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From a simple beginning in 1856, during the early years of statehood, adult education in California grew with the expanding population of the state and was particularly responsive to the needs of California's immigrant populations. After gaining in professionalism in the 1920s, the adult education system progressed and expanded through the difficulties of the Great Depression and the challenges of two world wars.


As the country moved into the 1950s, adult education in California grew in proportion to the astounding growth of the population. Adult education programs were found in both secondary school districts and junior college districts, and classes were offered days, evenings, and weekends. Adult education was funded from a combination of local property taxes and state apportionment based on attendance. The types of classes offered had expanded far beyond high school, English, and citizenship courses to include a broad range of human knowledge.


The sixties were characterized by a greatly enlarged federal role in adult education. Federal legislation resulted in new sources of funds for adult basic education and vocational education programs and the corresponding growth of those programs. Also during this period the California Master Plan for Higher Education was enacted, and the governance of the junior (community) colleges was moved from the State Department of Education to the new Board of Governors of the California Junior Colleges. The availability of funds and relatively few restrictions on operations made the sixties a golden age of expansion and innovation in adult education.


The national competency-based adult education movement in the seventies both influenced and was influenced by California. The State Department of Education used federal funds available under the Adult Education Act to develop field-based staff development and curriculum support projects. The life-skills-oriented curriculum was particularly well suited to the needs of the large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees who filled the ESL and ABE classes during the latter part of the decade. While adult vocational education programs grew because of generous federal support, classes in art, music, crafts, drama, foreign languages, forum, and civic education were lost because of the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. These programs earlier had represented 50 percent of adult education enrollment.


Through the use of federal funds available under the Adult Education Act, the California State Department of Education encouraged the institutionalization of competency-based education (a performance-based process leading to demonstrated mastery of skills that adults need to function independently) in programs serving adults. Agencies applying for federal funds were mandated to initiate a plan to implement a competency-based approach to education in their programs. Federal funds also made possible the provision of a statewide support system of staff development, assessment, and curriculum dissemination to assist agencies in implementing the mandate.


By the late eighties the country was coming to grips with a changing workplace significantly affected by the demands of the technology explosion and a workforce characterized by increasing percentages of disadvantaged minority and limited-English-proficient workers. In addition, the percentage of single-parent families had increased dramatically. The need for ESL classes in the state tripled as a result of the education requirements connected with the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act, and other state and federal legislation was enacted to fund educational programs for the growing number of incarcerated persons and welfare recipients. New leadership in the California Department of Education directed adult education through a sunset review by the Legislature and led a strategic planning process to meet future needs for adult education.


During the nineties adult education in California focused on the attack on illiteracy called for in America 2000: An Education Strategy (U.S. DOE 1991), the report on the national education goals. Integral to reaching the goals was the implementation of the strategic and state plans for adult education. Reform legislation addressed inequities in adult school finance and provided for new programs in under-served areas. Innovative strategies emerged for using contextualized approaches to education for adults with literacy problems. An increased focus on family literacy programs was designed to break the cycle of intergenerational illiteracy by educating parents and children together. The rising use of the Internet made possible the wider use of technology for professional networking, for dissemination of information about best practices, and for instructional applications.


New terminology was born: standards-based education, performance-based accountability, the National Reporting System, and benchmarks. By the beginning of 2000, accountability initiatives originating in the late nineties had affected all programs in California adult education. The federal government initiated funding for particular programs to meet the needs of immigrants in classes such as English literacy and civics education. To qualify for federal monies, schools had to demonstrate that students were advancing. State and federal initiatives included a more rigorous General Educational Development (GED) test in 2002 and the California High School Exit Examination—initiatives that challenged adult secondary education programs. Advances in technology improved communication among adult education providers and created opportunities for enhancing instruction to meet the challenges of the new century. Each of the changes and emerging trends affected adult education by bringing higher expectations of student performance, and adult schools were held accountable for students' performance.


To learn more about the history of adult education in California, visit www.caadultedhistory.org.