This report presents findings from the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES) research project that examines how adult education providers designed and implemented career pathways programming for adults who are immigrants or have barriers to employment and education. The project consisted of three research phases. This brief first presents the survey findings, followed by focus groups and case study findings.

The IES project's three research phases were:

  1. A survey of adult education providers in the three cities (Chicago, Houston, and Miami);
  2. Focus groups with selected adult education providers; and
  3. Case studies of six programs (two per city).

The purpose of the survey was to understand the landscape of adult education career pathways within and across Chicago, Houston, and Miami. The confidential, web-based survey covered organizational background information, student characteristics, program design and delivery, data collection systems and outcome measures, and aggregate student outcomes. The survey presented the following research questions:

  1. What are the key features of adult education career pathways in each city, including student characteristics, program design and delivery, and data collection systems?
  2. Which Career Pathway (CP) student outcome measures are most extensively used by adult education providers within and across cities?
  3. Which measures (if any) are used by all adult education providers within and across cities?
  4. What interim and long-term outcomes are adult education providers helping lower-skilled CP participants to achieve?

Focus groups and case studies with adult education providers were used to investigate how specific policies and practices have shaped CP implementation and coordination in each city. Data from focus groups with providers and organizational case studies were used to answer the following questions:

  1. How do selected programs design and implement CP programming?
  2. Within each city, which policies and practices shape (a) CP programming and (b) coordination across systems?
  3. Which programmatic features, policies, and other factors contribute to student success?

Although there is no single way to design a successful CP program, the data suggest common features that can be adapted by other organizations. Some features include:

  1. Caring, dedicated teachers and staff;
  2. Strong, established partnerships (Key partners included CBOs, educational institutions, workforce development partners, government agencies, employers, intermediary organizations, homeless shelters, and social service agencies, among others);
  3. Support services that were vital for helping lower-income students; and
  4. Offering some combination of free or low-cost classes, financial aid, or financial incentives.

Major Findings & Recommendations

Major Findings

  • The most common types of CP services were ESL (84%), employability or work readiness (76%), and classes to transition to postsecondary education (75%).
  • More than one-third (36%) of the 87 agencies that said they offer CP nevertheless reported zero students enrolled in CP services.
  • One-fifth of respondents believed that organizations in their city are “very effective” in working together to avoid duplicating CP services and in determining and filling gaps in CP services. Sixty-three to 64% thought they were very or somewhat effective in both areas, compared to 35% to 36% who thought they were slightly or not at all effective.
  • Agencies served a wide range of students, particularly unemployed or underemployed persons (90%), adults who struggle with basic skills (89%), immigrants or non-native English speakers (87%), and parents or caregivers (86%).
  • About 59% of CP students were women, and 41% were men. Approximately 67% were foreign-born. Hispanics comprise approximately 57% of the U.S.-born CP students.
  • The case studies confirmed that organizations varied widely in how they designed and implemented CP.
  • Partnerships were central to CP programming.


The data show that over 94% of the adult education agencies that completed the survey offered or were developing CP programming. However, the configuration of CP services varied widely, and most of the “core” CP services were less common (e.g., classes combining basic skills and CTE, short-term certificate programs, classes to obtain industry-recognized, stackable, or postsecondary credentials).

Programs served adult learners who experience various kinds of economic and educational vulnerability, particularly immigrants, refugees, and adults who are unemployed or underemployed and lack a high school degree. At the same time, most classes and services had entry requirements. This finding raises questions about how to ensure that adults with the greatest barriers to education and employment can access CP programming.

Although there were no common outcome measures within or across cities, 85% of respondents measured educational level gains on standardized tests (an NRS requirement). Finding ways to measure interim training outcomes is crucial for capturing the achievements of learners who are a long way from reaching longer-term outcomes such as passing the GED® Tests, attaining a postsecondary credential, or finding a job.