Adult Career Pathways from Coast-to-Coast


Contributing author:

Susan Finn Miller
Adult Literacy Teacher & Teacher Educator
Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13

Spotlight article contributors:

Kate Daly
Instructional Specialist
Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center 
Virginia Commonwealth University 

Amy M. Dalsimer
Pre-College Academic Programming Director
LaGuardia Community College/City University of New York

Kimberly Johnson
ABE Teaching & Learning Advancement System (ATLAS) Director, Assistant Professor
Hamline University

Trailblazer contributors:

Patty Silver
ESL Coordinator, Adult Education
Chesapeake College

Debra Hargrove
Institute for the Professional Development of Adult Educators
Indian River State College

Cheryl Brueggeman
State Leadership Manager
Ohio Adult Basic and Literacy Education


ACP Trailblazer

Trailblazing Professional Development for Contextualized Instruction

ACP News recently asked professional developers in three states how they are approaching teacher development for contextualized instruction.


The Florida Department of Career and Adult Education funded more than 50 local career pathways implementation grants in 2012. The state also supported two state leadership grants—one for Florida TechNet, a statewide professional development network, and the other for the Institute for the Professional Development of Adult Educators (IPDAE) at Indian River State College. IPDAE held a Teacher Leadership Institute in the fall of 2012 and brought more than 100 teachers from across the state to collaborate with colleagues on issues relating to sustaining career pathways programs, including best practices on contextualizing instruction.

According to Dr. Debra Hargrove at Indian River, the Institute has led to positive changes in contextualized instruction. Dr. Katrina Bell, Dean of Adult Education at Daytona State College notes, "Through the state career pathways grant, we were able to work with college faculty to develop contextualized curriculum for the areas of cosmetology, computer science, and health careers, and make it available to others through our online clearinghouse. The curriculum is now used by ABE, GED, and ESOL instructors."


Patty Silver, ESOL Coordinator for Adult Education at Chesapeake College in Maryland, says teachers at her institution contextualize instruction around career pathways in a variety of ways ranging from team taught I-BEST type classes to "feeder" classes that contextualize healthcare within ABE or ESOL. Some classes are using the Integrating Career Awareness in the ABE and ESOL Classroom curriculum, and others are providing contextualization through a "career sampler" format.

According to Silver, the professional development practice that has yielded the best results in bringing about teacher change at her institution has been to send highly motivated leaders to teacher training workshops or to visit successful programs. Upon their return, these teachers use the newly acquired information to change their teaching practice and model this change for other teachers. They provide training for local teachers and even mentor them through the adoption and implementation of new teaching strategies.


Teachers in Ohio participated in OVAE's National Career Awareness project managed during 2011-2012. To support teachers in contextualizing instruction around career pathways, Cheryl Brueggeman, State Leadership Manager for Ohio Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE), explains that the Integrating Career Awareness into the ABE and ESOL Classroom materials and resources have been disseminated throughout the state. Professional development staff are working with local programs to review existing lesson plans to enhance instructional content with contextualized materials and activities. Ohio's ESOL Health Care program is an example of a successful adult basic skills program that supports contextualized instruction in collaboration with local employers. Plans are underway to develop additional career-focused pathways for ABLE students.

In preparation for the 2014 GED assessment, Brueggeman notes that professional developers in Ohio are designing new teacher preparation courses to reflect contextualized content particularly in the areas of math and science. Additional professional development goals for Ohio include heightening the promotion of career assessments and inventories for ABLE students and strengthening the position of Transition Coordinators at the program level to include a more robust career awareness focus for students entering postsecondary institutions and employment.



Career Clusters Institute

Fort Worth, TX
June 10-12, 2013


Correctional Education Association Conference

Cleveland, OH
June 30-July 3, 2013


NCPN Conference: Linking Education and Economic Prosperity

San Antonio, TX
October 13-15, 2013


Effective Transitions in Adult Education Conference

Providence, RI
November 13-15, 2013


Featured ACP Resource

Designing Contextualized Instruction – An ACP-SC Online Course

April 2013, Designing Instruction for Career Pathways, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education

The Designing Contextualized Instruction course in the Adult Career Pathways Training and Support Center (ACP-SC) online professional development course series helps teachers understand contextualized instruction and its supporting research base, use teaching methods and assessments compatible with the contextual approach, and develop Adult Career Pathways (ACP) courses. The course also examines potential challenges to implementation of contextualized instruction and explores ways to overcome those challenges. The course is self-paced and features three modules: (1) Understanding Contextualized Instruction; (2) Building Contextualized Lessons; and (3) Overcoming Development Challenges. The modules link to the ACP Community's Designing Contextualized Instruction forum to provide opportunities for teachers to discuss how to apply the course information in their teaching practice with colleagues from around the country.

To begin the course, log into your ACP-SC account or create one for free:

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Contextualized Instruction Takes Center Stage in ACP Programs' Professional Development

In this Special Edition Spotlight, ACP News looks at the contextual instructional practices of programs in three states and professional development strategies employed to support teachers.

Spotlight on: Virginia

Logo for Plugged In VA: Silhouette of the State of Virginia with an electrical cord circling the state.In Virginia, many adult educators are delivering contextualized instruction through the state's PluggedInVA (PIVA) program, which targets learners who test at the 9th grade level and above, and through the Pre-PluggedInVA program, targeting learners between the 5th and 8th grade levels. The PIVA program is a career pathways initiative that provides adults the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in postsecondary education, training, and high-demand, high-wage careers. The Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC) at Virginia Commonwealth University developed a model for contextualized instruction that is delivered as an integral component of the PIVA program. The VALRC team supports program teachers through professional development and resource sharing activities. VALRC offers a face-to-face career pathways training on contextualized and integrated instruction, with a focus on workplace readiness for any skill level. The VALRC team has hosted statewide meetings for teachers to share best practices and brainstorm ideas on adapting the PIVA model for unique situations and industries.

Kate Daly, instructional specialist at VALRC, says the team is building PIVA networks through listservs and a collaborative website to enable teachers to ask questions of one another and share resources among programs. The team is using Thinkfinity to collect videos and lesson plans that reflect good practices in contextualized instruction. They have also created a professional learning community with input from instructors. These activities have prompted on-site visits between programs as well as day-long trainings hosted by individual programs to share promising practices and resources.

A broad range of professional development topics are addressed during VALRC's professional development training for PIVA practitioners, including:

  • supporting contextualized instruction at all literacy levels, including English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL);
  • integrating instruction to include workplace experience and industry-recognized credentials while strengthening basic skills and working toward the General Educational Development (GED) exam;
  • using the Virginia Workplace Readiness Skills as a guide;
  • using the Career Readiness Certificate as a building block for workplace readiness;
  • aligning instruction to workplace readiness standards, as well as academic standards;
  • emphasizing digital literacy skills; and
  • providing industry-specific curricula resources in health care, entrepreneurship, construction and weatherization, information technology, pharmacy technician, electronic medical records, and hospitality.

To support the Pre-PluggedInVA pilot projects that were launched earlier this year, VALRC is also providing contextualized instruction support for lower-level instruction. Resources offered include an instructor's manual, badge system training, and on-site technical assistance.

One of the components of the six-month PIVA program is a capstone project through which students respond to a community need and demonstrate mastery of skills they have practiced. Capstone projects, such as a video on how to prepare for an interview or a presentation on the "how-tos" of conducting an energy audit or the development of a small business plan, are presented by student teams to groups of adult practitioners and other stakeholders to allow the community to experience the program's contextualized instruction first-hand.

When asked what's working well and what challenges remain in supporting teacher adoption of contextualized instruction, Ms. Daly said it has been wonderful to see local programs so supportive of each other. The success of the PIVA model has prompted some program managers to restructure their entire adult basic education (ABE)/GED programs to focus on contextualization for workplace readiness, especially in rural areas. Challenges, however, continue to present themselves, particularly when it comes to finding lower-level ESOL and literacy-level contextualization materials and resources.

Regarding lessons learned by the VALRC team, Ms. Daly suggests that program administrators make teacher professional development as directly relevant to instructors as possible, providing ready-to-use contextual materials from the onset. It is also important to keep in mind that one size does not fit all; offer flexibility and provide models that can be adapted to unique interests and skill levels that will vary by region and student population.

Spotlight on: Minnesota

Logo: Combined arrow, one pointing right, the other up. Academic Career & Employability SkillsIn Minnesota, the Academic, Career and Employability Skills or "ACES" project under the direction of Kimberly Johnson at Hamline University has been working with colleagues from across the state to outline essential skills adult learners need to transition successfully. The work builds on ideas reflected in the 2010 article by Johnson and Parrish, Promoting Learner Transitions to Postsecondary Education and Work: Developing Academic Readiness Skills from the Beginning. The goal of the ACES project is to support Minnesota’s adult educators to assess and modify their instruction – regardless of content or curriculum – to integrate and build key skills into whatever they are teaching and with every learner.

The ACES project team set out to understand: What are the essential skills that all learners need to be ready to transition—that can be taught at the very lowest levels, including literacy levels. What are the critical things adult learners need to be ready for employment, advancing in employment, transitioning into integrated courses, or even to be active and engaged citizens? The ACES team drafted a Transition Integration Framework (TIF) to delineate these important transition skills and sub-skills for Minnesota's adult learners. After multiple iterations and input from in-state colleagues and outside reviewers, the team identified eight critical categories: Effective Communication, Learning Strategies, Academic Learning and Skills, Numeracy, Critical Thinking Skills, Self-Management, Developing a Future Pathway, and Navigating Systems. The team is now refining the skills and sub-skills in the TIF and creating sample activities to demonstrate the integration of these skills into all levels of classroom instruction.

To help teachers understand and use the TIF model, a professional development pilot, led by Betsy Parrish, engaged 24 ABE and ESOL teachers from urban, rural, and corrections programs. Each teacher was paired with a colleague, ideally from the same program, to promote meaningful collaboration. Three transition specialists also provided support to participants during the initiative. Following a kick-off event, professional development commenced using an online Moodle course for assignments and discussion, as well as to facilitate collaboration and communication among the cohort of teachers across the state. Participants worked with the TIF throughout the pilot, using it to assess transitions instruction in classroom videos, partner observations, and their own teaching. A self-assessment tool proved very useful in helping teachers identify their own strengths and challenges regarding the integration of transitions skills. The process was affirming to teachers by prompting reflection on what they were currently doing well, but also helping them recognize areas for improvement.

Peer observation was key. Before the observations, teachers talked with their partners about what TIF skills they wanted to explore in their teaching, e.g., critical thinking, or aspects of self-management, etc. Peer observers served as "another set of eyes" charged with watching the students during the lesson. As Johnson notes, when trying out a new teaching idea, it is not easy for teachers to pay attention to everything that is happening in the classroom, so having an "extra set of eyes" can be very helpful. At the conclusion of the pilot, each pair of teachers presented a final project highlighting what they learned over the course of the semester about how to more intentionally integrate transition skills into instruction. Johnson acknowledges that although this approach to professional development requires quite an investment, the project engaged teachers in deeply contextual and job-embedded professional development that honored the knowledge and experience they brought to the table.

The TIF will be shared with teachers across Minnesota this summer. The overall goal of the ACES project moving forward is to support every teacher in every program in Minnesota. According to Johnson, "We want teachers to think differently about how they teach. Put on your 'academic readiness lens' and think about your instruction differently. Ask yourself with each lesson, how can I intentionally integrate what learners need into my instruction?"

Spotlight on: LaGuardia Community College, New York

Logo: LaGuardia Community College, New YorkLaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York has provided adult basic and secondary education, ESOL, and professional workforce preparation for more than three decades. Since 2006, LaGuardia has successfully implemented contextualized instructional programs to prepare at-risk, low-skilled, and nontraditional students to pass rigorous credentialing exams, build English language proficiency, and transition to postsecondary education.

  • Designed as a springboard to either college or vocational training, the GED Bridge to College and Careers Program provides career-focused academic preparation that develops students' reading, writing, and math skills in preparation for the GED and postsecondary education simultaneously. Coursework investigates themes in healthcare, business, science, or the world of work. Recent findings of a random assignment evaluation conducted by MDRC suggest the impact of the program's innovations on student outcomes and transition rates may be the result of, among other things, the implementation of contextualized curriculum, program alignment to students' motivations for returning to school, and robust transitions advisement services to support students beyond the GED exam. 
  • The NY-BEST (New York Basic Education and Skills Training) Programs were inspired by results from the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) work in Washington state. Integrated Healthcare Career Pathways Programs are designed especially for nontraditional, adult students who may read at levels far below the secondary threshold, have family responsibilities, and face economic and educational disadvantages that often impede a rigorous professional course of study. The programs employ a developmental instructional model that includes a contextualized three to eight week academic "vestibule" session designed as an on-ramp to the rigorous training component. Training and curriculum is designed and taught collaboratively by an experienced Allied Health technical instructor and basic skills educator trained to teach adult learners. LaGuardia staff and faculty have collaborated on the development of programs to prepare students for certification and careers as Emergency Medical Technicians, Community Health Workers, Medical Office Clinical Technicians, and Central Service Technicians.
  • LaGuardia's Center for Immigrant Education and Training (CIET) has provided a variety of contextualized bridge and integrated workforce credential ESOL courses for the healthcare and hospitality sectors. Its on-campus NYC Welcome Back Center targets skilled immigrants with physician and nursing qualifications from their home countries, providing them with re-licensing advisement and NY-BEST integrated courses. Over the last six years, CIET has offered a host of intensive courses for healthcare careers. In addition to ESOL curriculum in healthcare, CIET also created the nationally recognized Hotel T.E.A.C.H contextualized curriculum with employer partner Sheraton Hotels.

Professional Development for Contextualized Programs
The training and development of master teachers is central to program practices in the contextualized programs described above. The instructional team in each program works collaboratively to design evidence-based case management strategies, curriculum content, and classroom routines. Workshops and professional development offered by LaGuardia's classroom practitioners incorporate best practices from their own successful contextualized models and curricula to develop the capacity of adult educators who work in a variety of settings with adult and nontraditional students. To support professionals outside their institution, LaGuardia staff have developed customized professional development, hands-on workshops, educational resources, and curriculum design for educational leaders, teachers, advisors, student support, and workforce professionals interested in developing programming for adult learners in pre-college and technical training programs. At LaGuardia's trainings, participants receive resources to guide their own program development and curriculum, and participate in activities from the point of view of the student and educator. The activities are modeled on best practices in adult education, and mirror LaGuardia's contextualized classroom setting to the greatest extent possible. Practitioner-led workshops offer educators the chance to visit lab classrooms at the Western Queens, New York campus and observe teaching firsthand.


Research and Policy Corner

Facilitating Student Learning through Contextualization

February 2011, Delores Perin, Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University

Facilitating Student Learning through Contextualization is a literature review that explores the nature and effectiveness of contextualization as a way to improve outcomes for academically underprepared college students. Two forms of contextualization are described: "contextualized" and "integrated" instruction. Contextualization is grounded in a conceptual framework relating to the transfer of skill and student motivation. Practitioners who use contextualization observe positive results, and the available quantitative evidence indicates that it has the potential to increase student achievement.

Download the paper at:

Contextualized Teaching and Learning: A Faculty Primer

Spring 2009, Elaine DeLott Baker, Laura Hope, and Kelley Karandjef, California Basic Skills Initiative

Contextualized Teaching and Learning: A Faculty Primer offers an overview of eleven contextual teaching and learning approaches implemented by community colleges. It is organized into three main sections: examination of (1) supporting research for contextualized teaching and learning that situates the practice within workforce development, (2) contextualized teaching and learning practices, described by faculty and program directors, and (3) considerations for community college faculty, leaders, and policymakers interested in the potential of contextualized teaching and learning to strengthen student success.

Download the report at:

Breaking Through Contextualization Toolkit: A Tool for Helping Low-Skilled Adults Gain Postsecondary Certificates and Degrees

Spring 2010, Rebecca Arnold, Jobs for the Future and National Council for Workforce Education

The Breaking Through Contextualization Toolkit is designed to help community colleges and other educators serve low-skilled adults through the use of contextualized learning. This approach integrates career subject matter with precollege skills development, allowing adult learners to get started more quickly on their chosen career path. For designers and implementers of contextualized learning courses, this toolkit offers a guide to the key characteristics of contextualized learning, concrete steps to take when designing their contextualization approach, strategies to engage students, considerations related to promoting contextualized learning at their institutions, tools to guide their work, and models from the Breaking Through colleges.

Download the report at:

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Disclaimer: The Adult Career Pathways (ACP) News is a publication of the Designing Instruction for Career Pathways (DICP) initiative and was produced by Kratos Learning, in partnership with the Center for Occupational Research and Development, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-CFO-10-A-0072/0001. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education should be inferred. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.