Don’t Count Anyone Out

Classmate Benjamin Fox spent most of two decades of his post-Stanford GSB career in health care administration and consulting.   Unfortunately, the death of his wife followed by setbacks in a start-up mental health care business left him emotionally bereft and reassessing. A short stint as a ski instructor helped him rediscover his talent for teaching. Over the last fifteen years, he’s developed a robust private tutoring practice in a variety of subjects, specializing in math.

Until recently, Ben also spent much time teaching classes to prepare adults to take the General Education Diploma (GED) examination, which, when successfully completed, confirm attainment of high-school level academic standards.

An estimated 30 million adults in the United States do not have high school diplomas. Here, Ben talks about his experiences, both fulfilling and frustrating, with his GED students.

What kinds of organizations find and educate adults who are interested in earning a high school equivalency?

I use “adult basic education” and “GED” interchangeably.

In Boston, where I live, I think it goes back to former Mayor Kevin White (1968 -1984). Because the school committee at the time was not under the mayor’s control, he decided that community centers should run the GED program.

I taught at the Boston Centers for Youth and Families in two neighborhoods. In the South End program, the population was mostly Black and Hispanic and low income. We got some immigrants there too. The other neighborhood, West Roxbury, has a more suburban feel to it, but at the time I taught there, it had two large low-income housing projects.  

I’ve also taught at community centers in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and Cambridge, where the program was focused mainly on students from the public housing projects. And, I taught classes at a local community college.

Most of the programs around here are small and community based. One of the reasons they are small is because they have to be localized. In a lot of neighborhoods in Boston, you don’t want to be on the wrong street; gang affiliation is definitely an issue.

Pretty much all of the programs I worked in were mainly funded through the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. I think most of the sponsoring organizations also strung together some other grants. The community college charged tuition, but the other programs were free to students.

How would you describe the students in your adult basic education classes?

I’ve probably taught 150 or more students. There was quite a mix of backgrounds, needs, and abilities. The age range was 16 to 70 plus.

I would say that over my career in adult basic education, I probably had half immigrants and half high school dropouts. At the community college, it was mostly immigrants.

When immigrants come from a country that has strong high schools, they can usually get a credential based on what they did in their home country. But in a lot of countries, the schools are just not there, so we are making up for a deficit of what they got at home.

All of the students are people who do not have American high school diplomas. You get some with learning or cognitive challenges. Some are really bright, but just can’t focus. Sometimes they are terrible students, but also are really articulate. A lot of them have had very bad experiences in school, deserved or not.

Many of them are not used to the idea that if you want to perform, you’ve got to get a good night’s sleep. That’s a revelation, because nobody’s ever asked them to do that.

Drug use is a challenge for some. They may have had good parenting, they may not have.

On the other hand, some of my students were highly motivated but exhausted from parenthood, often single parenthood, and working two jobs while also attending school. I made a lot of coffee for my students.

My final job was for a center in the Roxbury neighborhood; that class was pretty much all dropouts. They were 17 – 25 years old, all considered at-risk students. Most all of them came from low-income families, many of which had a variety of issues. Housing was an issue for some of them, by that I mean homelessness. Lack of food security was another problem. I think that nearly all of my students had a family member or close friend who had been shot. A fair number were ex-convicts.

How does the GED examination work, and how did you prepare students for it?

Students these days don’t necessarily take the GED exam. They can choose to take the High School Equivalency (HiSET) exam instead.

There are five parts (reading, writing, science, social studies, math) to either test and it takes five or six hours to complete them, which is spread over three days.

In Massachusetts, it costs $100 to take the exam, and there is not much funding for people who need help paying for the test. The students have to come up with the money.

You have to get a minimum score in each subject, but if you don’t you can retake just the subjects you fell short on. A lot of students have to take the exam or parts of it more than once, and that’s not free, but a student can take up to two re-tests per subject at $9 per subject.

Different organizations approach teaching of adult basic education classes differently. Sometimes, I specialized in math and science and sometimes I taught all five subjects. I think it actually worked better when I taught all five subjects, because that fostered closer relationships with the students. Also, it made it possible for students to take different level classes in different subjects.

Most of my classes were small. There were different schedules. Whatever your schedule constraints are, there is an adult basic education class in the Boston area for you.

The demands of what is expected for a high school diploma have significantly increased. There have been big changes in how we were expected to teach, and the last time I checked, about a year ago, the standard textbooks were not up to that. You can’t teach from the old textbooks any longer. The skills are more demanding; it’s not just a bunch of arbitrary rules to memorize.

Since 2013, we’ve had College and Career Readiness standards, similar to the Common Core, but more focused. We are expected to give students a deep conceptual understanding of why they are doing things. The standards require fostering important habits of the mind. They also require solving more complex word problems, and encourage teaching workplace contextual problems. With the economy becoming ever more complex we really have to graduate students who can think for themselves, take abstract principles and apply them to new situations, and work in teams.

We get the students in the classroom for a very limited time because they have complicated lives. A lot of times they are up late because they are working two jobs along with going to school. Attendance is always a problem.

There was a lot of variation in skill level, sometimes I would have all levels in the same class. By and large, I found that my students were a little more amenable to working on their own than listening to me talk. That allowed me to individualize the work for each student. I would often have students working on their own, and when I saw that several of them were having a problem with one particular thing, I would get up and teach that.

How do students find out about adult basic education classes?

Mostly through referrals of one kind and another. My organizations were in contact with many other organizations that might see somebody who could be a student.

What kinds of support were provided for students and instructors?

A really critical element of support for students in every program I’ve been involved in is counseling. There are case workers who help the students with career planning and also with whatever is going on in their lives. All I can say is that the counselors are crucial; I think they are often what keep students coming.

For teachers of adult basic education, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides challenging professional development. It’s very thoughtful and realistic. It’s a good job the state is doing in this area. Some of the earlier efforts were kind of piecemeal and not very effective.

However, as I mentioned, we can’t teach from existing textbooks any longer. If we could get a comprehensive curriculum for the adult basic education program, I think it would give teachers a little more time to individualize from that background. You just need that structure. In the end, though, it is important for teachers to have flexibility to follow their students’ interests.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, at least, is almost expecting adult basic education instructors to be textbook authors. It is terribly time intensive to develop individualized lesson plans. In my experience, I found that I had time to do just one creative lesson plan out of every five.

Are there any moments that stand out as particularly satisfying, or frustrating?

I had a 60 year-old woman who one day just cried and said this is the first time I’ve ever understood fractions.

I’m thinking of another guy who couldn’t sit still. So finally, I said if you need to spend five minutes walking up and down the corridor to settle down, it’s ok. I had to put limits on how many times he could do that. It took him a couple of years, but eventually he came in and said he had passed all the parts of the test. He had a smile seven miles wide.

Another guy was legally blind. He needed a lot of help with computer access, but he could see things as long as I remembered to write really big on the blackboard.   He had to fight every inch of the way. He was making progress, but at one point he just disappeared.

For all of them, it is important to be encouraging, not critical. As my most recent boss said: we love them! With some of the tougher cases, it can take a while to get a student’s trust. Some of them are not used to having somebody on their side, but they do figure it out that we want them to succeed.

What did you find most challenging?

The most challenging thing is not being able to make a living at it. The Massachusetts state budget for elementary and secondary education is more than $6 billion, but the entire budget for adult basic education is only $30 some million.

As teachers, we get paid something, but it’s about $20 per hour. We are paid for some preparation but not really enough to do the job that should be done. It’s frustrating feeling like I know how to be so much better a teacher, but I can’t afford to put in too many extra hours because that takes away from my private tutoring business.

The funding issue should be solvable. We are in a world where if you don’t have a high school education, you are probably going to be marginally employed and living in poverty for the rest of your life. As a society, we should commit ourselves much more to supporting adults at all levels.

One of the reasons that Massachusetts k – 12 students perform so well on international scales is because the business community here has said that we need educated people to succeed in our businesses, and as a result, the state shoves a lot of money to cities and towns for schools. Well, we need this other population, too. I think that adult basic education gets lost in the shuffle.

Any final thoughts?

One of the great things I’ve learned while working in this field is that no matter how hopeless a student may seem, you just can’t count anybody out. They surprise you.

There were days when my students would drive me nuts, and I would say, it’s a good thing that I love you guys, because you are driving me crazy. It’s all part of the rewarding experience.


  1. ann thoke espy Reply

    its good to hear from you ben. thank you for sharing your experience in adult basic education. I found it very interesting. even with the high priority that Massachusetts places on preparing students for the workplace, it seems a daunting challenge, under-resourced and perhaps somewhat out of the public view. it requires a great commitment on the part of teachers like you to help these people acquire the skills and the HiSet credential that will enable them to improve their standard of living. kudos for your dedication.

  2. Carol Head Reply

    Ben, kudos to you. This work sounds extraordinarily rewarding and certainly fills an important gap. All the best to you.

  3. Ben Fox Reply

    Thank you so much, Ann and Carol. Indeed, it was rewarding. In particular, the students were great.

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