Contextualized College Transition Strategies for Adult Basic Skills Students: Learning from Washington State’s I-BEST Program Model

Findings and recommendations are presented from the final phase of a multi-year evaluation of the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) model in which basic skills instructors and professional-technical faculty jointly design and teach college-level occupational classes that admit basic skills-level students.

John Wachen
Davis Jenkins
Clive Belfield
Michelle Van Noy
Amanda Richards
Kristen Kulongoski
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This study reports on the final phase of a multi-year evaluation of Washington State’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) model. I-BEST integrates the teaching of basic skills and technical content to accelerate basic skills students transition into and through a college-level occupational field of study. The model was developed by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) in collaboration with the community and technical colleges in the state.

Key Findings

  • Program structure. I-BEST programs appear to be highly structured, limiting complex decisions students must make about program and course selection and offering support services and assistance in securing financial and credentials.
  • Instruction. I-BEST courses are jointly taught by a basic skills instructor and a professional–technical instructor, yet the programs vary in the degree of integrated instruction and team teaching.
  • Student experience. Students responded positively to the structural components of the program design and to the instructional approach.
  • Sustainability, scale, and cost. One of the major challenges for the colleges in Washington is the sustainability of I-BEST programs amid competing priorities, fluctuations in program enrollments, faculty and administrator turnover, and sharp cuts in state funding.


  • Transitions. Programs that are designed to increase the rate at which adult basic skills students transition into and through college-level programs need to consider all of the possible transition points and identify barriers to a successful transition to further education.
  • Readiness criteria. As part of the process of assessing pathways and transition points, it is necessary to consider the readiness of students who complete the intervention.
  • Integration and contextualization. Interventions for low-skilled students should place greater emphasis on incorporating both integrated instruction and contextualized basic skills instruction than on team teaching per se.
  • Flexibility. Some instructors noted the need for flexibility in the requirement that professional-technical instructors and basic skills instructors present in the classroom together for at least 50 percent of the time.
  • State- or system-level support. Even if colleges in other states develop less costly transition programs by selectively adapting I-BEST design principles, they are likely to need financial incentives to offer such programs since the cost of established basic skills programs are so low.
What the experts say

This report is highly practical and would be of interest to program administrators and adult educators. Highlights of the study are the interview data describing the instruction, and a cost-benefit analysis shedding light on the possibility of program sustainability. The report can be used by college administrators interested in developing adult education programs contextualized in occupational/workplace content. It could also be used in a study circle of administrators and teachers interested in work-related adult learning.

The findings and recommendations are relevant to anyone involved in developing new pathways or evaluating existing programs. Valuable insights are provided into:

  • team teaching and the need to balance contextualized and integrated instruction to serve students,
  • the challenge to scaling such initiatives when many students’ skill levels are insufficient to ensure success in an I-BEST pathway, and
  • the need for ongoing supports to help students transition from completion of an I-BEST program into a regular college programming.

The occupational areas examined in the evaluatoin were education/child care, welding, nursing assistant, health care administration and business, which are high demand areas in the current economy. The report describes different ways in which basic academic skills are taught in the context of these areas in the I-BEST program. For example, a writing prompt contextualized in welding is provided, along with the writing skills required of a welder. The benefits of contextualization as described by interviewees are provided and the important topic of program sustainability, including costs, is examined through a cost-benefit analysis. The report concludes with highly practical recommendations.

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