Day Two of the Researcher-Practitioner Discussion on Career Pathways Programing for Lower-Skilled Adults in High-Need Cities

Welcome to the second day of our discussion with the researcher-practitioner team of the Career Pathways Programing for Lower-Skilled Adults in High-Need Cities research project.  Thank you to everyone who has been following along with our conversation.  Today is the last day of our discussion, and you are invited to bring your comments and questions for our panel.  You can comment on the thread from yesterday's discussion here.

Today we're continuing to look at trends in the career pathways programs. We will start with some questions about program entry requirements, and their impact on learners, and employers.

You note that more than 50% of the agencies you surveyed had some grade level, test score, or language entry requirements for their classes, or services.  The majority of these requirements were necessary for learners to obtain an industry-recognized credential, obtain specific types of employment, or post-secondary credential.  You also highlight that pathways learners were disproportionately women, foreign-born, and Hispanic, living in highly vulnerable economic circumstances, and without a secondary diploma.  

6. Did you find that these entry requirements served the programs and their learners by making them more successful than others that did not have any entry requirements? Where there examples of agencies that worked successfully with both learners who met entry requirements, and those who did not?  What are your thoughts on how agencies can meet industry and educational demands, while also working with learners where they are when they come to pathways programs?


We did not do a strict comparison of success outcomes for programs with varying entry requirements. However, I can make a couple of comments. First, several programs required a HS degree.

1. Alliance, Houston Community College (Community-Based Job Training Program), and the Braman Automotive program at Lindsey Hopkins (Miami) all required a high school degree for CP classes. One stated reason for this decision was that many employers in the targeted sectors require a secondary degree. (However, from the research team's perspective, this requirement also prevents students from enrolling in CP classes. Presumably they could obtain a HSE diploma in the future.) Alliance and Houston Community College also had test score entry requirements; HCC enrolled students with TABE scores of 6.0-11.9.

At HCC’s AVANCE site, there were no entry points to CP classes for students who did not meet the requirements. ESL students could take Burlington English Career Pathways (online instruction); other students were referred to HSE classes. HCC’s Chinese Community Center site referred out for HSE classes or placed students in ESL classes with no career content. At Alliance, the Burlington English (computer-based) classes were career-focused, but face-to-face ESL classes were not.

Three organizations that admitted students without a high school degree also had a minimum TABE score requirement, ranging from 5.0 to 9.0. These organizations used two main strategies to help students without a secondary degree prepare for CP and/or college transition classes: bridge classes (including studying for the HSE exam) and dual enrollment. For instance, the City Colleges of Chicago model has three entry points into career-focused college transition classes, starting as low as 4.0 on the TABE.

Organizations offered different reasons for choosing their TABE cut-offs. According to an HCC administrator, they chose 6.0 to 11.9 because of research showing that 80% of HCC students “were not college ready”: "Therefore, that led us to deduce that obviously there are a lot of people out there who need help with improving their basic skills because…when they come to us, they don’t have it. Their TABE scores averaged around fourth grade for reading, maybe fifth grade for math….This led us to believe that obviously there’s a need for this population to have some kind of support with reading, writing, and math so that they’ll be able to matriculate through life better and earn not 70 just minimum wage but life-sustaining wages for them and their families. And so that’s kind of how we got to that target population."

Miami Dade College’s TRAMCON program chose 9.0 because a partner college in their consortium on the grant found that students in the Florida Trade for Manufacturing grant “needed at least a ninth-grade…reading level to be able to be successful, and mostly because of the manufacturing part of the program. So it was kind of handed down to us.” Thus, MDC and the consortium adopted the same cutoff.

Lindsey Hopkins’ CTE courses were the sole example of an entry or exit requirement (TABE score or industry certifications), which is a state policy. To graduate, students had to score 9.0 on reading and language and 10.0 on math or pass industry certifications, depending on their program of study. This approach allowed lower-level students to enroll, while also enabling them to master the required content. Lower-level students could show their academic or practice-based competence upon program completion. 

We do not have data on the percentage of students who progressed from ESL or HSE classes to CP classes, and the case study data suggest that agencies do not necessarily track this information. When asked how often students moved up to CP classes, some staff said this is rare, whereas others (even within the same organization) claimed that it’s commonplace. Together, these findings underscore the need to ensure that lower-level students have access to substantive CP programming and to track whether students are progressing from ABE, HSE, and ESL classes to CP classes. 

In particular, I would highlight Lindsey Hopkins' exit requirement model as a successful strategy for giving lower-level students access to CP, while also ensuring that they leave the program with the requisite skills and knowledge.

In our report, we conclude that "Providers need to ensure that English learners, adults without a secondary degree, and students with low test scores can access substantive CP classes and that there is a clear progression from entry-level basic skills classes to higher-level CTE classes. Bridge classes and multiple entry points are especially important ways to enable higher-need students to enroll in classes with CP content." In particular, there needs to be a very good reason for requiring a secondary diploma. Otherwise programs are creating unnecessary barriers. 


Thanks Esther! This summary of the program requirements is very helpful.

At JARC, we fall into the bucket of programs that do not require a high school diploma, but do have minimum TABE testing requirements. We're able to structure our programs like this because we train adults for careers in manufacturing. Fortunately, in manufacturing, many employers to not require a high school diploma or equivalent for hire. However, the employers we work with do require even entry level employees have certain levels of math and reading skills. Therefore, we need to ensure our graduates have those same levels of skills. 

Even with our entry TABE requirements, we try to create multiple entry points to our training pipeline so learners at all levels can access some of our services. We feel it's important learners can entry at multiple points and then transition up the pipeline as their math and reading skills improve. This allows us to connect even low leveled learners to career-path employment. 

Yes, JARC is a great example of how programs can offer multiple entry points and help get people up to speed on the reading and math that may be required for particular occupations--especially by offering a bridge program. By not having the HS requirement, you avoid adding an extra barrier for people who want to access high-quality CP classes. 

We are fortunate to be joined by Becky Raymond, from the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition (CCLC), one of your partnering organizations in Chicago.  

7. As a researcher-practitioner partnership looking at career pathways across diverse cities, what role did working with CCLC, the Houston Center for Literacy, and Miami-Dade County Public Schools have in effectively conducting this research?  What were some of the unique features of working with CCLC, compared to your partners in Miami and Houston? As a literacy coalition, what was CCLC's responsibility for ensuring this research provided a holistic perspective of the adult pathways programs operating in Chicago?

Hi Michael - CCLC, the Houston Center for Literacy and Miami-Dade County Public Schools all served as Co-Principal Investigators on the project.  We were the local arms that helped connect the team at Penn Sate to providers in our areas.  At CCLC, we played a local communication function in letting our members know about the research project and why participating in it was important.  We also provided contact information to the Penn State team to send out the survey.  We followed up with local providers; reminding them to fill out the survey.  We also fielded questions and provided technical assistance about the survey to local providers. 

As we moved on from the survey stage of the project, we assisted Penn State in scheduling and hosting the focus groups.  We also set up site visits for the researchers once the team determined which local programs would be highlighted.  I think that the local connection for any large research project in adult education is important.  It creates buy-in at the practitioner level and increases their willingness to participate and share their knowledge with the researchers.  As the results were ready to be shared by the research team, CCLC hosted several briefing sessions on the research results.  We were even able to host the entire research team here in Chicago at JPMorgan Chase for our "Data-to-Action Summit" which shared research findings with stakeholders from across Chicago.  

CCLC has a wide range of members and I believe that we were able to represent a very holistic perspective of the adult pathways programs.  Some of our members that responded to the survey were not federally funded programs.  These, oftentimes, smaller efforts might not have been included in the survey without CCLC's invitation.  These efforts are important because, although they might be smaller, they often reach the lowest level learners and they often operate in locations were there are not a lot of services.  We wanted to be sure to include them in the research - their efforts are important.  

I am very grateful for the opportunity that this researcher-practitioner partnership provide to CCLC and to local providers.  It shined a light on important strengths of our system and also highlighted gaps that need to be addressed.  I feel like participating in the project gave local providers better insight and understanding of Chicago's Career Pathways network.  




Thanks, Becky for this great description of the roles that CCLC and other urban intermediary adult basic skills organizations play in research. This is a reminder of the importance of CCLC, the Literacy Assistance Center in New York, First Boston (formerly the Boston Adult Literacy Fund), the Literacy Cooperative in greater Cleveland, and other urban literacy coalitions, in this case in helping researchers reach and work effectively with adult basic skills practitioner organizations. Of course urban basic skills coalitions also play important roles in building partnerships within their coalitions, in professional development and in some cases, such as the Literacy Assistance Center in NYC, in system data collection and reporting. As one introduction to these urban coalitions I recommend the Literacy Powerline  2012 Great Cities Summit paper; available on LINCS at As the Moderator of the LINCS Program Management group, I would welcome a future discussion focusing on urban adult basic skills intermediary organizations, who they are, what their goals are, how they are funded, and what they do.

David J. Rosen

LINCS CoP Program Management group

You conclude your work calling for further research to examine whether pathways learners who use support services are more likely than those who do not to both: A) complete a pathways program, and B) achieve educational, and employment outcomes.  

8. What advice do you have for states, and agencies, looking to shed light on this question?  How might the adult education community work to advance our understanding of highly effective pathways programs, which offer equity and tiered opportunity for learners with varying degrees of career readiness?  How do you envision WIOA continuing to support the vision of career pathways in high-needs communities across the U.S.? 

The first piece of advice is to fund more longitudinal research (via foundations, state agencies, and the federal government). This kind of research is incredibly time and labor intensive, i.e., expensive! But there really is no substitute for identifying the long-term effects of education for adult learners. Otherwise we are just guessing or using inadequate data sources. For example, participants in Project Quest (San Antonio, TX) were followed for 6 years after they enrolled in the program!

For adult educators, we think it's vital to build professional networks within and outside of one's geographic area. We discuss this in the report as "coordination" at a macro-scale -- across types of providers, funding sources, and so on. It's critical for educators, administrators, and other service providers to be able to share what they are doing, but also to plan so that they are not duplicating services or leaving needs unmet. 

Finally, it's clear that WIOA has brought career pathways front and center. This comes with a steep learning curve for some programs, whereas other have already been doing this kind of work for a long time. Here again, it's helpful for practitioners to share with each other how they have been meeting WIOA requirements, while also continuing to advocate for the needs of learners and their programs (if or when WIOA requirements seem to pose a challenge). For example, how do states define what constitutes a career pathway or what counts as job growth? 

Providers at one of our focus groups described a certain state's definition of CP as “restrictive”: it had to be a recognized career pathway certificate in a “high-demand occupation.” Although providers recognized the need to place students in higher-wage, in-demand jobs, they were concerned about lower-level students’ ability to obtain these jobs:

"Now sometimes we would like a little bit more flexibility because there don’t seem to be a lot of options for folks that are very low skilled and that need a step into the workforce, that may not be directly one of those in-demand occupations. So basically, there are a lot of jobs in retail. There are a lot of jobs in lower [wages]. CNA for example, there’s demand for those jobs. But these are not jobs that are supported by the local workforce system, simply because, well, they don’t pay enough to meet their standards. And as a result sometimes these efforts [are]…not supported by the local workforce system."

The state policy meant, for example, that a vocational ESL program focused on customer service or healthcare did not count as a career pathway because it wouldn’t lead to “job growth” (higher wages). However, from the provider’s perspective,

"basically we were happy if our ESL students had the courage to go apply for a job at the Walmart, which they had never even dreamed…of doing on their own….From the local workforce standpoint, getting a job at Walmart, it’s not something that is particularly worthy of note, in terms of their income requirements. But it’s a huge deal for an ESL learner, who [before] basically could only get a job where everybody spoke Spanish."

In sum, some ESL students obtained jobs, yet did not meet the criteria for job growth. Other providers at the focus group also supported the view that for many ESL students, job growth involves incremental steps and entails more than increased wages.

I bring this up as an example of the kinds of policy conversations that need to take place: what counts as job growth and for whom? Who is the target audience for CP classes? How do we ensure that programs are reaching the "hardest to serve"?

Thank you, Esther, for making the case for more longitudinal research on career pathways.  As you also note, "WIOA has brought career pathways front and center".  I hope that more career pathways providers will consider how they can join the conversation around developing robust programs that meet the needs of learners at all entry levels.  Of course, one way is being an active participant on LINCS, but there are many other opportunities to "build professional networks within and outside of one's geographic area", as you stated.  LINCS encourages members to use the platform to post these regional networking events, whether virtual or in-person.  You never know who else may be interested in learning from what you and local colleagues are doing to advance the field, and promote opportunities for learners and businesses to meet each others' needs.

Thank you, and the rest of our panelists, for unpacking some of this valuable research in the field.  If you are reading this thread after the event has ended, we encourage you to ask any questions about what was covered, or anything that you are still curious about in this research.  We will monitor the threads for the discussion, and follow-up with you.

I will leave us all with one question.  You only need to answer it for yourself.  What is your role in developing a better understanding of career pathways?

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator