Establishing High-Level Goals

Defining the Problem | Core Systems Change Strategies | Self-Assessment | Developing a Theory of Change

Once you have your team assembled, you will need to work together to determine the what, why, and how of your redesign effort. What needs to change? Why is it important? And how will you get there?

Start by defining the goals and underlying principles of your initiative—these goals will guide you throughout the strategy development and implementation process and provide everyone involved a common sense of purpose. The underlying principles can be big themes such as poverty reduction or closing the opportunity gap; they should resonate with a wide audience. Be sure all stakeholders can clearly articulate these goals.

Defining the Problem

In order to build buy-in you need to be able to explain, and provide evidence for, the problem you are trying to address through your redesign effort. For example, as part of the kick-off meeting, start by identifying key questions such as:

  • What do we know about the transition rates of our ABE students into college?
  • Where are the most glaring “loss points” across our systems?
  • What are the impacts of these loss points?
  • Where are there labor market shortages?

Visit the data section of the Field Guide for more detail on how data can support the planning process.

Core Systems Change Strategies

In Accelerating Opportunity, implementation states are charged with developing and scaling up career pathway designs that result in more ABE students completing credentials valued in the labor market. These nine strategic elements support that goal:


Integrated Pathways: designing transparent systems of postsecondary education and training that integrate basic skills education and career and technical credit-bearing training; are linked to the local labor market; include embedded student supports; and have stackable certificates.

Scale and Sustainability: breaking down silos within the college, institutionalizing the model, strengthening partnerships, and building out integrated pathways across the state.

Culture Shift: changing attitudes and beliefs so that ABE students become seen as valued members of the student body, and ownership for ensuring ABE student success ultimately shared across the state and campuses.

Comprehensive Student Supports: embedding core student services such as tutoring, intrusive advising, student success courses, and career guidance directly into the model

Stakeholder Engagement: building a supportive network of stakeholders, including partners and champions of change, that increases alignment across systems; helps achieve policy change; adds resources to the initiative; and stretches its reach.

Professional Development: creating an ongoing sequence of trainings and activities that support instructors, staff, and administrators throughout implementation.

State Technical Assistance to Colleges: building college capacity, monitoring progress, and creating opportunities for peer learning.

Policy: identifying high-impact policy levers, such as braided funding; common assessment practices; and student support services, that accelerate, support, scale up, and sustain the programmatic redesign.

Leadership and Staff Commitment: making integrated pathways a state and college priority, sharing a clearly communicated vision, ensuring sufficient financial resources and staff capacity, and emphasizing accountability.



Before you start developing your strategy, you need to assess where you are now. The Systems Change Benchmarking Matrix was developed to help state systems gauge progress along the nine different strategic areas shown here. These nine areas were developed for Accelerating Opportunity states as a framework for understanding how to create lasting systems change. While some questions and sections were developed with a state audience in mind, the majority of the assessments and guiding questions can by used by state OR college teams.

Each section of the Benchmarking Matrix focuses on one of these areas and provides guiding questions to help you to rate where your state is now on a continuum of progress. You can use one or more of the sections during an early design team meeting as a way to start thinking critically about systems change. Revisit the tool periodically to gauge progress. 

Developing a Theory of Change

A theory of change helps illustrate how activities lead to short- and long-term goals. It identifies stakeholders and levers for promoting change. A well-developed theory of change guides the initiative, and it creates consensus about the problem and how the initiative addresses it. Developing a theory of change includes identifying underlying assumptions that need to be true for the initiative to be successful. For example, one assumption in Accelerating Opportunity is that providing ABE students with comprehensive supports will make it more likely they transition to credit-bearing courses and earn credentials.