Aligning education and training systems to support adult learners
For the past eight years, I have partnered with Brandon Roberts + Associates to evaluate the Joyce Foundation’s Shifting Gears initiative. In September 2015, our final evaluation report was released documenting the progress Midwest states have made in aligning their adult education, community and technical college, and workforce development systems to better support adult learners. In this report, both Minnesota and Wisconsin warrant particular attention, because they have expanded adult education bridges to virtually all public two-year community and technical colleges; and also enacted state policies to provide several million dollars annually to expand and sustain this innovative programming for adult learners.
I expect that much attention will be made about the growth of adult education bridge programs in the Shifting Gears states – they more than doubled from 79 to 196 between 2011 and 2014. Attention will also be paid to the more than 10,000 adult learners who participated in these programs – and that this impressive number barely scratches the surface of the need in these states. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin conducted their own research about the effectiveness of these programs, and found that adult education bridge participants both earned more postsecondary credits and more postsecondary credentials than a comparison group. I imagine attention will be focused on these positive outcomes as well.
Yet, I think there is a more important story from Shifting Gears that policy makers, researchers, advocates, and philanthropic and corporate funders should pay attention to: the lessons we gleaned around what it takes to address systems change within and across state agencies. Aligning adult education, postsecondary and workforce development systems to better serve adult learners is an acutely needed system change – and one that many if not all practitioners, policymakers, funders and advocates can agree. Making progress towards such systems change is immensely challenging, because people generally do not know how to design, structure, and implement systems change efforts. I believe our evaluation of Shifting Gears raises some key lessons that should be understood if systems change is to be advanced in Midwest states as well as nationally.
First and foremost, systems change is slow and incremental, in part because these systems have deeply engrained ways of operating, with rules and policies that make innovation difficult. But change of this magnitude is also slow because of the way leaders and staff in these systems tends to operationalize external grants as temporary, confined, siloed, and marginal. To be fair, external grants really are a small speck relative to the operating budgets of state systems so treating grants accordingly is reasonable. Changing this mindset towards external grants from one of a short-lived investment to that of a strategic lever to alter the way these systems operate should be articulated up front if systems change is the objective. And, critically, the philanthropic community needs to stay invested over a longer duration to support these efforts – 10 years in my view.
Second, achieving systems change requires strategic planning, intentionality, and resources – including the support of executive-level leaders. Systems change is less likely, and certainly a much slower process, if planning is opportunistic and activities are limited to those the grant itself can support. So, if systems change is the objective, system leaders need to develop and execute a strategic implementation plan; at least one staff person will need to be dedicated exclusively to this effort with a clear understanding that reforming and/or aligning systems is the goal; and staff and supervisors will need external advising and support to influence both the pace of systems change and progress towards the desired outcomes. There are many capable professionals working in our education and training systems, but reforming the agencies and institutions in which they work is not part of their everyday responsibilities.
Third, efforts to foster transformative change in the practices of institutions and systems require significant policy change and investment or reallocation of state resources. Policy change is a necessary condition for systems change, and is not limited to high profile, legislative matters. In actuality, the policy changes most critical to support systems change are often administrative, regulatory, and reporting policies that can be changed by system leaders. A key aspect of policy change should emphasize the reallocation of existing resources so that new, innovative practices replace long-standing and less effective ones. To successfully reallocate existing resources requires the support of local practitioners – and this issue, like systems change itself, must be addressed directly and systematically. Real and sustainable systems change is not possible if led solely from the top. Local stakeholders needed to embrace change and become champions for new ways of delivering education and training. Engaging local leaders through professional development workshops and onsite training, as well as providing access to key materials such as curriculum and lesson plans, appears fundamental to building broad and deep support for systems change.
In short, systems change is slow and incremental, and can take around 10 years to achieve. By staying the course over a decade, funders and reformers can make demonstrable progress towards systems change; and in doing so can foster culture change in our education and training systems so that innovative and change becomes the norm rather than the exception.
Derek V. Price