the research team is finding while working in it.  

Alexis Cherewka is World Education’s Co-PI on the project. She has the most experience on the team in the adult education space, both as a practitioner and a researcher, but is new to studying numeracy and digital literacy.  

“The challenges of the adult education space—the fluidity, the complex lives of adult learners, the high variability between classes and programs—can also make for opportunities,” Cherewka said. “Working with adults in this space provides the chance to apply the principles of adult education in research—the ability to see the educators and adult learners that you work with as co-researchers in a way, trying to solve this problem together of what will support education.” 

Adult Basic Education is Severely Underfunded 

Adult basic education is essential, yet it’s severely underfunded—and there’s a lack of research about it. According to an article in International Review of Education, even though education is recognized and accepted as a human right, funding for adult learning and education has remained insufficient globally for the past 30 years.  

“This work has made visible to me how terribly underfunded and under-resourced this segment of the education sector is, and how crucial it is to American society as our social life is—broadly speaking—the health and well-being of families and communities and our economic well-being as a country,” Edwards said. “There’s a vast population of adults seeking to be more productive and engaged in civic life, and to provide for their family and community.” 

There is So Much to Learn and Potential to Improve the System 

The research team said they see opportunities to explore interdisciplinary collaboration, to design and share creative research approaches, and to help build more visibility for this field that can hopefully draw greater support and resources.  

“It would be great to see more funding and resources put toward this field,” said Kirk Walters, WestEd’s Senior Managing Director of Mathematics and Co-PI focused on the project’s evaluation. “The research space also requires creative thinking because adults are always going to have competing demands.” 

Improving Education for Adult Learners Also Matters for Equity 

Equity in adult education helps address systemic inequalities and reduce socioeconomic disparities. By providing accessible and inclusive learning opportunities, historically marginalized people can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to improve their lives, increase their employability, and participate more fully in society.  

“I’ve always seen adult education as an opportunity to support equity,” Cherewka said. “This is something we can try to do as a society to really increase equity, and to think of adult education as a tool for doing that, to really decrease inequality, and move people into living wages.” 

Cherewka said she thinks that adult education can be a way to think about education as a form of equity over the course of a lifetime, and for a variety of purposes—including work, family, citizenship, and, in the broadest sense, civic engagement.