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Planning, Implementing, and Evaluating Workplace ESL Programs: An Interview with Miriam Burt

Miriam Burt has planned, developed, and evaluated workplace programs for native and non-native speakers of English as well as consulted on workplace issues for U. S. Departments of Education and Labor. She has written briefs, articles, and books on designing effective workplace education programs for immigrant workers. CAELA staff interviewed Miriam about current initiatives, issues, and concerns in workplace ESL education.  

CAELA:   Thanks for taking the time to update us on workplace education  issues, Miriam.  Do you think the five steps (for planning and evaluating, above) are still necessary and effective for current workplace classes?

Miriam: You’re welcome.  In this era of accountability, I think the steps for planning and evaluating workplace programs are more important than ever.  Employers, immigrant workers, and other stakeholders (such as unions and outside funders) need to come together in the planning stages so they can decide on  program objectives.  If all stakeholders are on the same page about what outcomes can be reasonably expected from the workplace program, its easier for everyone to work together for a common, realistic purpose.  Of course, you can see that a great deal of groundwork needs to be laid to support an effective program.

CAELA:  You seem to be saying that a good needs analysis is important to the success of a workplace program. Can you share some insights from needs analyses you’ve conducted and why they were so important to the success of the program?  

Miriam: Yes, I think that a thorough needs analysis is a key element in developing and maintaining a good program.  And when I say needs analysis—I mean the needs of everyone need to be analyzed: supervisors of immigrant workers and the workers themselves, but also higher-ups in the company, human resources or personnel, union representatives, co-workers who are native speakers of English. Instructors’ needs should be included, and, in the service sector, knowing what the customer wants and needs is also important.  Gathering all this information involves more than passing out questionnaires—the program developer needs to get right into the workplace.  I remember when I was doing the needs analysis for Skills Enhancement Program (S.E.T.) for Local #32 of the Food and Beverage Workers here in Washington, D.C. I spent days observing the workplaces that program students would come from. I went into the kitchen, listened to workers, supervisors, union representatives, customers, and I even sat in on workers’ breaks to hear what they had to say.  I also ate at the cafeterias to get a full sense of the work, the workers, and the products. This needs analysis took a long time and a lot of effort, but I think that was one of the reasons that program was so successful. This project was recognized by the U. S. Department of Education as being one of 10 model workplace projects in 1993.

CAELA:  Workplace instructors, programs, or businesses sometimes search for workplace curricula for a particular job or industry—perhaps to avoid the hard work, time, and cost involved in creating  a workplace-specific needs analysis and plan. What’s your advice about using previously developed curricula? 

Miriam: I think it’s a good idea to see what has already been developed—no one needs to reinvent curricula from scratch. It’s sort of like doing the “literature review”  before beginning a research study.  Having said that though, I want to say that any curricula or materials need to be adapted to the individual workplace, the needs determined by the needs analysis, and the hoped-for outcomes.  And to add to that, things often change over time because of the economy, because goals change, or even because workers come and go.  What I have been saying, I guess, is that developing an effective workplace education program takes a great deal of time, effort, support—financial and emotional—you just can’t take a program off the shelf and use it in every new situation. 
CAELA: What’s been your experience in getting workers, employers, and instructors all on the same page—so everyone knows what outcomes to expect from the class?

Miriam: One way to insure that all stake holders are on the same page is to conduct the needs analysis and not just shove it in a file, but keep the data you gathered right on the table.  Another way is to have meetings—with the individual stakeholder groups, with employers and employees together, labor and management, human resources and workplace instructors.  These meetings happen during the planning stages and should include worker focus groups.  Now, this is not only labor intensive, it isn’t always easy.  At the S.E.T. program, I was able to find my way into the confidence of the workers because I partnered with a union representative who had the trust and respect of the workers and of employers.  And thinking about how to prepare workplace teachers—all the teachers who worked in the program were also required to observe the workplace—to step behind the steam table, to hear workers’ describe their jobs,  read workplace safety signs, and to get a sense of interaction between supervisors, workers, and customers. Time consuming, yes, but it helped cement everyone’s understanding of the realities of the workplace.  

CAELA: Instructors used to talk about the importance of learner-centered instruction, especially in workplace contexts.  Is that still an important element of workplace classes? Why or why not?

Miriam: Yes, of course learner-centered instruction is important in all classes. Whatever curriculum or content or language skill being taught should be adjusted to the realities of that workplace and the learners in the class.  This is important too, because workplace and many other adult ESL classes are usually of limited intensity and short duration.  It’s not like K-12 where the students have 12 years of full days to learn—many workplace classes are only 60 hours total.  So, teachers have to focus.  An important thing for teachers to remember is to always be deliberate and explicit about why students are asked to complete a certain activity.  Even when a teacher focuses on a certain grammar or vocabulary point, she should highlight the connection with the workplace.  For example, a teacher might offer a lesson on the use of the past continuous tense because one of the workers in the class had complained about having had to work washing the pots and pans all morning.   So when modeling something like  “I was working all morning at the pot sink” the teacher makes the connection between English tenses and a work situation.  

CAELA: The word evaluation can cover a lot of territory—from standardized pre- and post-assessments and learner, instructor, and business self-assessment to real-life outcomes that effect workers’ wages, job security, and upward mobility to employers’ abilities to stay solvent and make profit in the global economy.  What’s your advice about where (or how) to start thinking about evaluation, assessment, and workplace ESL?

Miriam: Well one thing that we learned as a field is that evaluation needs to be multifaceted.  Different stakeholders need different measures: employers, immigrant workers, customers, funders, unions, and others have ideas about how to look at the success of a workplace education program.  I think it all goes back to what I said at the beginning of the interview—it's imperative for everyone to be on the same page about the expected outcomes.  I know that is not easy; adult ESL professionals know that it takes a long time to learn English.  It’s even hard to know what “learn English” means.  Some employers may be talking about accent reduction, some might be focusing on having service staff be able to appropriately greet customers, and others might mean having immigrant staff be able to read and write complex, technical documents.  Pre- and post-standardized assessments can give some information about workers’ English proficiency in certain skills.  Beyond that though, performance-based assessment makes sense for both formative and summative evaluation.  Both the employers and workers want to know whether they have the English ability to perform certain tasks at work.  This is particular important in such areas as health and safety compliance and as workers seek to move up in a company. 

CAELA: Thank you again for taking the time to talk to CAELA about current issues in immigrant workplace education.

Note: To read more of Miriam’s comments on workplace education programs, read Issues in Improving Immigrant Workers' English Language Skills. Also see for more resources related to immigrants in the workplace.