Citizenship Education in a Time of Transitions and Insurrection

US Capitol Building
By Bill Bliss

January 2021 was already going to be a time of transitions for our programs that prepare immigrants to become naturalized citizens. In addition to updating the answers to some civics test questions to reflect recent election results, we need to prepare for a transition to a new version of the civics test that poses challenges for our students and programs. And then came the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which demonstrated to many of our students the precariousness of the system of government they are learning about and the sudden fragility of some of the basic facts they need to know for the test, including the system of checks and balances among three branches of government, and the rules of presidential succession.

The Transitions: A New Administration and a New Civics Test

Every U.S. election can result in changes in answers to some of the civics questions for naturalization, which ask students to name the President, the Vice President, the Governor of their state, their Representative in Congress, the Speaker of the House, and one of their state’s U.S. Senators. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website offers a link with updates for the federal offices. For example, after the inauguration on January 20, the site will let us know the multiple ways students can name the new President, which will likely include Joseph R. Biden, Jr, Joseph Biden, Joe Biden, and possibly just Biden. (A link to the USCIS test update page is here.)

The greater transition challenge this year is the major revision of the civics test of U.S. history and government knowledge. The test is significantly more difficult and lengthier than the current version, which requires applicants to answer correctly six out of ten questions from an item pool of 100 possible questions. The new test requires applicants to answer correctly 12 out of 20 questions from an item pool of 128 possible questions. Many of the new questions are more difficult, use more complicated vocabulary, or are provoking controversy regarding their content. In addition, while the old test stops as soon as applicants answer six questions correctly, the new test requires applicants to answer all 20 questions regardless of whether they have already answered 12 correctly. This will potentially increase the amount of time that USCIS officers need to administer the civics portion of the exam and thereby result in longer and fewer interviews per day, further exacerbating the agency’s backlog in processing citizenship applications.

Given these concerns, many education programs, advocacy organizations, and others have submitted comments to USCIS calling for the new test to be rescinded or delayed until it can be further reviewed by the new administration. (My recent article describing issues with the new test is available here.) As of this writing, there has been no change in the policy, and the new test is required for all students whose citizenship application filing dates are December 1, 2020, and after. Students who filed prior to that date will take the old test. So unless there is a policy change, our citizenship education programs currently need to prepare students for two different sets of civics questions depending on their application dates. And since USCIS regional offices vary widely in their appointment backlogs, programs around the country will experience different percentages of students needing to prepare for the old and new test versions.

Here are some resources that show the comparison between the old and new sets of civics test questions:

A listing of the old test questions (with a comparison to the new questions) is available here.

A listing of the new test questions (with a comparison to the old questions) is available here.

A Voices of Freedom unit-by-unit integration of the old and new test questions is available here.

If you would like to provide comments or suggested edits to USCIS regarding any of the new test questions, you can send them to naturalizationtestrevision2019@uscis.dhs.gov.

The Insurrection

The attack on the Capitol on January 6 has had a profound impact on many of our immigrant students, whose reactions have ranged from shock and fear that an insurrection could occur in the United States, to a wary familiarity with such events from their experiences in their countries of origin. For many students in our civics classes, the principles of democracy and the stability of the government institutions they are studying are beacons of hope lighting their pathway to citizenship. Many cite the rights and responsibilities of citizenship as the fulfillment of a dream as they prepare to take the oath of allegiance at their naturalization ceremonies.

But many know too well from their home countries how fragile government institutions and people’s rights can be. Ironically, while one of the most important aspects of attaining citizenship is for our students to eventually be able to have relatives join them in the U.S. through family immigration, many students were hearing from those family members after the events at the Capitol to check on their safety and the stability of the United States.

When considering these events through the eyes of our students, it is also important to acknowledge that many of them have experienced the effects of growing anti-immigrant sentiment over the past few years, and many are in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession. These students’ motivations for acquiring citizenship therefore also may include the goal of increasing their safety and acceptance in the country as well as safeguarding their lives and livelihoods.

The challenges our students may be facing coupled with uncertainty surrounding the recent events may result in their having lots of questions, concerns, and a need to share during instructional time. Whether you are offering citizenship instruction or general English language instruction, and whether you are currently meeting with students remotely or in a classroom, here are links to some resources you may find useful for incorporating lessons or conversations about the U.S. Capitol insurrection:

“What Happened During the Insurrection at the US Capitol and Why?” – a resource from Facing History and Ourselves, is available here.

“Three ways to teach the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol” – a lesson plan with videos from the PBS Newshour, is available here.

“Lesson from an Insurrection” – interviews with 15 instructors about how they and their students have responded to the events, from the education news site The 74, is available here.

A “January 6, 2021 Resource Guide” – from the New York City Department of Education, is available here.

I am currently preparing an article on how immigrant students view the January 6 attack and invite you to share any writing about this by your students. If a student would like to have her or his photo included and give permission, please send any submissions to: bill.bliss@languageandcommunication.org.

New Citizens, New Voters

Bill Bliss
By Bill Bliss

Did you know that . . .

10 percent of the total U.S. electorate consists of naturalized citizens?

Before COVID-19, up to 860,000 new Americans had been expected to take their oath of citizenship and be eligible to vote this year?

Up to half that number may not be able to vote due to months-long pandemic shutdowns at USCIS field offices, which exacerbated years of growing delays in citizenship processing?*

Since field offices reopened on June 4, citizenship oath ceremonies have resumed at a slower rate than usual through a variety of workarounds, including smaller indoor gatherings that observe social distancing measures, outdoor ceremonies, and even drive-through events sponsored by local governments. However, the months of postponed naturalization interviews have severely reduced the number of applicants who have completed the process and are ready to take the oath in time to register to vote.

The delays have stymied the efforts of the League of Women Voters and other organizations throughout the country to register as many new citizens as possible in time to vote in the upcoming election. For some states, voter registration deadlines have passed. But many states still have upcoming registration deadlines or allow simultaneous registration and voting on Election Day. You can find a useful state-by-state guide to voting deadlines and procedures here.

If you have current or former citizenship students who are eligible, encourage them to register to vote!

Our students cite being able to vote as one of their most important motivations for becoming citizens. And our instruction emphasizes this as one of citizens’ key rights and responsibilities. In celebration of this election season, here are complimentary lessons from the Voices of Freedom course that you can use with your students on the topics of rights, responsibilities, and civic participation, including elections.

If you are currently offering your citizenship instruction remotely or through a hybrid model due to the pandemic, here’s a new training video for Voices of Freedom that includes a segment on remote instruction strategies using Zoom and Google Meet.  (That segment begins at 25:48.)

And as a service to programs operating remotely, an electronic version of the course is also available here––a useful resource for screensharing and as an alternative to the print edition of the student book.

(*Information about delays in citizenship processing are available at these sites:  FiveThirtyEight, Boundless, and the Migration Policy Institute.)


To learn more about the Voices of Freedom course and its components, and for ordering information, please visit our digital catalog here.

Resources for Adult Educators and Adult Education Advocates

During the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week (AEFL Week), we have been promoting the value of and the need for adult education in the U.S. Advancing adult education and English language acquisition benefits not only individuals and their families but also their communities and the nation’s economy. By offering educational opportunities to adults, we help them achieve economic independence and social mobility.

But advocating for adult education should not be limited to just one week a year. It is important that we bring awareness about the need for adult education every day. Below is a list of resources for anyone who wants to get involved in advocating for adult education and family literacy.

Adult Education Is Needed Now – COABE website that explains the need for adult education

COABE/NCSDAE Educate & Elevate Campaign – A national campaign to help policy makers understand the value of Adult Education.  The website offers a helpful toolkit for organizations and individuals who want to get involved in the campaign.

National Coalition for Literacy – a national coalition of the national organizations and other advocates dedicated to advancing adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the U.S.

Project Literacy – a global campaign founded and convened by Pearson that aims to end illiteracy by 2030 through partnership and action.

“Low literacy has a major impact on income inequality and parenting.” Read this AEFL Week Fact Sheet from the National Coalition for Literacy.

The Case for Investments in Adult Education – A white paper from ProLiteracy

Adult Ed helps immigrants integrate into the U.S—a brief description of why it pays to invest in Adult Education

Adult Education and Family Literacy Week Fact Sheet and articles

The World Education’s blog The Well – interesting posts on the topic of Adult Education, including ESOL.

Adult English language instruction in the United States: Determining need and investing wisely. An article from the Migration Policy Institute.

Links to best practices/resources for teachers:

Six simple ways to strengthen independent learning skills

On teaching effective learning

Tips for collaborative learning

Increasing student engagement

Toward comprehensive assessment in the adult ESOL classroom

English Literacy and Immigration

by Gosia Jaros-White, Marketing Manager, Pearson ELT USA

Immigration Statistics

According to American Community Survey (ACS) data from 2015, there are approximately 43 million immigrants in the U.S., which accounts for about 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population (321.4 million in 2015).i Furthermore, according to the Current Population Survey (CPS) from 2016, immigrants and their U.S.-born children totaled approximately 84.3 million people—27 percent of the overall U.S. population.

In 2015, immigrants accounted for about 17 percent (26.7 million) of the nearly 161 million workers in the civilian labor force in the U.S. The percentage of immigrant workers more than tripled (from 5 percent to 17 percent), between 1970 and 2015. Of the total number of immigrant workers:

31 percent worked in management and professional occupations;
24 percent in the service sector;
16.9 percent in sales and office occupations;
13.1 percent in construction and maintenance;
15 percent in production and transportation business.

The top five states with the highest immigration population were California (10.7 million), Texas (4.7 million), New York (4.5 million), Florida (4.1 million), and New Jersey (2 million).

Demographically, approximately 51 percent of immigrants in 2015 were women. Immigrants were also older than the native-born population—the median age of immigrants was about 44 years in 2015, whereas the median age for the native-born population was 36.

Immigrants with Limited English Proficiency (LEP)

In 2015, there were nearly 26 million individuals in need of English Literacy. ii These individuals are classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) and represent 9 percent of the total U.S. population ages 5 or older. Out of that number, nearly 5 million LEP individuals are native-born and 21 million are foreign-born. The 21-million number represents approximately 49 percent of the 43 million immigrants ages 5 and older who were LEP.

Spanish speakers accounted for 64 percent (16.4 million) of the LEP population, Chinese speakers accounted for 7 percent (1.8 million), and Vietnamese accounted for 3 percent (867,000). The states with the highest share of LEP residents were California (19%), Texas (14%), New York (14%), Hawaii (12%), Nevada (12%), New Jersey (12%), and Florida (12%).

The overwhelming majority (75%) of LEP individuals were adults between ages 18 and 64. About 16 percent of LEP individuals were adults 65 and over. LEP children constituted 9 percent of the total LEP population.

In general, LEP individuals were less educated than English-proficient individuals. Forty-five percent of LEP adults 25 years old and older did not possess a high school diploma (compared to 9 percent of English-proficient adults). Only about 15 percent of LEP adults had a college diploma (bachelor’s degree or higher), compared to 32 percent of English-proficient individuals.

English Language Education for Adult Learners

According to the 2015 data, 1.5 million adults were enrolled in adult education programs.iii Out of the 1.5 million, 44 percent of adult students were English Language Learners (ELLs). These numbers indicate that only a fraction of LEP adults are served by adult education programs, and most states have waiting lists because of limited funding.

The population of ELLs attending English language courses is very diverse, representing adults from many different cultures, languages, educational backgrounds, and socio-economic and life situations. Many of these learners face very difficult financial circumstances, even though they often work long hours outside the home. Some of the ELLs are refugees from countries torn by wars or conflicts, and many deal with emotional and psychological traumas due to their experiences. The adults attending English literacy programs might possess post-secondary education, or they might be migrant workers from Central America with interrupted education. Some might have low literacy skills in their native language, and some have very little schooling and no written language.iv

Demographically, according to the National Reporting System (NRS) data for years 2014– 2016, about 64 percent of ELLs attending English literacy programs were women. Fifty-six percent of adults in these programs were between the ages of 25 and 44.v

Learning English is not an easy task for adults, especially those with low literacy skills in their native languages. Research shows that adult learners need between 85 and 150 study hours per year for six years in order to gain full English proficiency.vi NRS data indicate that on average, adult ELLs spent 190 hours per year, but two-thirds of them completed only one full level of education. Approximately 40 percent of ELLs completed more than one full level of education.vii What is important to note, however, that the levels most completed by ELLs are the beginning and intermediate levels (NRS Beginning ESL-Literacy–NRS Low-Intermediate ESL). ELLs at these proficiency levels do not have sufficient skills for successful transition into post-secondary education.

The Importance of English Literacy Programs

The importance of English literacy programs cannot be overstated. Since LEP individuals are more likely to live in poverty than their English-proficient counterparts (in 2015, about 23 percent of LEP individuals lived below the official federal poverty line compared to 13 percent of English-proficient individuals),viii adult education and family literacy programs are crucial to help these individuals improve their lives by giving them skills they need to succeed in a career, post-secondary training, family life, and society.

Increased English proficiency:

  • Reduces poverty rates.
  • Raises immigrants’ productivity, earnings, and income tax payments. (On average, English-proficient individuals earn 13–24 percent more than less proficient individuals.ix)
  • Lowers use of public benefits.
  • Allows adults to obtain more specialized training or pursue college education.
  • Allows immigrants to be involved in their children’s education. Research indicates that children of English-proficient parents achieve higher educational and workforce outcomes.x
  • Helps immigrants obtain citizenship and engage in all aspects of civic and community life.

Promoting Adult Education and English Language Learning

Advancing adult education and English language acquisition benefits not only immigrants and their families but also their communities and the nation’s economy. By offering educational opportunities to adults, we help them achieve economic independence and social mobility. A number of organizations are involved in advocating for adult education in the U.S. If you are interested in promoting the value and benefits of adult education and English language learning, explore the sites listed below and get engaged!

COABE/NCSDAE Educate & Elevate Campaign – A national campaign to help policy makers understand the value of Adult Education.

The Educate & Elevate website offers a helpful toolkit for organizations and individuals who want to get involved in the campaign.

National Coalition for Literacy – A coalition of national organizations and other advocates dedicated to advancing adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the U.S.

Project Literacy – a global campaign founded and convened by Pearson that aims to end illiteracy by 2030 through partnership and action.


Sources

i Zong & Batalova (2017). Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States. Retrieved from: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states/#Workforce

ii Batalova & Zong (2016). Language Diversity and English Proficiency in the United States. Retrieved from: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/language-diversity-and-english-proficiency-united-states

iii National Council of State Directors of Adult Education (2016). Blue Book: Adult Education Services, the Success, the Impact, and the Need. Retrieved from www.naepdc.org

iv National Coalition for Literacy. Immigration and English Literacy Fact Sheet 2013. Retrieved: http://national-coalition-literacy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/immigration-and-english-literacy-fact-sheet-2013.pdf

v State-Administered Adult Education Program Enrollment of Participants by Age and Enrolled in ESL Functioning Levels Program Year: 2014–2016, using the United States Department of Education’s Office of Adult and Vocational Education’s National Reporting System figures retrieved from: http://wdcrobcolp01.ed.gov/CFAPPS/OVAE/NRS/login.cfm

vi McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix (2007). Adult English language instruction in the United States: Determining need and investing wisely. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

vii See v.

viii See ii.

ix See vi.

x See vi.

Have you heard of PIAAC? (And why I think you should!)

by Federico Salas-Isnardi

(This article is excerpted from a longer article I published in the Texas Adult Education and Literacy Quarterly, 18, 2, pp. 1-3, Spring 2014.)

How many of you can raise your hand if I ask you about the 2012 PIAAC report?  How many of you understand its implications? Interestingly, as I talk to adult educators around the nation, many, if not most, tell me they have never heard of PIAAC.  Even many who say they heard of the report are uncomfortable articulating reasons why this study has serious implications for the practice of adult education.  So, what is PIAAC?

Released in October 2013 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for its member nations, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a cyclical study of the literacy, numeracy, reading, and problem-solving competencies of adults 16 to 65 in the USA and 22 other countries. Many of the comparison countries are among the twenty largest economies in the world.

Adults in the United States underperformed most of their counterparts in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The USA ranked 13 out of 24 countries in English language skills, 19 out of 24 in numeracy, and 15 in problem solving skills.  Over 36 million adults in the US have low literacy skills and fully one out every three adults have weak numeracy compared with the average across countries of one out of every five adults surveyed. Low level skills are distributed throughout different demographics in the USA, so that not only we have a larger percentage of adults with low skills but also a smaller proportion of the adult population has skills at the higher levels.  When racial and ethnic variables are considered, minorities are over-represented among those with low competencies; 43 percent of Hispanics and over 30 percent of Blacks score at the lowest levels of literacy used in the PIAAC study. When confronted with the dismal findings, many critics will counter that it is unfair to compare adults in the United States with counterparts in smaller nations or in countries with different or more homogeneous demographics.  However, one reason to be concerned is that the study compares our performance with that of adults in the other developed countries of the OECD, that is, the countries with which we compete for a slice of the global jobs pie.

Other findings

According to the PIAAC study, while adults in the USA have a higher rate of participation in adult education and training than adults in other countries, those who need the training the most are the least likely to get it.  Those of us working as administrators in adult education and literacy need to evaluate our programs; those of us who teach need to take a careful look at the teaching learning interaction in our classrooms, and those of us who focus on professional development must assess our training programs in order to determine why, in spite of the higher participation rate in education programs, our adults not only perform below average internationally but also show that we are getting worse instead of better over the last two decades.

It is also worth considering that the United States is not doing as well as other countries educating our youth; a separate OECD report on the skills of in-school 15 year olds (PISA, 2012) shows our young students scoring below their international counterparts in literacy and numeracy. The challenge is that while other countries have been able to address the skills gap of previous generations, youth in the United States don’t perform better, and often underperform their parents and grandparents.

The challenge to adult educators

It should be apparent now why I find it perplexing that so few in our field have taken the time to learn about this study.  I think that understanding the implications of the PIAAC study is a must for to educators and policymakers alike.  We know of the challenges our students with low literacy levels face obtain employment and to succeed in other personal or training endeavors.  It is noteworthy that according to the report, the United States has one of the highest percentages of available jobs requiring skills at a high school level or above. In other words, while most jobs in demand in this country require higher literacy skills, our adult population has lower skills than the countries we compete with.

So, what are we to do with this knowledge?  It seems to me that our first gut-reaction should be to acknowledge loudly that what we have been doing in adult education is not working.  We need to rethink literacy education and very purposefully integrate numeracy and technology-enabled problem solving in all our adult education programs.  And beyond that, we need to see the PIAAC report as a call to action and we should respond each within our purview because only collective action will address the massive challenges. Adult educators must be proactive and sit at the table as solutions for the problem in K-12 are considered because the literacy crisis affecting our adults is made worse by an ongoing flow of under-skilled youth.

 

For information on PIAAC and the study, visit the OECD

To access the study for the United States click here.

Link to: PISA 2012


Federico Salas-Isnardi has 30 years of experience in Adult Education and second language acquisition.  He has conducted hundreds of workshops on many aspects of adult education, literacy, and ESL and has focused on intercultural and diversity training as well as social justice issues affecting students and teachers for over 25 years.

Federico served on the team that developed the US Naturalization test and is one of the authors of Future US Citizens and a consultant to the Future English for Results series.