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Sondra Stein: A Lifetime in Literacy

Sondra Stein
"Because we were formed by the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, I think my generation began in adult education with a vision of empowerment—of giving adult learners the tools they need to improve their lives."

Throughout nearly 35 years of serving adult learners as a teacher, policy maker, and administrator, Sondra Stein has been motivated by a group of women she hasn't seen in nearly as many years. She calls them her "touchstone."

For four years early in her career, Stein was director of WEAVE (Women's Educational and Vocational Enrichment), a 16-week, total immersion adult education program in Boston, MA, designed to help women make the transition from drug treatment or welfare to economic self- sufficiency. During that time, some 300 women completed the program, and Stein said they taught her every bit as much as she taught them. As she crafted programs and policies during her career, Stein always thought of these women and asked herself: What would these women need to get the skills and knowledge to succeed? What would work for them?

As a young adult, Stein, like virtually every other young adult, hadn't yet reached the point of trying to figure out what would work for others. She was trying to figure out what career would work for her. For college-educated women in the 1960s, there were only three career options: teacher, nurse, or social worker.

"I was always planning on being a teacher," Stein recalls. "That was my choice. I started thinking I was going to be a public school teacher, and I earned my teaching certification. I was going to teach junior high school, but during my student teaching I learned that I was going to have difficulty dealing with how schools were structured, so I went on to get a doctorate in English. I thought I would teach at a university.

"While I was in graduate school in St Louis, Missouri I had a good friend, Sylvia, who was a social worker. One day she mentioned to me that there were a number of women on her case load who didn't have high school diplomas. She asked if the university might have some resources to help these women get their GEDs. I told her I didn't know anything about the GED, but I would be glad to help."

This was in 1973. By then Stein was the coordinator of the Women's Studies program at Washington University, so she reached out to other graduate students and faculty from the women's studies coordinating committee who she thought might be interested.

"I think there were three of us who met with a group of about seven women on Sylvia's caseload that first time," Stein said. "My socks were knocked off. I was blown away by how smart these women were, how really ready they were to change their lives. I couldn't believe that these women didn't have the education they needed. I thought it was almost criminal. This was something I really wanted to do—to make a difference. But I didn't know how I was going to do it.

"We started a school to help women develop the skills they needed. We were doing this in our spare time in addition to teaching or working on our dissertations. There was no money supporting it. No salaries. We were given a room to use for free at a local Friends Meeting House.

"From then on I had it in my head that this was going to be going to be my full-time work. It seemed like the next thing that made the most sense in terms of my vision of the world, to my commitment to social justice and equality. This was the way I wanted to use my skills."

In the mid 1970s, Stein got a teaching job at Tufts University in Boston. Another friend pulled her back into the world of adult education, this time at the Polaroid Corporation.

"I started teaching on the side at Polaroid because I was really interested in working with adults," Stein said. "Edwin Land, the company's founder, believed that all workers had to be educated for a company to stay at the cutting edge. As a result, they had a thriving, comprehensive workplace education program that included a fundamental skills program mostly for line workers. I taught writing courses to front-line workers, technicians and senior management. They didn't discriminate. We taught them slightly differently and used different materials, that's all.

"I learned a whole lot there. The courses had to serve the needs of the company, but students wouldn't make the commitment to come unless the classes also addressed their personal needs. I began to understand the importance of balancing the two, focusing the courses on the needs for literacy and math in students' personal lives—understanding paychecks, figuring out how interest worked-while building the skills they needed to serve the company. I learned that both pieces worked together. That was the essence of human capital development—workers who were more in control in their own lives were better workers, helping the company grow. I think that was really important in shaping my ideas about workplace education."

Years later Stein would have the opportunity to shape the workforce education program for the state of Massachusetts, and she said she drew heavily on what she learned while working at Polaroid.

But before that, Stein was invited to join the faculty of New Hampshire College, in the School of Human Services, which was what was then called an external degree program for adults working full-time in human services—what would now be called distance learning. Stein was hired to put together a writing program for the school.

The program attracted students from all over New England who got their jobs through their community activism, people who worked in drug and alcohol programs, and organizers of one sort or another. They came to classes for one weekend a month, and studied the rest of the time on their own.

"I started to really understand the literacy needs of people who you could say were already successful," she said. "They had managed through intelligence, creativity, commitment to change, and organizational skills to get important jobs in their community, and now they really needed the formal skills to go with it.

"I taught at that college for two years. Since I was focused on building writing skills I started to feel frustrated about our once-a-month class schedule. Students were from all over New England, so it wasn't possible to bring them physically together between sessions. And computers and email weren't yet part of everyone's life, so we couldn't rely on virtual connections. As we tried to figure out how to better meet students' needs, I was clarifying my own ideas about what you needed to do to build people's skills."

During those years, Stein got to know Katie Portis, the charismatic director of Women, Inc, a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Boston, and one of the alumna of the school. Portis had transformed her own life, and as Stein got to know her and her program, she saw that Portis had the vision and persistence to help others transform their lives as well.

"Katie noticed that the women at Women Inc needed some sort of transition back into the community after treatment," Stein said. "She asked me to help them prepare a proposal to support such a program and, when the proposal was funded, Katie asked if I would come and run it. I agreed to take a leave of absence from my teaching job, which became a permanent leave. By then I had some clear ideas of what adult education ought to be like that I wanted to test out."

"I started to really understand the literacy needs of people who you could say were already successful," she said. They had managed through intelligence, creativity, commitment to change, and organizational skills to get important jobs in their community, and now they really needed the formal skills to go with it."

Views on Literacy
This is where Stein met the women who would forever shape her ideas about adult education, the women who kept her asking two questions: What would these women need to get the skills and knowledge to succeed? What would work for them?

"We built the curriculum model for the program on the teachings of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who focuses on literacy for reading the world, literacy for empowerment," Stein said. "We were also influenced by the work of Shirley Brice Heath and Mina Shaughnessy, who was teaching writing at City College in New York.

Sondra Stein

"Because Women Inc. was a total immersion program we adopted the same model for the school, holding classes four days a week from 8:30 in the morning until 2:45 in the afternoon when school ended for their kids. We focused on building reading and math skills in the context of learning about issues women wanted to deal with in their own lives," Stein said. "Our goal was not just to build skills but to create a community that would give all the women in our three classes a network of support to help them make the transitions they were trying to make in their lives.

"We focused on the institutions that shape a woman's life — family, church, school, marriage, community and work. We built a library of readings around these topics and then drew on them as we developed reading exercises, math, writing, and problem solving exercises around the real issues people had in their lives."

Each class began by identifying the most critical issues they wanted to learn about—disciplining children, for example, or dealing with domestic abuse—and in the first week of class the group would come to consensus on how to balance everyone's needs and prioritize learning about those subjects over the 16 weeks of the program.

"We also took advantage of resources in the community. For example, when Alice Walker was in town we invited her to come and spend a day with us talking about The Color Purple. We also did a lot of writing: keeping journals, publishing a newspaper about our own stories, creating community resources like a guide to finding good, safe child care for your children."

Stein said they also dealt with real crises that happened in the lives of the women over the course of the time they were in the program.

"A woman's life begins to change as she builds her education," Stein said. "Sometimes the man in her live begins to have trouble because she is getting smart and too independent. There were several times that a woman in the program had to leave home with her kids and take temporary shelter in another woman's home to escape physical abuse from an angry partner. The women supported each other through these crises, helping them keep moving forward in their lives and not turn back. At the end of the 16 week program about 80 percent of the women had successfully made the transition to job training. We kept folks coming back through evening classes that focused on getting an adult diploma, to keep the community together to support them as they made the next steps in their lives."

Stein said that in her view this total immersion approach or something close to it is still the best approach to adult education.

"How do you really build those skills unless you really have the time on task," Stein asked. "It takes 100 hours of class work to move a grade level, which is what we say now. By the end of four months, people could move four grade levels. That model is about really helping people move quickly and make the changes they wanted to make in their lives."

Funding, Stein acknowledged, was and is the key to being able to make such rapid progress. Funding for the first three years of the program came from the Fund to Improve Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the Community Service Administration. Stein figures it cost around $600 per student for their program. By contrast, at the time, adult education funding for students in Massachusetts was $108 per student. But by the end of the three years, Ronald Reagan had closed the Community Service Administration, and they had to scramble to apply for other funding sources.

"In those years I learned that it was impossible to run a high-quality program that would meet people's needs on federal resources alone," Stein recalled, "so I wanted the next step in my career to be at the policy level where I could make a difference."

"I resigned as director in 1984, and went to work for what was then called the Office of Training and Employment Policy, which oversaw Massachusetts's job training partnership initiative, now the Workforce Investment Act. We looked at the education people needed to make a transition to work. I went into government at the state level with a new governor who was committed to welfare reform and helping people make the transition off welfare. It seemed like a good time to get something done."

Stein said she was "very lucky" because people were open to new ideas and she was able to have a large impact on shaping resources and getting more money for adult education, money that really went for adult education and not workforce training.

"A lot of plants were closing in Massachusetts," she recalled. "The first round of dislocation came from the beginnings of globalization and the shift from the industrial age to the information age. Massachusetts had a lot of machine shops, which have high paying, technical jobs. You got those jobs through an apprenticeship. If your dad was a machinist, you got a great job even if you dropped out of high school. But these plants started closing down one after another. People who were making $11 or more an hour didn't have the skills to get another comparable job.

"The governor had set up a blue ribbon commission about this issue. One of the recommendations of the commission was to do something about workplace education before the plants closed. I was asked to put together a white paper about what the state could do.

"I worked with someone from the Department of Labor and the state director of adult education, and we drafted a plan for a workplace education initiative for the state of Massachusetts, that all three of our agencies jointly ran. The governor, Michael Dukakis, was so pleased with it that after the first year he made this workplace literacy initiative part of a larger literacy initiative he established the next year. He called it the Commonwealth Literacy Campaign.

"I was recruited to come and help run the new campaign. It was an incredible experience for me. We had a workplace education initiative, which was really the model for the workplace literacy initiative at the federal level and won an award from the U.S. Department of Labor. We built a volunteer corps, with first rate training, to work hand-in-hand with adult education programs across the state. The thing that was most important to me in terms of my future work was that we were asked to coordinate all the agencies across government to develop a coordinated literacy plan. That was really important and that led to my work at the National Institute for Literacy.

"Interagency work is tough, since no one is really paid to do it. I learned that to make it work you have to have someone important who cares about literacy. The fact that our governor really cared made a difference. I also learned that you had to begin to get people working together by working on things that everybody thought were important but nobody was working on yet. We weren't stepping on anyone's turf. We were creating something new that was valuable to everybody. That was probably the most important thing I learned."

Now at the National Institute for Literacy—the first staff person hired by the new agency with a literacy background—Stein was handed the responsibility of putting together the institute's signature initiatives.

"One of NIFL's mandates from Congress was to measure progress toward the achievement of literacy in the country," Stein said. "At the first National Advisory Board meeting, the Board decided that it was really important for us to work with the National Educational Goals Panel on how we were going to address Goal 6—that every adult will be literate and have the skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizens."

This was 1993. They were supposed to achieve this goal of nationwide literacy by 2000.

"The Goals Panel was meeting at that time to figure out how to measure achievement of the national education goals set by the governors and the president," Stein said. "We started working with the goals panel. The first thing we did was hold a series of forums to find out if people thought the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) would provide the information we needed to know. The consensus was that it wouldn't be enough. How much literacy do you need to compete in the global economy? What do you need to know to be able to carry out the responsibilities of citizenship?

"The NALS told us what people could do, but it couldn't answer the question whether this was enough to meet everyday adult responsibilities. We decided that we would have to build a content framework—to define what adults needed to be able to do as workers and citizens in order to determine what literacy skills they needed. That was the beginnings of Equipped for the Future, NIFL's adult literacy standards initiative.

"Equipped for the Future aimed to develop a consensus vision across the field of adult literacy and basic skills education of what people needed to do as parents, workers, and citizens and what skills and they needed in order to do that," she said. "Once we had that consensus, we could measure our progress toward achieving it.

"The Goals Panel and NIFL agreed that our first step in building consensus was to ask adult learners the questions: What is it that you need to do in your life as parents and workers and citizens, and what skills do you need? We asked learners to write answers to those questions. Literacy South, a training and education center in North Carolina, developed lessons that programs could use to prepare adult learners to participate in this effort. Adult literacy programs in 34 states participated. Over 1,500 learners wrote in to us with anything from two lines to a page and one-half essay. Georgetown University helped us do a qualitative analysis of the material."

From that process, the four purposes behind the Equipped for the Future standards emerged:

  • access to information
  • voice
  • independent action, and
  • a bridge to the future.

"We also learned more about the roles and added a parent/family role too," Stein said. "We got a lot of information about family; it is so important to adult learners. When you think about it, the reason why work matters to adult learners is because they want to be able to support their families. Good citizenship means teaching their kids strong moral values. Everything starts in the home and family.

"In 1995 we began the work to define each of these domains, build consensus across the country, and identify the skills and knowledge needed to carry out these role-based activities. By 1998 we had been able to identify 16 critical standards areas, and to develop the first draft of EFF content standards. We spent the next almost two years refining the standards and having people try them out in the classroom before we published them because we wanted to make sure the standards worked for teaching."

"The next step was to build a performance continuum and define levels for each standard. We worked on that with practitioners across the country through 2004 when we finally had completed the performance continuum. At that point we had all the tools that were needed to actually build assessments aligned with the EFF Standards. The Work Readiness Credential, which we have just completed is the final piece of work as far as I'm concerned. It enables us to measure progress on nine of those 16 Equipped for the Future standards.

"This brings me back to where I began. One of the things core to my belief and core to Equipped for the Future is that adult literacy students don't just need reading, writing and math. They are important. But just having those skills isn't enough. You need strong decision making skills, good interpersonal skills, and lifelong learning skills. The better people's skills get in all those areas, the more flexibility they have to act in their daily lives."

Stein said that now the assessment piece is in place, programs have the ability to use an entire standards-based system that grew from what adult learners said is important to achieving their goals and purposes.

"Always in my head were those 300 or so women that went through my program in Boston. What would work for them? What would these women need to get the skills and knowledge they need? The Equipped for the Future framework really deals with that-access, voice, action, a bridge to future-that's what they were about.

"I feel like for me it is a complete circle. We built a system which I think makes it possible for adult education to not just be repetition of K-12 but really be grounded in what people need to be successful in their lives.

"We have to keep that as our vision in front of us. There will be different political administrations with different agendas and the resources for funding come from that. We may only be able to fund only some pieces of vision, but the vision has to stay and come from and be aligned with the dreams, not just the needs, of the students we are trying to serve.

"Because we were formed by the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, I think my generation began in adult education with a vision of empowerment—of giving adult learners the tools they need to improve their lives. We have to remember that all the time. Adult education is not about schooling. We're not talking about kids anymore. We're talking about adults with dreams and visions. If we really build programs that are designed to meet their needs, then that's how we know we are doing what we are supposed to be doing."

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Questions and Answer Forum
Visitors to the website are invited to e-mail literacy-related questions to Sondra Stein.