Lifelong learners

Adult students with poor literacy getting short shrift, teachers say

Guyana-born Rucawatee Autar was looking to improve her reading and writing skills when she began taking adult literacy classes at the New York Public Library.

But Autar decided that the library’s four hours a week of class were not enough, and she started searching for an alternative. In early July, she thought she had found it, in the form of the city education department’s Office of Adult and Continuing Education.

Yet after completing an intake exam at the office’s Mid-Manhattan Adult Learning Center, Autar says she was told to return to the library. Her scores were too low for her to enroll in the department’s courses.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” she said.

Ultimately, Autar was able to negotiate her way into a department class that was slightly above her level. But other students might end up at the library if principals at city adult education programs follow new guidance they received last month from the department.

That guidance, which urged principals to refer low-level students to free classes at the New York Public Library, has longtime adult educators worried that the department is shortchanging the office’s neediest adults. They say differences between department and library courses make the library classes less helpful for low-level students, who are either immigrants illiterate in their native languages or English speakers testing at a kindergarten or first-grade reading level.

The educators are also concerned that the department is steering low-level students away as part of a larger shift toward emphasizing test score gains over practical life skills.

The Department of Education has long sent students elsewhere when its own classes are full, according to a spokesman. He also explained that for some time the department has referred low-level students to the library or community organizations because they offer smaller classes.

But Betty Gottfried, who taught adult education in New York City for 42 years, said she had never before seen a recommendation from the department to send particular students away.

“We served everybody,” she said. “That was our mission.”

This past school year, the department’s adult education program served approximately 29,000 students — even though New York does not require districts to provide educational services for adults over 21. Starting in the fall, the department is actually adding 20 English as a second language classes, reaching students with a range of literacy skills.

“These adult ESL classes are important and widely popular, and we look forward to serving even more adults by expanding classes citywide during the 2014-15 school year,” said Marcus Liem, a department spokesman.

Regardless, some adult education employees see the library referrals as a diminishment of services by the department.

“There was always testing at intake, but the purpose of the testing was placement, not to determine whether you would be admitted or referred elsewhere,” adult education teacher Marcia Biederman said.

And Biederman and her colleagues are concerned that classes at the library are not a substitute for department courses.

For starters, the classes at the library provide just four instructional hours per week, compared to up to 15 hours a week for department-run classes. Unlike the department, the library does not have classes just for immigrants who are illiterate in their native languages, although it has recently trained its teachers to work with these students.

Library instructors also don’t need a master’s degree or state certification, which the department requires for its teachers.

“We look to hire staff with experience in the field and then provide them with training opportunities,” said Luke Swarthout, the director of adult education services at the library.

Swarthout said the Department of Education had not told him that it would start recommending students to library programs. He also said that even though the library has tripled its ESL seats in the last two years, it still attracts more students than it can serve — meaning that enrollment is not assured for students sent there by the department.

Teachers say they suspect the referrals are motivated by an office-wide shift that has taken place under Superintendent Rose-Marie Mills, who took over in 2012. According to them, Mills’s leadership has brought a new emphasis on showing test score gains, which are required for the state to draw federal adult education funds that it passes along to districts. This year, the city adult education office got $37 million from the state.

“At every single teachers’ meeting, we’re constantly reminded and told that the state is monitoring our data and we have to reach our target,” said Corinne O’Shaughnessy, who has taught basic education for the past five years.

“Before, the idea was to give people what they need,” O’Shaughnessy said. “They need to be able to go the doctor’s office, they need to be able to go to a school meeting for their child.”

O’Shaughnessy added that she used to take students to a subway station to teach them how to purchase MetroCards. “Now, if it doesn’t show gain on the test, you’re not supposed to do it,” she said.

And showing gains can be especially difficult for low-level students, according to teachers in the adult education office. Many of these students are attending school for the first time, and they often take more than a single year to show improvements or move up to the next course level.

Teachers also say the current assessments do not accurately reflect what the students learn. The test for immigrants in the lowest-level ESL course is oral, for example, while the class itself focuses strongly on reading and writing. And the exam for low-level English speakers asks about obscure topics, such as winterizing pipes, according to O’Shaughnessy.

Even as the scope of change at the Office of Adult and Continuing Education remains unclear, teachers say the signs are not promising, given that low-level students are being directed away. “It’s shameful,” Biederman said. “Really they are the neediest and most vulnerable of our students.”

Correction: This article previously stated that library instructors are hourly workers. In fact, while some of the library’s adult ESL instructors are hourly, most adult education instructors at the library are full-time NYPL employees. 

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”