Wagner, Minnesota's Director of Adult Basic Education
Change the delivery
of job training to produce a competitive workforce A
Civic CaucusFocus on CompetitivenessInterview November 15, 2013
Dave Broden (vice chair), Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (coordinator), Randy
Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Dana
Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, Todd Wagner.
increasing proportion of young adults of high school graduation age
and a little older are lower skilled and not qualified for the jobs
the baby boomers are leaving, according to Minnesota's Director of
Adult Basic Education (ABE) Todd Wagner. Current labor market
projections show a shortfall around manufacturing, health care and
other middle-skill occupations, those requiring one to two years of
postsecondary training, along with some kind of degree or
industry-recognized certification or credential.
Wagner says ABE is mostly concentrated on adults age 21 or older,
because ABE tries to reconnect young people with the K-12 system,
since they are K-12 eligible until they turn 21. He says ABE has been
trying to encourage its clients under age 21 who are working toward a
high school diploma to also enroll in Minnesota postsecondary
institutions through the state's Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO)
program. He calls PSEO a "tremendously underutilized option" for kids
who are coming back to the education system after dropping out of
Wagner believes the
pendulum in K-12 is swinging away from the philosophy of everybody
going to a four-year college. He says that is not realistic or
necessary and that we should change the philosophy to postsecondary
for everyone. According to Wagner, people can get living-wage jobs
with one year of postsecondary training and an industry-recognized
credential. He laments the dismantling of the high school technical
education system and its replacement by the alternative education
Todd Wagner is state director of Adult Basic Education (ABE) in the
Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), a position he has held since
2012. He has worked in ABE for 15 years and at MDE for 27 years. Prior
to his work in ABE, he was a program evaluation researcher in special
education and before that, he worked for 10 years as the state
accountability specialist for Title I, a federal program that provides
financial assistance to schools with high numbers or high percentages
of children from low-income families. Before joining MDE, he worked in
the research office of the Wilder Foundation.
Wagner earned his B.A. degree and his M.A. degree in Educational
Psychology from the
baby boomers, the growing skills gap among high school graduates and
the small size of the Generation X birth cohort create a perfect
storm. Minnesota's Interim Director of Adult Basic Education (ABE)
Todd Wagner pointed out that today's cohort of people coming out of
the K-12 system and a little older is much smaller than the baby
boomer cohort. In addition, he said, there is an increasing proportion
of kids of graduation age who are lower skilled and not qualified for
the jobs the baby boomers are leaving. As baby boomers leave the job
market, we will likely start to see gaps where we're not able to
backfill behind them.
said a 2012study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at
Georgetown University showed that we'll face shortages in middle-skill
occupations, those requiring one to two years of postsecondary
training, credentialed with some kind of degree or industry-recognized
certification. Current labor market projections, according to Wagner,
show a shortfall around manufacturing, health care and other
The mission of Adult Basic Education (ABE) in Minnesota is to provide
adults with educational opportunities to acquire and improve the
literacy skills needed to become self-sufficient and to participate
effectively as productive workers, family members and citizens.
ABE, which is part of the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE),
offers six general programs:
Preparation for GED (General Educational Development
Diploma), a national high school equivalency assessment.
Adult Diploma: programs for eligible adults leading
to a high school diploma from a local Minnesota school district.
English as a Second Language (ESL);
Basic Skills Enhancement: For learners who need
goal-specific elementary or secondary level basic skills, such as
work-related math, functional literacy (such as banking skills), or
reading or writing assistance. Generally considered "brush-up" and
does not lead to a diploma or GED.
Family Literacy: Program for adults and their
preschool children, which features instruction for adults in
literacy and parenting and educational/developmental services for
Citizenship and Civics Education:
Programs that prepare new
Minnesotans for U.S. citizenship. Civics education includes ESL,
work readiness and skills to encourage full participation in U.S.
society, culture and employment.
ABE was part of the original War on Poverty legislation. The
original goal of ABE was eighth-grade functioning, but over the years
the program has evolved and the goal for students is now to
participate in some amount of postsecondary education or training that
leads to an industry-recognized credential.
The state provides 89 percent of the funding for Minnesota's ABE
fiscal year 2013, the program received $46.5 million in state ABE aid
and $5.1 million in federal ABE aid. It also received $1 million
through grant programs for English language and civics instruction.
Wagner said ABE in Minnesota is fortunate, because, as these figures
show, the program receives about $9 in state money for every $1 of
federal money. He said some states get only the federal money and only
a few other states are as well funded as Minnesota.
To be eligible for ABE, people must be age 16 or older, not enrolled
in K-12 education, and seeking a high school diploma or equivalency or
be functioning below the 12th-grade level in any basic
academic area, including reading, math, writing and speaking English.
WagnersaidABE is mostly concentrated on adults, since students are
K-12 eligible until they turn 21. "We will do pretty much anything we
can to help someone under the age of 18 or 19 reconnect or stay
connected to the K-12 system," he said.
ABE enrolled 74,736 students in FY2013 and provided 5.9 million
student contact hours.
A breakdown of the enrollees (who may be counted in more than one
category) shows that 36 percent were English language learners, five
percent were conditional work referrals, 10 percent were incarcerated,
19 percent were unemployed and 11 percent were on public assistance.
The average annual ABE cost per student was $704.
Wagner said the federal government counts "participants," not
enrollees, which includes only people who participate in ABE for at
least 12 hours in a year. Wagner said the number of federally defined
participants in Minnesota's ABE program has been steady at 40,000 to
45,000 for many years now. But he said the average in annual hours of
instruction has increased substantially in recent years.In FY 2013,the
average participant in Minnesota's ABE received more than 124 hours of
The state's Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program provides a
good option for students.
Started in 1985,PSEO allows high school students to take college
classes at any postsecondary institution in
Minnesota without paying tuition. PSEO was previously limited to 11th
and 12th graders and, Wagner said, had been mostly used by
four-year-college-bound students. As of 2012, 10th graders
can also use the program, but they are restricted to taking only
postsecondary technical and career training classes through PSEO.
Wagner pointed out that since anyone under age 21 without a high
school diploma is eligible for the K-12 education system, he or she
can register as a student at a public school and use PSEO for job
training while earning a high school diploma. "PSEO is definitely an
underexploited pathway for younger people," he said.
interviewer commented that if you're 19 and dropped out of high school
two years early, you have two years of free postsecondary education
through PSEO up to age 21. He said we should tell young people, "If
you quit, come back for free."
"It's a tremendously underutilized option among students who are not
four-year- college-bound," Wagner said.
MDE funds 45 ABE consortia that cover the entire state geographically
and deliver ABE programming at hundreds of local sites.
Local ABE sites include primarily K-12 school districts, but also
community-based organizations, community and technical colleges,
workforce centers, prisons and jails, libraries, learning centers and
ABE consortia hire more than 1,400 staff members and work with 2,400
trained volunteers. Paid
staff members include 1,149 teachers, 177 paraprofessionals and 179
administrators. Public school ABE programs are required to use K-12
licensed teachers or teachers with a college degree in ESL.
Wagner said three-quarters of the paid instructors are part-time, many
earning as little as $15 an hour with no benefits. "We have no trouble
finding highly skilled teachers who will work part-time for low wages
and no benefits, as there continues to be a surplus of licensed
teachers in Minnesota," he said. "Unfortunately, only about one
quarter of our ABE workforce have permanent, full-time, benefited,
We're coming out of era where we thought everybody should go to a
Wagner said there are two problems with that philosophy: (1) There are
lots of people for whom that's not a realistic, at least immediate,
goal; and (2) There are too many people with four-year degrees who are
unemployed or underemployed. He said in the early 2000s, Washington
state did a large study that identified the education "tipping point,"
the level of education and training at which a person can get a
living-wage job, as one year of postsecondary training with an
should have the goal of postsecondary and training for
everyone, with less focus on four years of college," he said. "We need
to help folks find pathways to education and training that match their
assets, e.g., time, money, support systems. 'Stackable pathways are
out there already. For example, one could work first on completing a
respiratory therapy assistant program through a community college
program. That would then enable a person to work at a higher wage and
do shift work, while continuing work on a respiratory therapy degree.
That experience might then lead to further education and training to
become a physician assistant, etc. There are ways to get there other
than going straight to a traditional four-year college."
think the pendulum is starting to swing back in K-12 away from an
implicit assumption that the goal for everyone should be four-year
college," he continued. "I think we're becoming more open to the idea
that there are a range of postsecondary options, including things like
union apprenticeships. I think there has to be a culturally held
change in vision away from four-year college for everyone. I think
that will happen."
FastTRAC Adult Career Pathway programs create fast pathways that
provide occupational training and just-in-time basic literacy
There are FastTRAC programs on 29 MnSCU campuses that cover health
care, manufacturing, education, business, energy and other sectors of
Minnesota. As of December 2012, FastTRAC programs have served over
1,900 adults, with 88 percent of them receiving an industry-recognized
credential or earning credits toward that credential.
FastTRAC is a partnership of a number of state agencies, local
employers, workforce development agencies, human services and
community-based organizations. Wagner said it provides "just-in-time
basic education" support for students in credit-bearing classes and
"wrap-around services" that offer help with things like
transportation, childcare, housing and financial aid. "These
components are critical for adults who need something to happen fast
and can't afford to spend extended periods of time improving basic
education skills or breaks in education do to issues around
transportation, childcare and housing," Wagner said.
said that for people who are single, with no kids and no debt and read
at a high level, a two-year or four-year postsecondary program is a
great option. But for someone with a low level of literacy and five
kids, even a two-year pathway is likely too long. Rather, that person
needs a pathway to traverse quickly that leads to higher wages, stable
employment and "stackable" credentials.
"Initial FastTRAC work was funded by Joyce Foundation grants and
grants we've earned by meeting federal performance goals," Wagner
said. But he said that in 2013, the Legislature appropriated $1.5
million per year to the Department of Employment and Economic
Development (DEED) for FastTRAC programming.
ABE funding provides the majority of all adult education programming
in the state correctional system and in regional and local correction
systems throughout the state.
Wagnersaid the Department of Corrections (DOC)
has an "education first" requirement: anyone incarcerated in a state
prison must have a GED or diploma before being allowed to work for
MinnCor. Wagner indicated that FastTRAC is a model that can work in
corrections, as well.
Almost all jobs require higher technical skills today.
Wagner said the area of basic technology skills is currently
considered supplementary content in ABE instruction, available to
people already eligible for ABE. But his office is considering making
lack of basic technology skills another way of becoming eligible for
ABE, just like a lack of literacy skills and/or a lack of a high
school diploma are now.
said ABE increasingly is using the Northstar Digital Literacy
Standards developed by the St. Paul Public Library to determine what
people need to know about technology. ABE has a partnership with the
state unemployment insurance program to identify people at risk of
running out of benefits before they get jobs. He said before that
happens, ABE assesses them for technology skills and for literacy
Lots of people have trouble following the pathway through school to
Wagner said that transitions, such as pre-K to being kindergarten,
middle to high school, high school to postsecondary education or
training and postsecondary to work, are especially critical times. In
order to help more people make those transitions successfully, he said
"Scaffolding," a safety net around
that central pathway to help people stay on and or reconnect to that
To continue to improve the
connection between secondary and postsecondary; we must rethink that
also need a system with lots of "on-ramps" back into it," he said.
There is some expectation now that it's the public sector's job to
provide a semi-skilled workforce that employers can tap into.
Wagnersaid he shares an interviewer's impression that employers are
doing less on-the-job-training now. He said he thinks the higher
skilled employees are, the more employers are willing to invest in
The technical education system has been systematically dismantled and
replaced by the alternative education system. An
interviewer who regularly
visits kids at the
County Juvenile Detention Center said they all go to alternative
schools and seem to go to school for short hours or not every day. And
Center, the kids are supposed to take classes every day all week,
which they may or may not do. "I have no sense of any accountability
at the Juvenile Center or in the alternative schools," he said.
Wagner responded, "For the first two-thirds of the 20th
century, the technical education system was a safety valve for
'at-risk' kids. I'm not sure high schools can rebuild that capacity.
We can take better advantage of the two-year college system through
PSEO. We have to try to connect students to pathways that can work,
given their life assets."
We're underinvesting and overpromising in education. An
interviewer commented that
Darlene Miller, owner of Permac
Industries, said in an October 2013 Civic Caucus interview
that business should be doing more to help educate and train the
workforce. Wagner responded, "We're underinvesting and trying to get
by on the cheap in education generally. In recent years we seemed to
think that we could improve education outcomes through high-stakes
accountability systems. I think there's plenty more that can be done
and it can't be just the schools. I think the quality of our education
systems has improved steadily over time and will continue to do so."
the same time, Wagner said he fears that the growing gap in income
will lead to a two-tiered society. "I think we're overpromising on the
education side," he said. "We're not going to fix the income gap
solely by education and training."
Combining online and in-person education works best in ABE.
In response to a question about offering education online, Wagner
said, "We're big on using technology as an integral part of our
programming. With our population, a hybrid model works best, combining
online and in-person work. The social support of in-person contact is
important. We think technology is a critical component, if people are
going to function successfully in the workplace."
Conclusion: Wagner ended
the discussion by saying, "You cannot believe how many smart, capable
people are working in a system that pays them so poorly. I think a big
part of the reason people chose to work in the ABE field, despite the
pay, is that we feel like we have some control over making good things
happen. We are a small and very collegial system and have gotten very
good at growing and evolving our services to better meet the needs of
those we serve."
The Civic Caucus
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David Broden, Janis Clay, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje,
Jan Hively, Dan Loritz (Chair), Marina Lyon, Joe Mansky,
Tim McDonald, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and