12 Teams, 9 Months, 40 Pathways: What Did We Learn From the Accelerate ED Design Sprint About Building Accelerated Pathways to Opportunity?

Monday, March 6, 2023
Ryan Reyna

Last May, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the 12 cross-sector design teams who had been selected to receive grants of $175,000 to participate in a nine-month design sprint, during which they would build a plan to scale accelerated pathways to postsecondary credentials for Black, Latino, and students from low-income backgrounds. Throughout much of 2022, the Accelerate ED community was hard at work developing solutions and tackling common challenges in their efforts to give more high school students a fast-track path to an associate degree. 

Today, ESG is excited to share a suite of resources, including a new website, highlighting the work to build accelerated pathways to opportunity happening in communities across the country—including a look at what each of the 12 design teams accomplished. Since the conclusion of the initial design sprint at the end of last year, the ESG team has been reflecting on the major lessons and learnings from this work and the implications for other communities who want to expand equitable opportunity for students. 

Lesson One: Each sector has a role to play to implement and scale high-quality accelerated pathways to credentials. To successfully scale and serve more students, accelerated pathways models should be intentionally integrated into a community and/or state’s broader pathways ecosystem, with clear cross-sector partnership to communicate to the field about who can access these opportunities, how they can access them, and what supports will be available to ensure success. Partners from across a community—including K-12 higher education, workforce, and community-based organizations—each have a distinct role to play in making meaningful changes to policy and practice to allow accelerated pathway opportunities to grow. 

Lesson Two: Intermediaries provide valuable capacity for expanding pathways and can leverage their unique structural advantages to support scale. Intermediary organizations can be enormously valuable as connectors, coordinators, and extra capacity to advance accelerated pathways work in communities. Intermediaries can serve as conveners, building trust, credibility, and strong working relationships with sector partners; support the development, refinement, and delivery of pathway programming by sector partners; use data to inform pathway programming and assess learner outcomes; and help to cultivate a policy and funding environment that promotes the growth of equitable pathways.  

Lesson Three: Having a clearly mapped pathway is an essential first step in ensuring an equitable design. In order to earn an associate degree by the 13th year, students will likely—though not always—need to earn 30 college credits by the end of 12th grade. The need to consider other course requirements for high school graduation, college entry requirements, and state exam schedules can make it difficult to incorporate and align dual credit courses for students in the traditional high school schedule. As such, many communities are integrating college-level coursework as early as 9th and 10th grade. To provide clarity and set students up for success from the outset of their high school journeys, communities must build out a course map that includes an intentional sequence of courses; opportunities for work-based learning; opportunities to earn stackable, employer-validated credentials; and advising touchpoints to support students’ goals.  

Lesson Four: Programs should be intentionally career-focused and industry-aligned. The value of accelerated pathways lies in their connection to and alignment with in-demand, high-value career opportunities. Ensuring this value requires leveraging local labor market information to identify industry sectors that are high-demand and pay a sustainable wage; developing a systemic approach to offering accessible, high-quality work-based learning opportunities; routinely partnering with employers to define credentials of value that are specific to each pathway; and actively engaging industry partners to build relationships and create clear goals. 

Lesson Five: Students need academic, navigational, and wraparound support. A student’s journey to a postsecondary credential is often not linear and may include postsecondary credits earned in high school, work-based learning credits, Advanced Placement credits, and two- and four-year college credits. A student’s experience should be as seamless as possible and require little effort to ensure credits are earned and transcribed. Leaders can set students up for success by providing them with academic supports, including tutoring, online learning resources, study groups, and academic advising; navigational supports, including ​​college and career advising, mentorship, bridge programs, application assistance, enrollment workshops, and orientation sessions; and other wraparound supports, including financial education and assistance, mental and physical health care, food and housing assistance, transportation, childcare, and family support services. 

Lesson Six: Student and family engagement can be transformational for programmatic design. Student and family engagement is critical to understanding and solving for barriers to scale. As part of the Accelerate ED experience, design teams leveraged an equity-driven, user-centered design approach to center the needs and experiences of students and families, with a particular focus on students of color, students experiencing poverty, and rural students. This engagement—via empathy interviews, surveys, focus groups, and youth advisory councils—served to broaden their perspectives and, in some cases, counter recurring narratives within their communities.

Lesson Seven: There are several key enabling conditions needed to unlock scale. Communities looking to build accelerated pathways models are likely to encounter a number of common challenges, including those related to qualified instructors, academic preparation and entry requirements, funding approaches to support students beyond 12th grade, course scheduling, and policies to ensure credit articulation and transfer. Putting in place a set of enabling conditions—around policy, funding, and data—can help to overcome some of these challenges. Make sure to check out our full report for details about the most important conditions in each of these areas to build an environment where accelerated pathway opportunities can flourish. 

Make sure to visit the new website to learn about how this work is growing in leading communities across the country.