Highly Effective Programs Lit Review

Highly Effective Programs Lit Review

Characteristics of Adult Education Programs Reporting Highest GED Rates

Common Characteristics of Adult Education Programs Reporting the Highest GED Attainment Rates for Families First Participants in Tennessee

Prepared for the Tennessee Department of Human Services

by Dr. Mary Ziegler and Dr. Olga Ebert
September 2003


Characteristics of Adult Education Programs Reporting Highest GED Rates

The University of Tennessee College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences

Center for Literacy Studies

The Center for Literacy Studies is located within the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN. Since 1988, the Center has been linking interdisciplinary efforts within the University with practitioners in the field of adult literacy. Within this field, the Center has focused on research, professional development, and dissemination of resources to practitioners.


We sincerely appreciate the cooperation from the staff of the ten Tennessee programs who participated in this study. Without their willingness to meet with us and to share their administrative and instructional practices, this study would not have been possible.

The research documented in this report was funded by a grant from the Tennessee Department of Human Services to the University of Tennessee Center for Literacy Studies. The views encompassed in this research do not necessarily reflect those of the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, national origin, age, disability or veteran status in provision of educational programs and services or employment by and admission to the University.

The University does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex or disability in the education programs and activities pursuant to the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

Inquiries and charges of violation concerning Title VI, Title IX, Section 504, ADA or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) or any of the above–referenced policies should be directed to the Office of Equity and Diversity, 1840 Melrose Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37996-3560, telephone (865) 974-2498 (TTY available). Requests for accommodation of a disability should be directed to the ADA Coordinator at the Office of Human Resources Management, 600 Henley Street, Knoxville, TN 37996-4125.

The University of Tennessee

Center for Literacy Studies

600 Henley St., Suite 312

Knoxville, TH 37996-4135

(865) 974-4109/ Fax (865) 974-3857


Characteristics of Adult Education Programs Reporting Highest GED Rates

Table of Contents

Executive Summary i

Introduction 1

Literature Review......

Programmatic Characteristics


Non-academic Instruction and Support


Sample of Adult Education Programs

Data Collection

Data Analysis

Descriptions of Participating Programs


Programmatic Features

Active External and Internal Relationships

Effective Administrative Practices

Skillful Staff

Adequate Facilities and Logistics

Instructional Strategies

Assessment-based Curriculum

Regular Assessment



Motivational Culture

Relationship with Students

Attendance and Retention Strategies

Setting Goals

Use of External Motivators

Importance of Creating a Learning Environment


Collaboration among Community Agencies

Consistent, Regular Evaluation

Skillful Staff

Motivational Culture

Implications for Practice and Continuous Improvement and Conclusion


APPENDIX 1......

Rates of GED Acquisition in Tennessee Families First Programs

APPENDIX 2......

Letter to program supervisors

APPENDIX 3......

Programs with high GED rates for FF students— Supervisor interview question topics

APPENDIX 4......

Programs with high GED rates for FF students— Teacher interview question topics


Characteristics of Adult Education Programs Reporting Highest GED Rates

Executive Summary

Because of the value placed on the General Educational Development (GED) acquisition by Families First participants and employers, adult education programs that report the highest GED attainment rates for participants are of particular interest for Tennessee educators and policy-makers. The purpose of this study was to describe the characteristics of the programs that report high GED rates and identify implications for practice and program improvement. Three research questions guided this study. Which programs report the highest GED attainment rates for Families First participants enrolled in their programs? What are the common characteristics of the programs that report the highest GED attainment rates? What are the implications for practice and continuous program improvement; specifically, what types of programmatic and instructional characteristics have implications for professional development of AE teachers who work with Families First participants?

Ten programs were identified as having high GED rates for Families First participants. CLS researchers visited each of these programs and interviewed program staff to identify characteristics that contributed to their higher-than-average GED rates. The research team analyzed these data and identified the characteristics that were common across the programs.

The data showed that characteristics of Tennessee programs reporting the highest GED rates paralleled the reviewed literature primarily in programmatic characteristics. Programmatic characteristics included active internal and external relationships, effective administrative practices, skillful staff, and adequate facilities. Instructional characteristics included customized curriculum, frequent assessments and addressing weaknesses revealed by assessments, mixed individual and whole class instruction, and traditional materials. These findings were less consistent with the literature on effective programs that stressed the use of “real-life” learning materials. One additional area mentioned only briefly in the literature but prominent in the data reported by the programs was the presence of a motivational culture. Motivational culture included caring relationships with participants, effective attendance and retention strategies, establishment of mutually agreed-upon goals, use of external incentives, and intentional creation of a learning environment. These characteristics have implications for practice and continuous improvement.

The findings from this study are only suggestive because of the small sample of participating programs. However, if all programs had the average GED attainment rate of the programs in this study, theoretically it would be possible to raise the average GED attainment rate for Families First.

Implications for practice and program improvement include: a) knowing the ratio of GED attainment to enrollment and compare these data from year to year, b) collecting information after instituting changes to see if the changes are effective and lead to higher GED attainment, c) placing an emphasis on a motivational culture where Families First participants are attracted to engage in learning and accomplish their goals, and d) augmenting instruction with real-life materials as the literature suggests to test whether GED rates improve. These areas could be among the topics for further investigation by researchers and practitioners.

Although helping Families First participants attain a GED is multifaceted and complex, program practices, a motivational culture, and instructional approaches do appear to make a difference. This study is a valuable start in understanding the characteristics of programs that report the highest GED rates for Families First participants in the state.


Characteristics of Adult Education Programs Reporting Highest GED Rates


Educational level plays a key role in predicting the earnings of welfare recipients. More than half of the adults who receive welfare do not have a high school credential, making them ineligible for entrance into most educational programs that provide licensure or occupation- specific skills or for training programs offered by business and industry (Carnevale & Desrochers, 1999). A high school equivalency diploma is a basic requirement for the type of employment that has the potential to lead to increased earnings over time. The recent US Census (2000) shows that adults who have a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) credential earn 30% more than those who do not. Tennessee legislation for welfare reform, Families First (FF), recognized the role that education plays in employment opportunities by making a provision for adult education classes for those who dropped out of high school or who needed to increase their basic skills. Through an agreement with the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS), administration agency for Families First, adult education programs (most affiliated with the state Office of Adult Education and some affiliated with other agencies or community-based organizations) offer customized classes for welfare recipients in almost every county in Tennessee. Participation in adult education (AE) satisfies the work requirement outlined in the Families First legislation. Although welfare recipients enroll in these adult education classes for a variety of reasons, they report that the most prominent reason is to obtain a GED credential (Ziegler & Cope, 2000).

Because of the value placed on the GED by Families First participants and employers, programs reporting the highest GED attainment rates for these participants are of particular interest. The purpose of this study was to describe the characteristics of adult education programs that report the highest GED attainment rates and identify implications for practice and program improvement.

Literature Review

Most of the studies cited in the literature do not explicitly define “effective programs” or “effective practice,” nor the types of outcomes that can be expected from effective programs.

After a thorough search of the literature, we found no research that examined the link between characteristics of an adult education program and a particular outcome such as the rate at which participants attained the GED. Some studies may have included the GED passing rate as a factor of “effective programs;” however, the authors, with the exception of Office of Vocational and Adult Education [OVAE], (2000) did not make this explicit.

The only one of these studies with a research question similar to that of this study (in a sense that there was a research process identifying characteristics of effective basic education programs) was Lerche, 1985, presenting the findings of the National Adult Literacy Project (NALP). The programs participating in NALP were nominated by acknowledged literacy experts; however, Lerche did not clearly describe whether GED acquisition was an indicator of program effectiveness in that study. Similarly, reports by OVAE for 1997 and 2000 described characteristics of individual programs nominated for the Secretary of Education Award for Outstanding Adult Education and Literacy Programs. There was no mention of GED acquisition rates being among the criteria for nomination.

Other research studies reviewed included Beder & Medina (2001); Purcell-Gates, Degener, Jacobson, & Soler (2000); Lauer (2001); Brouliette (1999); Black (1997); and Harrington & Goudreau (1994). Cochran’s (2000) and Dreybus’s (2000) papers were included in Practitioner Research Report Series of Virginia Adult Education Research Network. Most of these studies focused on a few selected factors that were seen as contributing to the success of adult education programs. The remaining sources reviewed in this paper that presented effective components of adult education programs were grounded in practice but not necessarily research-based.

Although the literature was not accommodating in identifying studies that linked program characteristics with outcomes, it contributed helpful information on the types of characteristics possibly common to programs reporting the highest GED attainment rates. The literature described “effective” characteristics of the programs in two broad areas: programmatic and instructional. The next section summarizes these effective characteristics.

Programmatic Characteristics

According to the literature, successful Adult Basic Education [ABE]/GED programs shared several programmatic characteristics. Programmatic features that seemed to influence the effectiveness of a program were community ties, professional development activities of staff, recruitment and retention strategies, ongoing evaluation of the program, and accessibility.

Community ties. Several authors (Fisher, 1999; Lerche, 1985; OVAE, 1997 and 2000; and Solorzano et al., 1989) stressed the importance of good community relationships and collaborations with other community agencies. Examples of community agencies that were likely candidates for collaboration with AE programs included local employers and vocational schools (OVAE 2000); possible funders and literacy volunteers (Lerche, 1985, OVAE 1997); and welfare and other social agencies (Fisher 1999; Lerche 1985; OVAE 1997 and 2000.

Professional development. Another frequently mentioned characteristic of successful programs was commitment to continuous professional development for teachers or other staff (Fisher, 1999; Lauer 2001; Lerche 1985; OVAE 1997 and 2000). For example, Lauer (2001) found that teachers in high-performing, high-needs schools reported that effective professional development activities shared the following characteristics:

  • Addressed content standards, deepened content knowledge, addressed diverse learners, applied to the classroom, and modeled teaching strategies,
  • Led to improvements in teaching,
  • Were grounded in research.

According to the literature, teachers who participated in professional development and who were intentional about increasing their skills were more effective in their work.

Recruitment and retention strategies. Effective ABE/GED programs focused significant effort on recruitment and retention of participants in their programs (Friedlander & Martinson, 1996; Lerche 1985; OVAE, 1997 and 2000; and Solorzano et al., 1989). Particular strategies included having a specific plan for recruitment and retention (OVAE, 2000); intensive and timely monitoring of attendance (Friedlander & Martinson, 1996); orientation and learner contract (Lerche, 1985; OVAE, 1997). Besides monitoring attendance, a good system for keeping records was also needed (Lerche, 1985; OVAE , 2000). OVAE (1997) found that computerized record keeping was a feature of high performing programs.

Program evaluation. Program evaluation was another component emphasized in the literature (Lerche, 1985; OVAE, 2000; Solorzano et al., 1989). According to Lerche (1985), successful ABE/GED programs:

  • Developed measurable goals for every component of the program (e.g., recruitment, orientation, counseling) so that they could monitor success in meeting these goals;
  • Frequently evaluated their program’s effectiveness in meeting its goals in each of the component areas,
  • Used those evaluation data to improve their literacy program.

Accessibility. Lerche (1985) and OVAE (1997) mentioned the need for convenient location, facilities, and schedule. These features made programs more accessible, especially for participants that might be working part-time or who might not have reliable transportation. Although programmatic features appeared to play a major role in a program’s effectiveness, instructional strategies also contributed.


In the literature about effective instructional strategies, a key focus was on the importance of innovation that captured the interest of adult learners and helped keep them engaged in the learning experience. In addition, researchers found that high-performing programs set learning objectives and goals, focused on employment, and provided non-academic instruction and support.

Innovative instruction strategies. Innovation, according to the literature, was a principal way to ensure that adults were able to meet their learning needs. The literature on instructional strategies in GED programs recognized the broad and varied needs of their students calling for innovative teaching practices. For example, Purcell-Gates, Degener, Jacobson, & Soler (2000) stated that, “Literacy practices of adults can change . . . in response to adult literacy instruction that is reflective of real-life practices” (p. 60). Other sources discussed the use of real-life applications for instruction, the importance of context in learning, and concrete models related to individual adult-centered experiences (Black, 1997; Florida Community College, 1998; Lerche, 1985; OVAE, 2000; Solorzano et al. 1989).

Successful adult education teachers used a variety of methods other than drills and practice, according to Black (1997), Florida Community College (1998), Lerche (1985) and OVAE (1997). Many programs attempted to make instruction holistic, rather than concentrating on isolated skills (Lerche, 1985; Black, 1997; OVAE, 2000; Harrington and Goudreau, 1994) so that students used language skills, including reading, writing, thinking, talking, and listening, in all of their lessons. Literature and the arts were used as curriculum materials and provided opportunities to explore feelings (Harrington and Goudreau, 1994; OVAE, 2000).

Researchers described innovative practices that included varying teaching styles and media in order to appeal to the needs of a particular population and to their different learning styles (OVAE, 1997; Friedlander & Martinson, 1996). Some examples mentioned were small group activities, simulations, role playing, brain storming, computers, individualized self-paced instruction, tutors, reading silently alone, reading aloud with a group, or journal writing (Black, 1997; Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System [CASAS], 1996; Fisher, 1999; Florida community college, 1998; Harrington and Goudreau, 1994; Lerche, 1985; OVAE, 1997 and 2000; Solorzano et al., 1989).

Learning objectives and participants’ goals. Successful adult education programs emphasized clearly defined learning objectives that they linked to the strategies, materials, and performance indicators (Friedlander & Martinson, 1996; Lerche, 1985; Florida Community College, 1998; OVAE, 2000). In successful programs, in addition to learning objectives, teachers were aware of their students’ needs and goals, and the barriers to reaching them (Fisher, 1999; OVAE, 2000). Encouragement was given to the students, along with frequent assessment, and documentation. Feedback was important because it emphasized progress toward goals (CASAS, 1996; Florida Community College, 1998; Lerche, 1985; OVAE, 2000; Solorzano et al, 1989).

Employment focus. Other successful programs were effective because they realized the importance of organizing their curricula around local job market requirements (Ascher, 1994; OVAE, 1997 & 2000). “In the most successful programs, the goal of employment is manifest from the outset and permeates the instructional program” (Fisher, 1999, p. 14).

Instructional strategies described in this section focused primarily on academic areas. The literature also documented that non-academic instruction and other types of support were evident in effective programs.

Non-academic Instruction and Support

Teachers focused some of the instructional activities on the personal lives of students and their families, such as self-discovery and agency, counseling, early childhood development, parenting skills, health and nutrition, violence and abuse, and consumer economics (Black, 1997; Fisher, 1999, Florida Community College, 1998; Friedlander & Martinson, 1996; OVAE, 2000). Positive student/teacher and student/student interaction, often encountered in an environment where teachers encouraged students to share ideas and give and receive peer support, was a key characteristic of effective programs (Black, 1997; Cochran, 2000; Florida Community College, 1998; OVAE, 1997 & 2000). Helping students get counseling and other support services to “deal with other needs, such as child care, health, housing, violence and abuse, transportation and so on” (Fisher, 1999, p. 33) was seen by several other authors as an important part of an effective adult education program (Friedlander & Martinson, 1996; Lerche, 1985; OVAE, 2000).