Situating the Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) program within the Employment Ontario (EO) system is a force-fit. LBS, primarily a learning program for those with educational and personal learning goals is integrated into an employment services and support program designed to “connect people looking for work with employers looking for work.” Most adults who enroll in local LBS programs offered in community learning centres, colleges, school boards and on-line aren’t actively looking for work, at least not in the short-term.
Not only is there a system integration issue but unobtainable system aims have been established using the bogus Level 3 standard. The misalignments and misunderstandings are written into the logic model, carried into various accountability and reporting mechanisms, and are part of program planning and the conversations that educators have with learners. Program design decisions that are aligned with misinformed ideals and detached from local program realities result in systemic inequities and contradictions.
The issue of fit wasn’t mentioned in the recent LBS evaluation report but it underpins one concern that was identified: the lack of “a clear vision of what LBS is intended to achieve and whom it is intended to serve.” The vision challenge is the direct result of a force-fit and unobtainable system aims set by the OECD’s international literacy testing project. I will look at the overall force-fit in this post and then dig a little deeper into the logic model in another post.
Most learners aren’t in LBS to get a job
Well over half (58%) of students enroll in LBS in order to access other educational programs, referred to as secondary credit, postsecondary and apprenticeship in the current accountability system. Others (11%) enroll for a range of personal reasons related to dealing with institutional demands of healthcare, social services and the education of their children; or they want to read books and access online information, like everyone else. Those learners are in the independence category. Less than a third (31%) have an employment related goal.
What is called the independence pathway in the accountability system is a catch-all term used to categorize any learning goal that isn’t directly related to employment and the named education goals. No attempts have been made to clearly articulate the importance of the category for adult learners. Another issue is the attempt to capture education goals. In the previous system, one category, further education, was in use. Naming particular forms of education and training has created problems. Two educational aims that learners have—preparing to write a GED test to gain a high school equivalency and preparing to enter or complete job training programs—don’t fit. It’s likely that these education related aims are categorized under employment, possibly inflating the numbers with employment goals.
People’s reasons for accessing LBS programs haven’t changed much in the past 10 years
Over the past ten years, there has been a slight increase in the number of learners with employment related goals and a slight drop in the numbers with independence goals. The proportion of those with education goals is remarkably stable when we look at the overall provincial picture, except for a short-lived increase in 2011 when the number of students with education related goals increased almost 10%. This was likely due to a ministry initiative called Second Career, an EO program that funds college retraining for laid-off workers. A number of Second Career participants accessed LBS as a first step, and some LBS programs had a recognized role in supporting the Second Career initiative. Once access to the initiative waned, the education goals dropped back to its previous level.
The mechanisms used to articulate and enact the ministry’s aims are the reports, frameworks, concepts and data collection devices that are described here. One of the most telling examples of the force-fit is the way programs are mandated to track students after they leave the program. At exit, educators and coordinators must complete a six-page form (compared to a two-page entry form) and contact students three, six and 12 months after they leave to ask whether they are employed, and if the LBS program helped them to get employed. Former students are asked the same set of questions, including a very personal question about their wages, when they leave and three more times afterwards. Students are not asked if they are successful in their education or training program, even though that is the aim of a majority, nor are they asked whether they are pursuing new literacy practices in their daily lives.
Exacerbating the force-fit is the bogus Level 3 standard
The testing project is appealing to policymakers because they think it provides them with literacy standards and mechanisms that can be used to measure local program outcomes (it doesn’t). They are also under the impression that Level 3 can be used to define the ultimate aim of the LBS system. It can’t since there is no such thing as a suitable minimum. Even if there was, it is beyond the reach of the LBS program. Level 3 aligns with the completion of a postsecondary education (those with average scores at the beginning of level 3 have completed college and vocational training; those with average scores near the middle of level 3 have completed university). It’s kind of like making the K-12 school system responsible for ensuring that their students obtain college diplomas and university degrees.
What is essentially seen by learners as an educational access program is force-fit into an employment service system, and then an impossible educational aim is established for the system. The LBS system is accountable for supporting the employment related aims that most learners don’t have, and is then made responsible for demonstrating an educational achievement level that is beyond its reach, using test methods that don’t detect short-term gains and changes. Indeed, it’s mind-boggling. No wonder there is no “clear vision of what LBS is intended to achieve and whom it is intended to serve.”