Strengthening State Systems for Adult Learners: An Evaluation of the First Five Years of Shifting Gears

This report aims to answer two evaluative questions from the first five years of the Shifting Gears project: 1) To what extent have states begun to adopt and implement an innovative strategy to improve transitions from adult basic education into community and technical colleges, including serving participants in these new ways? 2) What are the factors that influenced progress in the states to adopt and implement  these innovative strategies during the initiative?

Brandon Roberts
Derek Price
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Joyce Foundation's Shifting Gears Initiative
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

The evaluation team found that four of the six Shifting Gears states demonstrated traction on the ground by implementing innovative strategies to serve low-skilled adults. By the end of 2011, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin had enrolled a total of about 4,000 low-skilled adults in their innovative strategies—a modest number that is expected to grow considerably
during the next several years as these innovative strategies are embraced by more institutions throughout the state. These states each pursued a career pathway framework, including a bridge component, to improve transition between adult basic education programs and community and technical college workforce programs.

The report also finds other benefits from the states’ participation in Shifting Gears, including: a growing commitment to address the educational and skill levels of adult workers; a greater appreciation of how data could support program improvement; and an increasing willingness of adult basic education leaders to elevate the system’s mission to help students aspire for higher levels of education and employment.

A supplemental synopsis of the evaluation is also available: 

What the experts say

The Shifting Gears Initiative represents a significant philanthropic investment in six states aimed at increasing the number of low-skilled adults who attain the education and skill levels needed to succeed in the 21st century economy. The report focuses on specific adult career pathways strategies adopted by states to move closer to their goals of accomplishing systems change with respect to ABE transitions to community and technical college workforce programs. The evaluation of this 5-year initiative offers significant insight into the work of state adult education teams as they undertook the core activities of Shifting Gears. The report could be used as a discussion piece for a study circle or community of practice or even as a component of the literature studied by a graduate class examining adult career pathways frameworks and processes, program design, and/or policy. This is a well written report that would be very helpful to educators and policymakers who are interested in aligning adult education more effectively with postsecondary and workforce preparation programs.

The executive summary is very concise, offering a succinct snapshot of the intended outcomes of the project, state by state progress, and the four core activities that enabled states to "achieve traction on the ground." The report's introduction builds a strong case for the need for change in states' approach to adult education. The report does a good job of identifying lessons learned and describing the innovative strategies undertaken by the four states that made clear progress during the five year project. Organizing this information around the project's six core activities helps readers keep track of the changes implemented (or attempted) by each state. Table 2 on page 22 offers a very useful overview of state policy changes within each area of governance (adult education, community/technical colleges, and workforce development). Appendix B, page 37, contains the Shifting Gears Logic Model which would be valuable for any team embarking on an adult career pathways initiative. The summation of the narrative findings are located on pages 27-28 followed by the challenges in state policy changes on page 33.

The Shifting Gears evaluation report offers guidance on how states can approach cross-agency policy change and alignment and provides a useful framework for identifying, adopting, and implementing innovative adult career pathways strategies. This report would be a valuable practical resource to states and programs wishing to increase alignment of education and training for low-skilled adults.

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