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Design Matters: Lessons from Accelerating Opportunity

Accelerating Opportunity, Jobs for the Future’s multistate initiative to redesign Adult Basic Education (ABE), is entering its second year of implementation. Drawing on the findings of the Accelerating Opportunity evaluators (the Urban Institute) and our own experiences as the managing partner, we can reflect back on the design phase, from December 2010 to November 2011, and how that set the stage for rapidly implementing pathways to good jobs and family-sustaining wages in eight states. (Click here for more information on the details of the design stage.)

Careful attention to design catalyzed rapid change when states began the work on the ground.

The design grants to the states came with a set of requirements that helped grantees bring together key stakeholders and get conversations moving. The initiative provided structure and language that made it easier to mobilize stakeholders, and often the implementation funding itself provided a lever that brought ABE leaders into the types of state-level discussion that they might have previously been excluded from. Some states leveraged this catalyzing effect to develop diverse implementation teams, build awareness of the initiative and its goals, and push quickly for systemic change—for example, to include ABE measures in state performance-funding formulas for community colleges.

Structure during the design period is critical.

Accelerating Opportunity is highly structured. Even during the design phase, JFF specified demanding deliverables that each state had to produce (e.g., a communications plan, a professional development plan), and these would ultimately become part of states’ proposed implementation plans. This made for an intensive nine-month design phase, but the incentive of three-year implementation funding was a strong motivator. As a result, states finished the design phase with viable implementation plans and a high level of momentum.

Frameworks must be firm but flexible.

The Accelerating Opportunity model is highly prescriptive, with a set of non-negotiable elements. However, it is also flexible enough for states to adapt it to their context and build on existing initiatives. In particular, many states were already discussing how to improve ABE pathways, and the initiative’s structure accelerated progress and moved discussions to a higher level.

External support matters.

To help states use the intensive design period wisely, JFF and our partners provided coaching and other forms of technical assistance, including advice on state policy and training from the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, whose I-BEST model is central to Accelerating Opportunity. Finding the right coach for each state is critical, given the intensity of the design process. Trust between the coach and the state team, grounded in regular contact, helped keep states on track.

Timing is tricky.

States need time to lay the groundwork for implementation but not so much that they lose momentum. The rapid pace of Accelerating Opportunity created a sense of urgency: any delays early on in the design phase would cut into the allotted planning time. However, the design phase spanned the summer, presenting the challenge of engaging stakeholders, and especially colleges, outside the academic year. Had the design phase coincided with the academic year, states would have had the summer to ramp up for fall implementation.

Stakeholder engagement is critical.

It’s important to engage certain people early. In general, states with broad design teams put forward stronger implementation plans. These teams included representatives from college career and technical education departments, the workforce system, ABE, college leadership, industry groups, and more—everyone who would play a part in the redesigned adult education system. A related major lesson is that even in a state-led design period, colleges have to be on board early. Their on-the-ground perspective and their buy-in are critical. Also, colleges that are part of the design phase feel more ownership for the initiative.

Communicate clearly.

A clear understanding is needed of how a new model will spread beyond the state’s core state team to other state-level stakeholders and to colleges. A common challenge in Accelerating Opportunity states was communicating the initiative’s goals, purpose, and expectations effectively to important audiences. In some cases, misunderstandings during the initial months slowed progress when people felt unclear about what they were agreeing to. And the core stakeholders need to not only understand and believe in the model, but they also must communicate that the initiative is doable. States that clearly communicated “we can and will do this” built more support.

Think big.

The more successful states wove Accelerating Opportunity into broader efforts, using it as a framework for advancing their goals to reform ABE. These states saw the initiative as part of the state’s strategic agenda, not a discrete project. And their thinking also went beyond numbers to focus on systemic change.

What’s next?

As the Accelerating Opportunity states enter their second year of implementation, they have already served nearly 2,000 students. In the coming months and years, JFF will produce regular updates on the states’ progress and what we are learning.