Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King has made his priorities crystal clear. As Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act programs launch and grow over coming years, King has told implementers that equity is of paramount importance.
Speaking last month to the WOIA “One Team, One Vision, One Conversation" national convening, King told more than 700 attendees that states, communities, school districts, nonprofits, and the federal government all need to work together to make sure students who need support “beyond just enrollment in that post-secondary opportunity" are not forgotten.
What this means is that it’s not enough to simply have programmatic options that are theoretically available to anyone. Job training facilities, community colleges, and adult-education providers must also ensure they are providing adequate flexibility and support to help education seekers overcome a vast array of life obstacles.
How? Here are three questions that can help ensure equity in workforce education and training programs:
1. What are we doing to help English language learners?
35 million people in the United State speak Spanish as their primary language, and research demonstrates that Hispanic Americans are less likely to have earned a high school diploma. Yet alternative education initiatives are still primarily advertised and delivered in English. Complicating matters, approximately 20 million Americans — a number roughly equivalent to the entire state of Florida — speak a language other than English or Spanish, but that number is broken into more than 350 individual languages. This is the very definition of marginalization, because in most places the number of speakers of any one language doesn’t offer the economy of scale to warrant curricular translation — let alone teaching and mentoring in that language. With that in mind, it’s important to recognize that remedial English training is a vital first step for many in the quest to earn a diploma, workforce certification or other educational goal.
2. Does our staff look like our students?
When seeking to diversify staff and faculty, we tend to think in terms of gender and diversity. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly 40 percent of students with disabilities don’t graduate from high school, which make them a prime target for assistance under WIOA. But even though research demonstrates that individuals are far more likely to reach goals when provided mentorship by people with whom they can identify, very few school and workforce skills training programs have staff members with disabilities. That’s just one example, of course. From ethnicity and gender to age and sexual identity to economic status and residency status, if you’re targeting your services to a certain demographic, your staff should look like that demographic. And if you’re not specifically targeting your programmatic offerings to a particular demographic, then your staff should be a reflection of your area’s demographics.
3. How will they get here?
A lack of reliable transportation is one of the most common reasons why people who begin an adult education or workforce training program don’t complete it. Transportation inequity is particularly dire in small towns and rural communities — which also tend to have disproportionate numbers of people in need of additional education and workforce training opportunities. More than 40 percent of small towns and rural communities have no transit services whatsoever. Impoverished communities across the nation are far less likely to be served with mass transit. Nearly 20 percent of African-American households and 14 percent of Latino households don’t have a car. If our goal is to get people the education and training they need to improve their lives, we must build programs that recognize transportation inequity as a fundamental challenge that must be overcome before services can be utilized. Before any brick-and-mortar program is considered, partnerships with public transportation agencies, rideshare programs, taxi services, mobile request ride programs like Uber and Lyft, and volunteer drivers should be explored.