Adult Education's Contributions to Society Evolve as Our Needs Change

By West, Linda L. | Leadership, May-June 2006 | Go to article overview

Adult Education's Contributions to Society Evolve as Our Needs Change


West, Linda L., Leadership


Public adult education in California is celebrating its 150-year anniversary. The memoirs of John Swett, California's fourth superintendent of public instruction, record that in 1856 he taught an evening class sponsored by the San Francisco Board of Education in the basement of St. Mary's Cathedral. From that first classroom, a multiple-provider system has grown that meets the challenges and serves the needs of more than 2 million adults every year.

Early years of adult education

The early evening classes, like those today, consisted largely of immigrants--in those days, Irish, Italians and Chinese. Subjects included citizenship and elementary subjects. John Swett convinced the San Francisco Board of Education to make the school tuition-free, beginning another enduring tradition.

In the last half of the century, evening schools were established in other large cities, such as Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose and Los Angeles. Courses included vocational and academic subjects like arithmetic, algebra, grammar and bookkeeping. By the turn of the century, evening schools existed all over the state as what were then called "Americanization" centers.

In the early years of the 20th century, community demand for adult education resulted in dramatic growth, facilitated by successful court tests and favorable legislation. In 1907 the Legislature authorized high schools to have postgraduate courses, allowing the formation of the public junior college.

In 1926, the first State Plan for Adult Education was presented at a conference at Asilomar. The plan marked a change in the official goal of adult education from removing educational handicaps to organizing resources to improve the community.

In 1921, legislation was passed requiring that Americanization classes be formed when requested by 25 or more people. This mandate for adult education is still a part of the California Education Code. Also in the 1920s, adult education progressed to a means of meeting the educational needs of all adults. Forums on current topics in government, politics, literature and science became a part of adult education programs.

Depression 1930s and wartime 1940s

The decade of the 1930s and the Great Depression saw setbacks when many schools for adults were temporarily closed and programs were curtailed in others.

By 1933, California adult education, in its typical response to national social issues, was involved in Works Progress Administration (WPA)-funded programs, including literacy, vocational training and parent education. Teachers were sent to Civilian Conservation Corps camps, where they organized evening high schools. Adult education continued to grow, and by the end of the decade, one in 10 California adults participated in some type of adult education class.

During World War II California adult education responded to the request of the federal government to train people for work in the defense program. From 1940 to 1945, nearly 1 million California workers were trained in defense classes.

Classes included pre-employment training for work in factories, farms and offices; civilian defense and first aid classes; and military services training programs such as flying, clerical support, truck driving and maintenance.

Fabulous 1950s

The 1950s saw the development of modern adult education programs governed by the Education Code. A State Advisory Committee on Adult Education coordinated the programs offered to adults by 261 high school adult education programs and 45 junior colleges. Adult programs were funded about 45 percent by state apportionment, determined on the basis of average daily attendance, and about 55 percent by local support, based on assessed property evaluation.

There were funding inequities. The apportionment for adult classes in high schools was lower than identical classes in junior colleges. Local support for classes in poor districts was lower than in rich districts. …

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Adult Education's Contributions to Society Evolve as Our Needs Change
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