Barriers & Opportunities to Transitioning ABE Learners to Post-Secondary Education and Training in Boston

May 31st, 2024 | Blogs


From June 2023 through April 2024, World Education led a community-engaged research initiative on behalf of the Adult Literacy and Learning Impact Network (ALL IN). This opportunity funded short-term research projects to unearth instructional and programmatic innovation, make visible teacher knowledge, and offer insights aligned to the National Action Plan for Adult Literacy’s goals of access, quality, and/or uptake of adult learning opportunities. This blog is one of five reports from the funded research teams  of this initiative. 

By Sarah Soroui, Brooke Machado, and Aaron Park

The Challenge

The City of Boston Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development (OWD) is an innovative public agency dedicated to ensuring the full participation of all Boston residents in the City’s economic vitality and future. By connecting low-income residents with occupational training and employment opportunities and promoting lifelong literacy and educational pathways, OWD plays a crucial role in fostering community prosperity.

To achieve this mission, it is imperative to ensure that Boston’s adult learners are equipped for workforce development training and post-secondary education. Adult Basic Education (ABE) students often face challenges entering and succeeding in these programs. To address this issue, our project aims to explore program models and strategies that facilitate ABE students’ transitions to post-secondary pathways, understand the obstacles they encounter, and identify support mechanisms to enhance their integration into occupational training and post-secondary education.

The findings from our research will inform policy recommendations that meet these goals. Ultimately, our project aims to create a more inclusive and effective educational landscape for all Boston residents.

Setting and Methodology

This project addresses key research questions:

  1. What factors hinder ABE learners from transitioning into post-secondary education and training?
  2. What strategies and support mechanisms facilitate ABE learners’ transitions, and how can they be enhanced within workforce and ABE programs?
  3. How can these strategies translate into effective policy responses to assist ABE learners in accessing and participating in post-secondary education and training?

Employing mixed research methods, the project has progressed through focused phases: initial focus groups to uncover barriers, surveys for comprehensive insights, a collaborative workshop for solution-building, and a stakeholder review to refine recommendations. These involved ABE learners and practitioners from ABE, post-secondary, and workforce training sectors, each adding valuable perspectives. Guided by community-engaged research principles, every step has ensured equitable participation, fostering collective ownership and meaningful change in the educational landscape.

Observations to Date

Our research project has explored the journey from ABE to workforce training and post-secondary education, uncovering intricate barriers across socio-economic, educational, and systemic realms.

Our survey of ABE and workforce practitioners revealed institutional barriers, notably standardized tests or entrance exams, highlighted by 68% of respondents. However, there was a disparity between how the tests were perceived by ABE and workforce development practitioners. Over 80% of ABE practitioners cited difficulty with tests as an important barrier, while just under 50% of workforce development practitioners felt the same way. An ABE practitioner noted, “One of the biggest barriers in terms of occupational training that I see for [ABE] students is [occupational training programs’] admissions tests. They’re often timed, and that puts a huge barrier to our students because we cannot forget that this is their second language.” Despite varied perceptions, the survey underscored the significant impact of institutional barriers on ABE and workforce development, emphasizing the need for comprehensive support systems to address these challenges effectively. Other notable barriers identified include the limited flexible job opportunities (88.16%), digital literacy skills (84.21%), stable housing (80.26%), and childcare (86.30%). One practitioner stressed the impact of socio-economic factors on access to education and training and pointed out, “Because of the population we serve and the programs that we offer, [socioeconomic barriers are] definitely an issue: just the cost of transportation, the fact that the students are often working full-time and have young children… It’s really all basic needs…”

In the survey, practitioners rated various strategies for their effectiveness in increasing transitions from ABE programs to occupational training or post-secondary education, with top responses including increasing bridge programs, pre-apprenticeships, and transitional training (93.42%), contextualized education and training (92.11%), intensive career and academic advising (90.54%), higher level ESOL programs (89.47%), and expanding access to apprenticeships (89.33%). These strategies were explored further during a collaborative workshop, which culled recommendations for tailored curricula, practical skills integration into programming, personalized support, and better serving linguistic needs through enhanced ESOL programs.

Incorporating practitioner input, our agency is implementing recommendations to address these needs. Collaboration among stakeholders has been pivotal in identifying barriers, devising solutions, and implementing changes, highlighting the importance of policy recommendations to enhance access, quality, and support mechanisms for ABE learners.

Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice

This research has not only yielded valuable insights into the challenges confronted by Adult Basic Education (ABE) learners when transitioning to workforce training and post-secondary education but also lays the groundwork for future studies and advancements within our agency’s purview and the broader field. Looking ahead, we envision this work as a catalyst for deeper investigations into specific barriers and effective interventions.

Our findings underscore the imperative to broaden access to essential support services for adult learners who have historically been overlooked or have fallen through the gaps between ABE programs and workforce development training. Moreover, they emphasize the necessity of enhancing participation in ABE programming, occupational training, and post-secondary education by customizing programs to better suit the distinctive needs of adult learners.

Through sustained engagement with stakeholders and the integration of community perspectives, we aim to refine our comprehension of the intricate dynamics at play and devise targeted strategies to address them. By fostering ongoing collaboration and disseminating our findings, we aspire to spur transformation in the adult education and workforce systems. Furthermore, we intend to leverage our findings to advocate for policy changes that prioritize the needs of ABE learners and advance equity in education and workforce development, ensuring that the voices of ABE learners and practitioners continue to shape our endeavors.

Read More from the Initiative

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