Quality Assurance Initiatives in Literacy and Essential Skills: A Pan-Canadian Perspective

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1 Quality Assurance Initiatives in Literacy and Essential Skills: A Pan-Canadian Perspective Summary of Key Informant Interviews Final Report November 2014

2 Acknowledgments Thank you to the following organizations for contributing to this report: College Sector Committee for Adult Upgrading Decoda Literacy Solutions Government of New Brunswick, Post Secondary Education, Training and Labour Laubach Literacy of New Brunswick Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador Literacy Nova Scotia NWT Literacy Council Nunavut Literacy Council Quebec English Literacy Alliance Saskatchewan Literacy Network Yukon Literacy Coalition This project was funded by the Government of Canada s Adult Learning, Literacy and Essential Skills Program.

3 Contents 1. Introduction... 1 A. Purpose of this report... 1 B. Background Information Methodology Findings... 3 A. Definitions of quality related to literacy and essential skills... 3 i. Program results, processes and values... 3 ii. Practitioners... 4 iii. Accountability... 5 iv. How well quality is being achieved... 5 B. Interest in quality assurance... 5 C. Provincial, territorial and regional mechanisms for ensuring quality in literacy and essential skills programming... 6 i. What is working well: promising initiatives... 7 ii. Challenges and barriers... 8 iii. What else is needed... 8 iv. Principles that should inform a quality assurance framework... 9 D. Interest in moving forward on a national quality assurance framework for literacy and essential skills 10 Appendix: Key Informant Interview Guide... i 1. Background Information... i 2. Purpose of interview... i 3. Interview Questions... ii

4 1. Introduction A. Purpose of this report The purpose of this report is to provide a summary of the views of key informants from provincial and territorial literacy coalitions and other organizations on ensuring quality literacy and essential skills programming. Essential Skills Ontario (ESO) gathered this information as part of a larger project on Quality Assurance (QA) funded by the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, Employment and Social Development Canada. B. Background Information ESO developed a background paper called Quality Assurance in Literacy and Essential Skills: Possible Approaches. The paper provides an overview of QA, and different approaches to QA being applied to education and training. It raises QA issues that need to be discussed in the Canadian context, particularly around literacy and essential skills. The paper outlines rationales for the importance of QA in training and education. These rationales focus on 1) better demonstrated accountability, 2) improved learning outcomes, 3) better alignment of achievement levels with occupations, 4) fostering a culture of continuous program improvement, 5) increasing participant mobility, and 6) enhancing program capacity. 1 Furthermore, it outlines three models of quality assurance. The first model focuses on accountability and compliance. Governments usually initiate this model which considers institutional input such as curriculum, learning materials, instructor qualifications and other information that is benchmarked against an expected norm. There is an external audit to ensure compliance and a remediation process for those who are non-compliant. The quality assurance process is mandatory for those who want to receive public funding. The second model focuses on internal evaluation and continuous improvement for service providers. It is generally concerned with value that learners gain from programs and longer term learner outcomes. It purports to use qualitative and quantitative evidence to judge these aspects and improve areas of weakness. The third model focuses on quality award programs such as an incentive to organizations to improve their quality. It recognizes excellence in quality management, benchmarking against best practices, performing self assessments and making improvements. Of pivotal importance, was a meeting of the Pan-Canadian Literacy Alliance held in Vancouver in May At that meeting, John MacLaughlin, Director of Policy and Research for Essential Skills Ontario presented findings from the background paper. At that meeting, the provincial and territorial literacy coalitions expressed an interest in Quality Assurance (QA) models and their 1 See p.5 of Quality Assurance in Literacy and Essential Skills: Possible Approaches 1

5 possible applicability towards literacy and essential skills programming. As a result of that interest, ESO wanted to continue the conversation with the coalitions and others to get a deeper understanding of their perspectives on QA as it related to literacy and essential skills. Interviews with key informants build on the previous discussions on the findings of the ESO background paper. The objectives of conducting key informant interviews were to gain perspectives from key informants on: what constitutes quality in literacy and essential skills the interest of each key informant towards quality related to literacy and essential skills the kinds of initiatives taking place around quality and literacy and essential skills in the provinces and territories what is working and what is not in these initiatives what key informants would like to see for QA in the area of literacy and essential skills what kind of will there is to pursue a collective initiative around QA what the process for such an initiative would look like if there is the will 2. Methodology The consultant and ESO s Director of Policy and Research facilitated an initial conference call with provincial and territorial literacy coalitions. The purpose of the call, which took place in June 2014, was to gain a deeper understanding of the coalitions perspectives on QA for literacy and essential skills. Three coalitions participated in this call. This call was followed up with confidential telephone interviews with other coalitions and additional organizations with an interest in QA for literacy and essential skills. Twelve interviews were conducted altogether. Each interview took approximately one hour. All key informants received ESO s background paper Quality Assurance in Literacy and Essential Skills: Possible Approaches before the interviews took place. In total, there were sixteen responses. The findings of the report were presented to the Pan-Canadian Alliance Literacy Alliance members at their meeting in Halifax in October The purpose of the presentation was to: validate the results elicit additional information on the topics in the report The Alliance s feedback was incorporated into the paper. 2

6 3. Findings The report findings are organized according to the topics explored in the key informant interviews and the conference call. Key themes are summarized. A. Definitions of quality related to literacy and essential skills Key informants saw quality assurance as reflected in both external and internal mechanisms. While some thought that both types were important, others felt that external mechanisms were not always relevant. For some, the important emphasis was on quality rather than assurance and providing support to make sure than quality programming can happen. Several comments also revealed that people thought the idea of quality is not well understood. In the words of one person, The topic is not well understood. There is no clear agreement on how to define quality. Four main themes around definitions of quality related to literacy and essential skills came out of the key informant interviews. These four themes focused on: program results, processes, and values instructors accountability mechanisms for ensuring quality i. Program results, processes and values This theme was the most widely discussed of the four. Program results The most common concepts of quality focused on how programs impact learners. For example, positive results and successful outcomes for learners were critical aspects of quality related to program effectiveness. Key informants emphasized achievement of goals based on the needs of learners. One key informant noted that quality is when students who are in literacy programs exit those programs with better skills than they went in with. These learner goals related to life, employment, further training and education, and health. In small northern communities, quality is related to positive results for the whole community not just individuals. In the context of learners, one provincial literacy organization is developing a learner credential. A credential shows what people have learned both within the literacy program and outside. It recognizes the learning accomplished and makes it visible. It also helps to show quality and consistency. Learner progress is measured in the same way across the province and tracked 3

7 through a database. This is an excellent starting point to develop a learner credential and measure increments of learning. In the context of examining quality, key informants identified barriers to learner readiness that need to be addressed. Examples of barriers are social obstacles, addictions, life style skills and time management. The idea expressed was that people need support and need to be ready to learn before they come to a program. Some key informants suggested that these factors need to be addressed through a program s policies and procedures. Program processes Other aspects of quality connect to program processes. For example, it is important that the needs assessment process used places learners in the right program. In addition to needs assessment, it is imperative to ensure that learners are progressing. Program design and relevant curriculum were identified as vital. In some regions, programs that are more academic may be seen as less relevant and less likely to meet the needs of learners. As a result, they may have a low retention rate. Key informants also saw the importance of being able to easily progress within a program and to other programs. In order to have this kind of movement among programs, a referral process that works is necessary. Program values The importance of respect for learners, learner centredness, accessibility of programs, and equality within programs were values described as being associated with quality in literacy and essential skills programming. There is a focus on relationships and collaboration and building the capacity of adults who attend programs. In addition, looking at learners in a holistic manner, recognizing skills they bring with them, and employing suitable learning strategies were part of a philosophy of adult learning that should be present. In the words of one person, Start with exactly where people are. The idea that programs should be asset based rather than focusing on deficits was reflected in the interviews. ii. Practitioners Key informants saw well qualified practitioners as important to quality literacy and essential skills programming. They indicated that practitioners need to be trained to instruct adults. Being experienced in working with adults was seen as an important aspect of ensuring quality. However, key informants also acknowledged it was often difficult to find these practitioners. The easiest default was to hire school teachers who have a Bachelor of Education but are not usually trained in teaching adults. However, it may even be difficult to find teachers especially in the territories. 4

8 One provincial literacy organization has developed and piloted a practitioner credential. The purpose of the credential is to raise the visibility of literacy work and improve quality. It focuses on the competencies that literacy practitioners need to have. It is flexible in that it relies on many different ways, both formal and informal, that practitioners may have gained competencies. It is designed to pull people into the practice rather than keep people out. It is intended to make visible the professionalism required to do this work. Associated with the idea of qualified practitioners was the need for ongoing, systematic professional development and opportunities to network with other practitioners. iii. Accountability Overall accountability to funders, learners and communities was seen as an important aspect of quality. A return needs to happen for all the stakeholders starting with the learner. Accountability was linked to program effectiveness, efficiency, and management. It was also tied to a level of professionalism. Most key informants put the learners interests first in terms of accountability. iv. How well quality is being achieved Key informants mostly indicated that quality was being achieved on an ad hoc basis. However, they also acknowledged that this is a work in progress as more attention is being put on accountability and quality standards. One informant said, I see quality and literacy going hand in hand. It has gone from something to nothing. This is not enough responsibility for learning and public money. In some circumstances, some respondents believed that programs do not seem to be serving learners in that statistics do not improve or retention is low. In spite of these results, the programs continue to be offered in the same way. In other situations, an emphasis on quality is having a positive effect. Another concern is that in some regions programs are working in silos. They are doing things differently and not meeting or connecting to learn from each other. When programs are working in silos, it is difficult for learners to transition easily from one program to another. An additional challenge is that mostly there are few opportunities for professional development. In some regions, there is little consistency in the professional development that instructors or tutors receive. B. Interest in quality assurance Most key informants expressed an interest in quality. Their interests ranged from continuous improvement in their own organizations to providing leadership to ensure that programs in their 5

9 province or territory were supported to serve the needs of learners and communities. Raising the visibility of literacy work and what is required to do it along with controlling what is defined as quality were other reasons for an interest in quality initiatives. Some saw a responsibility to have positive outcomes for the money spent. The importance of quality assurance was underlined in terms of meeting the expectations of funders. Some indicated that quality assurance was important for employers who engage in workplace literacy and essential skills programs. Employers want to know that organizations are providing qualified trainers to deliver programs in their workplaces. Some coalitions are working in partnership with their provincial governments to implement accountability frameworks for literacy and essentials skills for community-based literacy programs. C. Provincial, territorial and regional mechanisms for ensuring quality in literacy and essential skills programming Many informants tended to speak about external accountability frameworks implemented by provincial and territorial governments. Within these frameworks, there is a focus on collecting information such as numbers of learners, types of learners, completers, non-completers, learner satisfaction, instructor qualifications and outcomes for different groups. Decisions may be made on these numbers. These external mechanisms would fall into the Accountability and Compliance model of QA as described in ESO s background paper. Present to a lesser degree are mechanisms that focus on continuous improvement, longer term outcomes, the value that learners receive from their education, program evaluation, and qualitative evidence of learning outcomes and impacts. In jurisdictions where community literacy programs are prevalent, coalitions are working in different ways with provincial governments to implement program standards. This role is usually one of building awareness, training, and mentoring in relation to the standards. In the northern territories, almost all literacy and essential skills programming is done through the colleges. In these cases, the coalitions are not involved in QA. It was evident from talking to key informants that quality standards must go through their own continuous improvement. Many of the accountability frameworks and quality standards were in a state of revision to address new needs and to keep up with changing priorities. 6

10 i. What is working well: promising initiatives Overall, many informants felt that the quality measures that had been put in place for literacy and essential skills were not perfect, but they were a good start. Others felt they could not comment because they did not have enough information. An integrated approach to quality One coalition indicated that it is working on ensuring quality literacy programming in a number of ways. It is working with community literacy programs to benchmark and track learner progress as well as develop learner, practitioner and program credentials. The information that is tracked on a provincial database will be available to literacy programs and will help them improve their service. The practitioner credential will honour diverse ways of recognition including past education and experience. Practitioners will show their experience through portfolio development for six different domains. A learner credential will make visible to those within and outside the literacy field what has been learned on an incremental basis. A focus on programs emphasizes ongoing and systematic professional development through face-to-face meetings, webinars along with coaching and mentoring. Referral process produces good results Another organization indicated that they now have a referral process that is starting to have good results. Having standards means that learners can transition better from one organization s program to another. Making a commitment to the learner One provincial literacy program has made a deliberate effort to develop a set of quality standards. These standards make the learner the priority. This focus informs the content of communication, learning materials, training and certification for tutors. The program has seen what is being accomplished through its tracking system. Tutors enter notes into a database on learner progress, goals, successes and feedback. This information is reported to government, but is also used to determine how the program is doing and to make needed changes. Expanded evaluation of practitioner training One coalition is following up with participants three months after practitioner training to see how the training has impacted their practice. Before doing this, the organization only reported on what they did in the training. 7

11 ii. Challenges and barriers More often than not, key informants felt that there were a number of challenges and barriers related to present mechanisms for quality in place for literacy and essential skills. These barriers are itemized below. Present accountability mechanisms do not go far enough One common thread throughout the interviews was that accountability frameworks need to be expanded to include more of a focus on quality assurance related to learner needs and outcomes and continuous improvement within programs. One person noted, The funder is not invested in learning only that there is a program in my district. The idea implicitly put forward was that there should be more of an emphasis on the continuous improvement model of QA like the one described in the ESO background paper. Unevenness of practitioners The unevenness of practitioners in terms of their ability to deliver quality programming to adults was identified as a concern. This is related to qualifications required, professional development opportunities offered and the availability of qualified practitioners. Lack of resources for quality assurance mechanisms Lack of funding to measure long term outcomes and collect information was identified as a barrier. In addition, there are few resources to bring people together for practitioner training and the sharing best practices. In some regions, online learning is being used as practitioner development strategy. Lack of buy in for quality assurance Several comments indicated that getting buy in for participation in quality assurance is difficult. When practitioners are volunteers they may not see the value of taking the time to input information into a database. In other cases there may not have been enough consultation with programs around the standards that were developed. Practitioners may not want to be evaluated or may see participation as punishment. iii. What else is needed Informants indicated that present accountability frameworks needed to be expanded. They pointed out that numbers are not enough. Interviews revealed some ideas for additions to accountability frameworks to ensure quality in literacy and essential skills programming. These ideas are described below. 8

12 Meeting learner needs Understanding and accommodating learner needs should be an important component of quality assurance. Tracking why learners leave programs is also important. The shift in focus should be from learner deficits to program quality. Part of quality assurance should include program evaluations and identifying how well programs have helped learners achieve their goals. Tracking learner outcomes One important focus was to track long term outcomes and include non-academic outcomes and those other than employment. Resources need to be available to do this kind of follow up. Practitioner development A component of a quality assurance mechanism should include a framework for consistent practitioner development. The impacts of practitioner training should be measured in terms of how the training is making a difference. Practitioner training itself should be evaluated for applicability and relevance. Provide more support to programs An important role for coalitions in many jurisdictions is providing support to programs in offering high quality programs with excellence in outcomes and high impacts for learners. iv. Principles that should inform a quality assurance framework Commitment to the learner Most key informants agreed that the key principal informing a quality assurance framework should be a commitment to the learner through quality programming that meets their needs. The focus should be on meeting the needs of learners rather than how learners can fit into what is offered. Learner feedback describing what is working and what is not is crucial. A framework should also consider the wrap around services needed by learners. Inclusiveness An important principle is related to consultation with all stakeholders who are going to be affected by the framework to get their input and buy in. Then awareness raising and training on the framework are necessary for providers to take on the process. Implementing the framework gradually and doing pilots first are critical to success. Some frameworks focus on self assessment rather than an outside evaluation. Self assessment was seen has less formal and more likely to get the buy in of providers than an external evaluation. 9

13 Accountability Accountability is another key principle. Accountability is related to how funds were spent and if deliverables were achieved. In the words of one person, You have to show you are meeting goals of government and turning people into taxpayers in society. Transparency Transparency was seen as important by the informants. Stakeholders need to know what is being collected for what purposes. There should be a genuine reason for collecting the data. Transparency is also making available the results of data collection. Continuous improvement The information collected should be useful in that organizations can use it to reflect and make needed changes and improvements to their programs. These changes should bring organizations closer to better serving the needs of communities and understanding what happened when programs were not successful. Additional principles to be considered in the development of a QA framework were that it should: be purposeful be ethical and with integrity be honest be flexible be intentional be motivational be rigorous promote positive growth be a useful tool for betterment focus on access D. Interest in moving forward on a national quality assurance framework for literacy and essential skills Conditions for a QA Framework to work Key informants were mostly interested in the idea of a national quality assurance framework for literacy and essential skills. Such a framework would need to be flexible enough to accommodate and respect provincial and territorial contexts and differences. The idea of having a national framework filled in with the particulars of each province and territory was put forward. For example, in the North it would be important to include both 10

14 formal and non formal learning programs. In addition, there are many other players that would need to be involved especially provincial and territorial governments, many of whom have already embarked on this journey. They would need to see how a national quality assurance framework would benefit them. Time and resources are needed to make it work. Benefits One of the major benefits of having a national framework would be the power of a collective voice in a time when there is a focus on divide and conquer. One person s comments reflect this idea, We are not stepping on toes but making alliances. Coming from the coalitions, a quality assurance framework could have a better comfort level and provide opportunities for building better and higher quality literacy and essential skills initiatives. As a result, learners potentially would have access to quality programs across the country. Developing such a framework is a way that coalitions can share their knowledge around successes and failures, and learn from each other. Another important aspect of this work would be to collectively influence change at the political level to improve quality. A conversation about this could determine how people might work together on the framework. Challenges For some coalitions, this would not be the time to get involved given their funding situation. Questions were raised. For example, What is the purpose of QA? How realistic is it to develop something? Who would do the monitoring? There were also concerns that there would be no support of uptake for such a framework. Other fears were that it would be difficult to have a national quality assurance framework given that there is no national literacy strategy. In addition, many provinces and territories have already done this work. Some felt they would be overstepping themselves to take something like this on if territorial and provincial governments were not involved. Questions were raised in terms of how to get important partners such as government and colleges on board. Possible process for development Key informants underscored the fact that they would need resources to be able to participate in such a project. They would need funding for staff time and travel. The first step in developing a framework is to have more discussions on whether it is feasible. Coalitions need to better understand each other s context for literacy and essential skills. There would need to be discussion on how to involve other players like provincial and territorial governments. The Alliance needs to define its needs for a framework and design it based on needs. An idea was to work inward first by testing out QA on the coalitions as organizations first 11

15 before taking it out to other organizations. Some support the breakdown of QA for practitioners, programs and learners. If the project goes ahead, the development of principles that everybody can agree on are important. These principles provide a place to come back to when decisions are being made. In order to develop something for QA, It would be respectful to model the approach and show that Alliance members are doing it for their own organizations. In that way, they can show how it is useful to the organizations they work with. Expected results The Alliance members wonder if a set of standards would come out of a QA framework and how they would be received by others. Would standards operate as a literacy gold seal? Professionalization of the field of adult literacy is an expected result 12

16 Appendix: Key Informant Interview Guide 1. Background Information Essential Skills Ontario is gathering information from key stakeholders from literacy coalitions and others across the country on quality assurance initiatives in literacy and essential skills and in other areas that could inform initiatives in literacy and essential skills. This information gathering is part of a large project that ESO is undertaking and builds on previous meetings and phone calls where an interest was expressed by coalitions in pursuing this topic further. Essential Skills Ontario has arranged a series of conference calls to pursue the topic of quality assurance further. The interview process is meant to supplement the conference calls where key stakeholders were unable to participate. One conference call meeting has already taken place. Essential Skills Ontario has prepared a background paper called Quality Assurance in Literacy and Essential Skills: Possible Approaches. This paper will be available to all key informants. 2. Purpose of interview The purpose of the confidential interview is to find out: what constitutes quality in literacy and essential skills what interest each stakeholder has in quality especially with respect to literacy and essential skills what kinds of initiatives are taking place especially with respect to quality in literacy and essential skills what is working and what is not what stakeholders would like to see in the area of literacy and essential skills as it pertains to quality what kind of will is there to pursue a collective initiative what might that process look like if there is the will The results from the interviews and conference calls will go into a collective report and no individual or organization will be identified within the context of the report. i

17 3. Interview Questions 1. How would you define quality as it relates to literacy and essential skills? Is it being achieved? 2. What is your interest in quality assurance? 3. What mechanisms are there to ensure quality in literacy and essential skills programming in your province or territory/sector? 4. How well are these mechanisms working? What is working well? What is not working well? Why not? 5. Do you feel some sort of mechanism that ensures quality LES programming is necessary in the context of your province/territory or sector? What ideally would you like to see to ensure quality in programming? 6. What are the principles that should inform a quality assurance framework? 7. What opportunities are there for moving forward together on a quality assurance framework? How might you like to see a collective happen? ii

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