CATALYST v23n2 - Criteria for Conducting and Evaluating Workplace Literacy Programs: Two Community College Case Studies
Criteria for Conducting and Evaluating Workplace Literacy Programs: Two Community College Case Studies
Pamela T. Hilbert
Wake Technical Community College
Terrence A. Tollefson
Council of Universities and Colleges
This study of workplace literacy programs was conducted to assist community colleges and businesses in developing effective and accountable literacy programs at business/industry sites. From a literature review, an outline of criteria for workplace literacy programs was compiled that represented organizations and individuals involved in planning and implementation, curriculum used, structure of classes, and recruiting/retention methods. Preliminary data on five workplace literacy programs run by Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina, came from documents and records. Further information was gathered from student interviews and from questionnaires completed by instructors and company contacts. The data revealed the following positive similarities in the classes: in-house publicity efforts avoiding the term "literacy"; trained, well-informed instructors; convenient scheduling; peer recruiting and support; and incentives. Several items found to be negative were instructor turnover, inadequate management support, and lack of direct incentives.
Attempts to achieve a "literate" society can be likened to trying to hit a moving target. The concept of literacy has evolved from the ability to sign one's name to achieving reading and writing levels typical of students who have completed fourth grade, eighth grade, or twelfth grade. More recent efforts have shifted to defining "functional literacy" or "basic skills" in terms of adults' abilities to read, write, compute, listen, and work cooperatively at proficiency levels needed to "compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship" (Chisman, 1990, p. 2) . The number of adult Americans has been estimated to be as high as 30 million (Chisman, 1990) .
Concerns about the declining ability of U.S. workers to compete successfully in international markets prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) (1991) . That committee issued a report entitled SCANS: Blueprint for Action: Building Community Coalitions. The report included a plan to facilitate community efforts to enable present and future work force members to satisfy the needs of their employers in business and industry.
The 1990 "Educational Summit" between President George Bush and the National Governors' Association led to the publication of "America 2000: An Education Strategy." One of six national goals promulgated in that report is that, "by the year 2000, every adult will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship" (Wolfe, 1991, p. 4) .
The National Literacy Act of 1991 mandated the establishment of a National Institute for Literacy, which will be required to evaluate "the amount and quality of basic education provided in the workplace by businesses and industries" (McGraw, 1991, p. 9) . The act also provides for the establishment of state literacy centers to ". . .encourage government and industry partnerships which include small businesses, private non-profit groups, and community-based organizations" (McGraw, 1991, p.9) .
A recent study of 250 small companies by the Roper Organization for the Center for Workplace Preparation and Quality Education reported that 86% of the employers believed it was important for employees to possess basic reading skills and that 29% were experiencing difficulties in obtaining employees with the necessary basic skills (Szabo, 1992) .
Definition of Workplace Literacy
For purposes of this study, a workplace literacy class is defined as one offered at a business/industry site to help employees to improve basic skills such as reading, writing, and computation and to enhance thinking skills such as problem solving and decision making. The focus of the class work can be on work improvement, personal improvement, or both.
Elements of Effective Workplace Literacy Programs
To determine the relative effectiveness of individual workplace literacy classes, criteria important in evaluating classes must be determined. Chosen criteria must allow for program uniqueness and adaptivity in varying work cultures based on training needs of the various work forces, value that companies place on basic skills training, and resources available for implementation at the respective locations (U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988) . The literature deals with several aspects of programming for workplace literacy: the organizations and individuals involved, curriculum (materials, lesson plans, method, focus), structure of the class (time, location, atmosphere, support services), and recruiting/retention methods.
The following outline, "Criteria for Workplace Literacy Programs," is a summary of the criteria derived from the literature on workplace literacy programs and from the researcher's experience instructing and supervising such programs. As a conceptual framework, and as an informal evaluation tool, this outline served as a guide in studying five workplace literacy classes set up by Wake Technical Community College's Basic Skills Program in conjunction with Wake County businesses/ industries. The five classes studied were in operation at varying times from 1985 to 1992; the study was completed in June 1992.
Criteria for Workplace Literacy Programs
I. Organizations/individuals involved
- Executives, managers, supervisors, employees, and educators all take part in the planning and implementation (Pergerson & Bendall, 1990) .
- All groups feel rewarded by the program (Pergerson & Bendall, 1990).
- The organization shows support for the program (Pergerson & Bendall, 1990; Staff, 1991).
- Employees perceive the program as approved by employers/supervisors and as a pro-motional opportunity (Omega Group, Inc., 1989 ; Pergerson & Bendall, 1990).
- Instructor is trained to facilitate adult basic education and informed of relevant aspects of the particular workplace class (Pergerson & Bendall. 1990: Staff. 1991).
- Subject matter meets needs of students (U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988) .
- Subject matter is consistent with goals of the organization (Omega Group, Inc., 1989; U.S . Departments of Education and Labor, 1988).
- Instruction improves employee ability to function on the job and off (Omega Group, Inc., 1989).
- Curriculum includes general education in reading, writing, computation, and thinking skills according to employee needs (Omega Group, Inc., 1989; Pergerson & Bendall, 1990).
- Curriculum offers instruction for speaking and listening skills (Chisman, 1990 ; Costa, 1988) .
- Curriculum includes job-related instruction (Pergerson & Bendall, 1990; U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988).
- If possible, transportation is available (Staff, 1991) .
- If possible, child care is provided for classes held beyond normal working hours (Staff, 1991).
III. Structure and class
- Number of students per instructor is as low as is economically feasible (Pergerson & Bendall, 1990).
- Time of class is convenient to employees (during work or directly before or after) (Pergerson & Bendall, 1990; Szabo, 1992).
- Duration of classes is comfortable to employees usually 2 to 3 hours at a time with a break each hour) (U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988).
- Location is on site in a room large enough to comfortably hold instructor and students (Szabo, 1992).
- Classroom has furniture and supplies necessary for instruction (chairs, tables, blackboard, etc.).
- If appropriate, class is open to relatives and friends outside the company.
- If possible, transportation is available (Staff, 1991).
- If possible, child care is provided for classes held beyond normal working hours (Staff, 1991).
IV. Recruiting/retention methods
- Information on class content, time, location, and incentives is circulated (U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988).
- Incentives are provided for participants (such as total or partial payment for hours attended, bonuses or scholarships for achievements in class, childcare, or refreshments) (Staff, 1991; U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988).
- Expectations concerning employee participation are made clear (for example, attendance may be mandatory to receive compensation, or participation may be entirely voluntary) (Proctor, 1989) .
- Program title is not directly related to "literacy" (Staff, 1991; U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988).
- Instructor facilitates employee learning with individual and group instruction (U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988).
- Peer tutoring is used when appropriate (U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, 1988).
- Follow-up contact is made when students are absent.
The five workplace classes in the study were purposively selected to represent a variety of company sizes, company functions, class sizes, and class durations. Authorities at the supervising college approved execution of the research with the stipulation that anonymity of companies and subjects must be preserved. It should be noted that the researcher and senior author acted as recruiter and supervisor for four of the five class sites during part or all of their existence and instructed at one of those four sites for about 18 months.
A preliminary analysis of documents and records provided historical and contextual information for each of the five workplace literacy classes . Documents and records utilized included quarterly retention reports, reports written by recruiters/supervisors or company contacts, student registration forms, and instructors' records of test results. The documents and records provided information on program planning, recruitment, attendance, retention, problems or changes encountered while classes were running, dates and duration of classes, and student achievements.
The instructors and company contacts were asked to complete comprehensive questionnaires (Hilbert, 1992) concerning their expectations, perceptions, and opinions of the classes. Follow-up calls were made as necessary to collect and clarify comments.
Interviews of students conducted by telephone or in person provided information and explanations of the workplace literacy classes from the students ' perspectives. As suggested by Taylor and Bodgan (1984) , an interview guide was used to ensure that key topics were explored consistently. The interview guide incorporated information from the literature review, the preliminary analysis, and the researcher's personal experiences.
The selection process for students to be interviewed was intended to "consciously vary the type of people interviewed" to reveal the full range of perspectives (Taylor & Bogdan, 1984). To discover if and how a class met the needs of the variety of students attending, purposive sampling was used to select interviewees representative of all races and genders in each class. For each of the five sites, student information was obtained from the Basic Skills Program of the college including name, telephone number, gender, race, and age. Student information sheets were grouped according to work site, race, and gender. The researcher then shuffled each group to provide some randomness and called students, beginning with the top one in each group, until the desired number of students in each group had been interviewed. Students who were not employed at a particular work site were not selected until employees had been tried first. This exception to the random selection affected the three out of five workplace literacy classes that included non-employees.
When students were contacted, they were informed that they were being asked to participate in a research project concerning Adult Basic Education and/or GED classes held at business sites, and they were assured that their identities would remain confidential. Out of 94 possible contacts, interviews were completed for 36 students.
Data from each class were analyzed and compared with the "Criteria for Workplace Literacy Programs." Letters were used to designate the companies to protect confidentiality of companies and of research participants.
Case Studies of the Most Effective (A)
and Least Effective (E) of the Five Classes
Following are case studies of the most effective and least effective of the five classes studied.
Company A began an ABE/GED class in the fall of 1985 with 14 students. By January, 1987, two employees were graduates and 30 were enrolled. The employees attended immediately after work, two hours twice a week, and the class was also open to, and publicized to, the public. By 1988 more than 50 workers had been in the class at some time, and a supervisor recorded that 10 had earned a GED. The company provided a classroom, blackboard, book storage, pencils, electricity, paper, and snack machines, while the college provided (as in all cases) a trained instructor, books, materials, and supervision. In 1990, Company A was sold, but the new owners allowed the class to continue, and by that spring, 16 students were enrolled with an average daily attendance of 11 and a 63% retention rate. (Students who achieve their goals and those who are still attending class at the end of a quarter are considered retained.)
Although Company A closed down in the spring of 1990, the plant manager, two instructors, and seven students were contacted who were willing to give feedback about the class. The manager was a Caucasian male and both instructors were Caucasian females. Students interviewed included one Hispanic female, two African-American females, three Caucasian females, and one Caucasian male. The students' ages ranged from 23 to 57.
According to the manager, a college recruiter/supervisor contacted Company A's personnel office to initiate a workplace literacy program at the local plant. The company officials saw a need for a basic education program due to the "low academic level of most employees" and allowed home office personnel and the plant's Division of Management and Personnel to work with the college in setting up a class. The plant manager was always supportive, and all interviewed students, whether employed by Company A or not, agreed that the company supported the class and their participation in it.
The manager, students, and instructors seemed to feel good about the program. Both instructors had prior training and experience teaching ABE/GED classes. The college requires basic skills instructors to hold at least a bachelor's degree. Prior to beginning instruction, both teachers were given information concerning company size, functions, and operating hours. They were also given notes about student skill levels and progress up to that time.
Instructors reported that students were instructed in basic reading, literature, grammar, composition, mathematics, social studies, and science. English instruction was provided for three Spanish-speaking students. One instructor listed various teaching methods such as journal writing, class discussion, and peer tutoring. Volunteers helped provide some one-on-one instruction. The variety of methods enabled the class to satisfy individual student needs.
The manager noted that, while he expected students to improve academic skills, he also "learned that improved self-esteem was an important job-performance. ..motivator." He reported that the improved self-esteem and basic skills benefited the company by reducing employee turnover and absences, reducing line reject rates, and improving inventory accuracy. Direct job-related instruction was provided by helping employees understand some production reports they were required to complete. Several students received promotions. Students reported that their ability to function at home was also improved.
Structure of Class
In general, all students interviewed found the time and location of the class convenient. Only one person reported missing class due to lack of after-school child care, and transportation was not mentioned as a problem.
Students often recruited family and friends. Peer recruitment is not mentioned in the literature review or the criteria, but it definitely strengthened Company A's class. The manager and instructors recruited by posting flyers in the plant and in the community. The information was also included in the mailings of the college.
The first parent company offered incentives such as $25 gift certificates and publicity in company newsletters for employees who obtained GED diplomas. Although the manager strongly encouraged participation, attendance was not mandatory. Student files were kept confidential.
Most interviewees reported that the instructors were helpful and likable. Two students expressed appreciation for the volunteers. Another student commented that the volunteer was great "when I had her alone." One student did say that the first teacher she had, a Caucasian female who was not interviewed for this study, seemed biased toward the "blacks" and the smart people and caused her to feel left out. This student also said a later instructor was "the only one that was interested in helping us." One instructor reported following up on absentees by telephone and by mail. The other instructor reported that absences were usually related to work or family issues.
Company A Conclusions
The analysis of Company A shows very little lacking in relation to the criteria. The only missing elements were provisions for childcare and transportation. One instructor explained that "for the students who attended, the class was successful in that they all progressed academically, some received GED diplomas, and some applied skills [at home and at work]."
According to students who stopped attending or had any misgivings about the class, two factors were responsible--dislike of instructors or incompatibility of students. If there were employees who declined to participate or who discontinued attending, another possible reason was that the incentives focused only on GED graduates. For students with beginning or lower-level abilities, there were essentially no company initiatives.
The manager's only suggestion for improvement was that instructor turnover should be reduced. A change in instructors can be disruptive to students; however, note that one student recalled disliking the first instructor and appreciating a later one. The long duration of the program, the numerous students giving positive feedback, the GED graduates, and the supportive remarks of management combine with the fact that most criteria were fulfilled as indicators of program effectiveness at Company A.
Company E's personnel representative contacted the Basic Skills Program in June of 1991 about setting up a basic skills improvement/GED program. The company decided to provide a classroom and in-house publicity for a literacy program. A list of about twenty interested people was compiled, and, based on an informal survey of employees on the list, the class was scheduled for two nights per week from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. During the fall of 1991, thirteen students enrolled with an average daily attendance of four and with 70% of the students retained in December. The class was opened only to employees and people referred by employees. Class sessions were later extended to two and one-half hours each. For the winter session, 13 students were enrolled.
In an effort to boost enrollment in February, a notice was posted offering mathematics testing and lessons to any employees who had high school credentials but wished to upgrade their skills for further study. However, only one person came to class for the testing. Fifteen different students were served by the class from September 1991 to April 1992, and only five of them were employees of Company E. Due to low attendance, the class was closed for the summer with the company contact and the recruiter/supervisor agreeing to reopen it in the fall.
The Caucasian female company contact and the Caucasian male instructor completed questionnaires. Contacting students for the interviews proved to be particularly difficult for this site because the 15 students served by Company E's Skills Enhancement/GED Class quickly became scattered. Fortunately, five students were reached and granted interviews. Students interviewed included one African-American male, two Caucasian females, and two Caucasian males ranging in age from 20 to 46. One student was a beginning reader, and the others tested at grade levels 7 through 12. Apparently, the personnel director felt some apprehension toward an on-site literacy class. However, the company supported the program by allowing family and friends to attend if approved in the personnel office prior to enrollment, and by providing paper and pencils and a comfortable meeting area. The college provided instructional materials and a trained instructor. All interviewees, the company contact, and the instructor said they believed that Company E supported the class. The instructor held an M.A. in education and had many years of teaching experience on high school and college levels as well as training for basic skills instruction. The instructor was given a tour of plant facilities and a briefing on the mission and purposes of the company.
The literacy program provided individual attention to students and they were allowed to "learn at their own pace." The instructor implemented a "learning lab and independent study approach" using available resources. The class offered complete GED preparation. Several students mentioned learning mathematics, and a high school graduate enrolled specifically to improve his math skills in preparation for college. The instructor and the company contact mentioned an increase in employees' self-esteem, and students made similar comments about themselves and about peers.
Structure of Class
All students interviewed approved of the time and location. Students appreciated the freedom to eat and smoke while studying. Once the class was extended to two and one-half hours on the two nights per week, students and the instructor seemed satisfied with the time frame. The only disappointment in scheduling noted by students was in the decision to close the class during the summer. The students still working toward their GED diplomas were glad to hear about plans to reopen the class in the fall.
The class was open to family and friends of employees, and most students were not, in fact, employed by the company. Child care and transportation were not provided. One woman reported having to hire a sitter and missing class when her baby was sick. The class was held at night well after working hours, and one man did have to solicit transportation from a co-worker to attend the class.
The company contact posted bulletin board notices about the "Skills Enhancement/GED Class," avoiding the term "literacy." She also spoke with some employees individually and encouraged interested employees to recruit others. Students not employed at Company E were recruited by employees.
No specific incentives were provided other than a supply of paper and pencils. The contact person felt that "a free education in a familiar environment" should be considered an incentive. There were no apparent expectations concerning employee participation. They were merely made aware of the learning opportunity.
Students generally made positive comments concerning the instructor. No evidence was uncovered that suggested any attrition was due to the instructor. The instructor called absentees and sent cards to promote regular attendance.
Company E Conclusions
In Company E's workplace literacy class, employee participation remained low, with only 5 company employees in the 15-student total. Many employees at Company E are in highly technical fields, and there may not be a widespread need for basic skills improvement. However, the company contact reported a need, and considering that over 20 employees signed a sheet communicating their interest, an enrollment of only five employees over a 9-month period is surprising. The lack of participation warrants a search for problems in the recruitment process.
Company E was supportive of the program to the degree that meeting space, paper and pencils, and information were provided for students. Aside from these surface efforts, company support appears to have been shallow. Information in the analysis and observations made by the recruiter/supervisor indicated that most in-house efforts for the class were from one person: the company contact. No attempt was made to involve department supervisors in planning or recruiting for the class. Another point possibly working against recruitment of employees was the lack of incentives provided by the company.
The class schedule was reportedly established in response to preferences of interested employees. However, the one-and-a-half hour gap between company closing time and class time eliminated the convenience of going directly to class after work that was considered desirable by students in other workplace literacy classes. Child care and transportation problems resulting from the schedule were mentioned.
The workplace literacy class at Company E did have some positive results. Two students from the class obtained GED diplomas as a result of participation, and several others began the testing process for diplomas. The retention rate was 67%, which is seen as respectable considering the dispersion of students. The class could be considered effective in serving participants but weak in regard to the in-house effort to recruit company employees.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Table I delineates criteria found in each program. In each case, effective recruiting was attributable to some degree to publicity efforts that carefully avoided the term "literacy." Publicity was most effective when companies did extensive in-house promotion of the programs. A measure of effectiveness in all cases was the demonstration of participant progress. Programs at Companies A, C, D, and E produced GED graduates, and the Math Refresher Course at Company C promoted most students to a "pretech" algebra level. In all five cases, there was evidence that students benefited personally from the classes and that they were able to apply new knowledge and skills to their work. All companies benefited in some way by the on-site programming, either by increased morale of employees or by employee application of new skills directly to their work. The companies showed support of the programs by scheduling and publicizing them and, in some cases, by offering incentives to participants. Positive responses to classes were also attributed to basic characteristics of the class structures. Employees in Companies A, B, C, and D appreciated the convenience of attending class immediately after work and before going home. Students in all classes approved of the respective locations.
Instructors at four of the five sites were given a large portion of the credit for the positive impact of their classes. Instructors were praised for enabling students to progress at their own paces and for encouraging attendance. Educators from the college were involved with each program in planning and implementation along with company representatives. In at least three cases, students were also asked for suggestions about the planning and scheduling of classes.
Two additional factors were important in some of the cases. Students from three of the classes indicated that the presence and support of friends encouraged participation and attendance. In three of the cases, direct monetary incentives were provided, either as reward for GED completion, or as payment for released time from work to attend class. Students at those three sites were pleased with and encouraged by the incentives.
In all five cases, some elements of the programs, or the lack of some elements, negatively impacted on program effectiveness. Instructor turnover was seen as a problem in two cases, and negative reaction to instructor changes was consistent with the strong influence instructors had at several sites. At each company site, some indications were found that there were employees who could benefit from a workplace literacy class but who would not attend the classes. Factors that may have discouraged participation included inadequate management support and the lack of direct incentives. The lack of child care and transportation seemed to cause attrition or prevent participation only when employees did not attend class directly before or after work.
Comparison of the five workplace literacy programs to the "Criteria for Workplace Literacy Programs," as derived from current literature, has shown that most of the criteria are important for workplace literacy programs. The four areas of programming--organizations/individuals involved, curriculum, structure of class, and recruiting/retention methods--were applicable to each case. Criteria in each area were easily identified as present or absent in a program, and the effects of the presence or absence of various criteria could usually be ascertained.
One specific point was discovered to be important that was not included in the criteria initially. The importance of peer influence in recruitment and retention efforts should be expanded in the criteria. Two criteria included under "Structure of Class" should be modified for future use. The lack of transportation and of child care caused problems only in classes not scheduled directly before or after working hours, and they should, therefore, be combined in the criteria as follows: Transportation and child care are provided to participating employees if class is not offered directly before or after work.
Criteria for Workplace Literacy Programs Criteria Company Programs Studied A B C D E I. Organizations/Individuals Involved A. Executives, management, employees and educators plan and implement program P P Y N P B. All groups feel rewarded by the program Y Y Y P Y C. Organization shows support for the program Y Y Y Y Y D. Employees see program as approved and as a promotion opportunity Y Y Y N P E. Instructor trained in ABE and informed about the program Y Y Y Y Y II. Curriculum A. Subject matter meets students' needs Y Y Y P Y B. Subject matter consistent with organizational goals Y Y Y Y Y C. Improves employee functioning on the job and off the job Y Y Y Y Y D. Includes reading, writing, computation, and thinking skills Y Y Y Y Y E. Speaking and listening skills offered Y Y Y N N F. Job related instruction offered Y Y Y N Y G. GED Test preparation offered Y Y Y Y Y H. Instruction tailored to individuals III. Structure of Class Y Y Y N Y A. Number of students per instructor low as possible Y N Y Y Y B. Time of class convenient to employees Y Y Y Y N C. Duration of class comfortable Y Y Y Y Y D. Located on site in room large enough Y Y Y Y Y E. Necessary furniture and supplies Y Y Y Y Y F. Open to non-employees Y P N Y Y G. Transportation available N N N N N H. On-site child care during class IV. Recruiting Retention Methods N N N N N A. Information on class circulated Y Y Y Y Y B. Incentives provided for participants Y N Y Y N C. Expectations about participation clear Y Y Y Y N D. Program title avoids "literacy" term Y Y Y Y Y E. Individual and group instruction Y Y Y Y Y F. Peer tutoring Y N N Y Y G. Follow-up contact for absentees Y Y Y Y Y [Legend: Y = Yes, N = No, P = Partially] Note: This table is designed to illustrate which criteria were applied in each workplace literacy program studied.
With these minor adjustments, the criteria act as a comprehensive and flexible working description of the effective operation of workplace literacy programs. The list is anchored in a body of literature pertaining to workplace literacy, and it has proven useful in the qualitative evaluation of five workplace literacy programs offered by Wake Technical Community College. Companies and educational institutions working together to implement workplace literacy programs can use the criteria as a guide for individuals who should be involved in the planning and implementation, important elements of a workplace literacy curriculum, how the class should be structured, and recruiting and retention methods. While the criteria can act as a guide, every workplace literacy class must be reactive and adaptive to the needs of its particular organization and the employees. Portions of the research illustrate the importance of matching instructors, curriculum, and recruiting methods with an organization.
Implications for Further Study
More study is needed to discern the usefulness of the criteria in a wider range of workplace literacy situations. In light of the continual need for accountability in workplace literacy programming, studies should also be structured to create and test more formal, quantitative evaluation tools for workplace literacy programs. One area of study that would enhance accountability is research and documentation of how skills and knowledge gained from workplace literacy programs are applied on the job and in the community. Continual reports on innovative approaches to workplace literacy are needed. Documentation of outcomes will provide evidence of success or failure of innovative approaches. Focused research is also needed on how to select and place qualified instructors in workplace literacy classes. Methods of designing and implementing a curriculum that serves both organizational and individual requirements are also desperately needed in the field.
Research projects concerning any area of workplace literacy will be valuable as the United States struggles with the current era of phenomenal historical changes and rapid technological advancements . The nation is straining, as is every other nation, to compete and progress on a global scale. A continued effort towards educating every citizen is necessary if the nation is to compete and progress successfully.
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