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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue C ::: September 2003

Changing a State's Approach to Curriculum: Insight from Oregon's Efforts

by Dennis Clark
With approval from state and program administrators, a group of practitioners in Oregon began a statewide curriculum change process. Even with a "top-down" mandate and "bottom-up" participation, the process moved slowly. What steps are necessary for effective curriculum change? What lessons can be learned from Oregon's experience? Practitioner Dennis Clark, a key participant in the effort, reflects on the process as it appeared from his perspective.

In 1997, Oregon was awash in educational reform. The public schools had developed a 10th grade Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM) and were working on a 12th grade Certificate of Advanced Mastery (CAM). The university system was promoting a Proficiency-based Admission Standards System (PASS), while community colleges were constructing a set of proficiency expectations for entry into programs. Oregon's existing Adult High School Diploma (AHSD) curriculum guidelines needed updating. In Oregon, basic skills programs are housed in 17 community colleges, which are two-year colleges created as comprehensive adult educational institutions. Skills enhancement is a core element of the system. Some of us in adult basic education (ABE) feared that, without similar educational reform in ABE, the AHSD diploma and General Educational Development (GED) options might be seen as lower tier credentials than the CAM, out of step with the growing expectations of education in our state. 

Oregon had AHSD and ABE/GED curriculum committees, sponsored and supported by state and local program directors. I was teaching at the time in our local adult high school, and was chairing the AHSD curriculum committee. A new curriculum specialist at the state office joined our group in the spring of 1997. After familiarizing herself with our curricula, and taking into account the other state and national curriculum efforts that loomed large, she was convinced of the need for something other than the incremental curricular updates that had been done over the past decade. In December, four of us - myself, two other basic skills instructors, and a program director - from the AHSD curriculum committee met with her to brainstorm what might be done. We hoped to create some short- and long-term objectives that would address changing curriculum needs in the state and help us to find a place in this new educational landscape.

Someone suggested that we work backwards from our desired outcomes, creating a plan based on what we wanted to achieve. We did not recognize the symbology of this act. Our choice mimicked the standards-based curriculum paradigm that was sweeping the rest of Oregon's educational system. We sketched out a timeline for the transition. We estimated two years to complete, three years at the most.

Proposal to the State
After the December, 1997, meeting, we created a proposal - which was accepted - to the state basic skills program directors for moving ahead on state curriculum reforms. The state directors agreed to support one or two instructors from each of their colleges to be on the working group. The activity had widespread support: our committee was originally created with state-level approval, the state curriculum specialist was involved, and program-supported instructors were included. We set up a liaison system through which information would be channeled. Each effort would inform and be informed by the efforts of the other levels. I was particularly excited because I saw this as curriculum change from the bottom up: instructors being a moving force behind it. Policy would emerge in parallel and the feeling of compliance from above would not be an issue. Yes, an "official" decision to change had been made, but it was left to teachers to determine what that change would be. We did have to solve several dilemmas: ensure what we did fit with state secondary level curriculum guidelines, the changing GED, emerging Equipped for the Future (EFF, the National Institute for Literacy's change project) standards, and existing secondary guidelines. Although the impetus for change came from the outside, the creation of a new approach was under the direction of instructors. Isn't that the ideal?

Developing the Guidelines
Our next step was to recruit the instructors whom the programs agreed to support. To broaden the circle of grass-roots-level participation, we gathered likely "early implementers" of change: instructors who were considered leaders in the state adult education field. About 20 people joined our working group, which came to be known as Cohort One. After examining a variety of curriculum ideas, we decided on a standards format. We set out to learn more about standards, acting as a loose study circle, reviewing everything we could find on standards. We also reviewed lessons, units, and courses currently in use in Oregon's adult basic education system, and considered how they could be adapted to a standards-based approach. 

We thought that we could cross-reference the variety of standards-based systems such as EFF, SCANS (the Department of Labor's list of standards required for workplace success), and CIM/CAM (the Oregon High School's sets of secondary standards). We wanted to create a large chart that displayed the correlations among them, allowing people using one set of standards to see how they related to the others. We considered it important for our secondary standards to align with the Oregon public high schools because the latter would only refer people to our alternative programs if they believed that our programs would be meeting the state's intended secondary requirements. 

I attempted to create the matrix, as did a graduate student at Oregon State. We both found that each group that created a set of curriculum standards used a different conceptual structure and vocabulary. For example, what a student should be able to do, which is the first element of many curriculum standards guidelines, might be accomplished by reaching a benchmark (Oregon's Educational Act for the 21st Century); meeting specific criteria (PASS); being deemed proficient (PREP); or demonstrating performance at a benchmark along a continuum (EFF). The matrix task was both frustrating and ultimately impossible. 

We finally arrived at a list of general content areas for Oregon's GED/AHSD secondary standards curriculum: language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, workplace skills, and life skills. Course content standards detail the required knowledge and skills necessary for each subject area. We also developed a list of tasks through which mastery of a standard could be demonstrated, and ways in which to assess a student's successful demonstration of the task. 

Once the standards guidelines had been created, I started making small changes in the way I taught. By the time I was reassigned to the skills center of a one-stop workforce development center, in 1999, I was starting to function from an outcomes perspective. A lot of my old curriculum was of the "understand" and "know" variety, concepts that are pretty subjective in nature. The teacher decides if the student knows it or understands it. Standards-based curricula provide more clarity about what students need to know and be able to do, what tasks they can do to demonstrate their ability, and how they will be assessed. In many standards-based assessments, a matrix is used to display what constitutes a developing performance level, what meets the standard, and what proficiency exceeds the level required.

Introducing the Work to Others
In Oregon, significant professional development takes place at summer conferences; they are also a place where ideas can germinate. One of our strategies was to share our emerging set of curriculum standards at the Adult Secondary Standards Retreat, held in July, 1997. The three day event was attended by about 80 people, about half of whom had elected to come because, we hope, of interest. The other half were sent by their program directors. We introduced how to use a standards-based curriculum, how to do unit planning, and how to create and use scoring guides. We provided some planning forms the cohort had developed that instructors could use to create curriculum using a standards paradigm, and included time for teacher reflection. At the end, small groups shared examples of classroom activities that they had created at the retreat. 

Over the next year, the standards were refined further, public comment was solicited, policy issues were addressed, and a second cohort of instructors was trained. A second, larger conference, "Equipped for the Future: A Promise to Oregon," held in August, 1999, familiarized more of Oregon's ABE practitioners with standards-based curriculum and connected us with the emerging energy of the national EFF movement. We led two sessions: an open house that featured information on standards-based projects and materials developed and implemented by members of our group; and a workshop in which the state of our curriculum work was explained. Reviews of the sessions were positive, but a general attitude of "wait and see" prevailed. They wanted to see the policy guidelines before they made personal changes in their method of instruction. In a video about paradigm pioneers, "wait and see" folks are called settlers: defined as those who will not go into the new frontier until the explorers and the paradigm pioneers tell them that it is safe. I think change is difficult for many people, and time for curriculum development is not always compensated for. It was becoming clear that systemic change would not be successful without support being provided for staff training.

Policy Development
While our group of instructors was working, albeit more slowly than we expected, a group of program directors and state officials - a subcommittee of the Oregon Council of Adult Basic Skills Development - met quarterly to create the policy guidelines that would make our standards-based curriculum official. I was the liaison between the instructor group and the policy group. 

This group tackled several major issues and many smaller ones as well. For example, a big issue was whether GED preparation and AHSD courses should have the same set of outcome standards. The discussion was philosophical and challenged many of us to think differently about what we want to provide for our students. Did we want to simply prepare students to pass their GED exams, thereby responding to the voiced goal of just about almost every adult who comes to us for GED preparation? Or, do we have a greater responsibility to prepare them for higher education or for their roles as workers, community members, and family members? In the end, we agreed that furthering life skills is as important as helping people get a secondary certificate and therefore the same standards for curriculum should apply to both activities. To get to this decision, however, took more time.

Another stumbling block was unanticipated. Community colleges are the home base for ABE programs in Oregon. We have two types of high school programs in them. In one, the ABE/GED department provides the instruction using the state curriculum guidelines. The other type supports learners who, although they dropped out of high school, can pass the local college entrance exams and go straight into college classes. But these students want high school diplomas. Several colleges had a correlation system, so that an adult getting an associates degree could meet the high school requirement at the same time. It sounds good and, for a small number of students, it is great. The dilemma occurred when we realized that, in shifting to a standards-based approach, we were saying that students needed to be able to know and do certain things within their course work, but these students were not subject to the same outcome requirements in college classes. Dealing with this dilemma took time: everyone's needs had to be represented in the policies.

And, of course, all along the way we were discovering that many schools had developed their own ways of doing things. For example, we traditionally allow learners to bring credits from an accredited program into the adult high school. But what if someone comes in with a "D"? In a standards-based system, it is unlikely that that person demonstrated an adequate level of knowledge and skills in a course while achieving a D grade. Many such challenges emerged to slow down the policy development process.

A draft set of guidelines, titled Oregon's Adult Secondary Program Manual, was published in June, 2000, after being approved by the State Board of Education. A slightly revised and improved version was released in 2002. While the guidelines were created, field tested, and revised, the state office continued to conduct training around the state on an individual program or regional basis. One such effort explored what our new secondary standards had in common with EFF. A statewide electronic discussion list was created on which practitioners could share information, curriculum ideas, and read working committee reports. The list was very helpful for sharing information and reports, but for some reason did not generate the curriculum-sharing chatter that we had anticipated.

Theory and Practice Today
Policy guidelines are in place, and the project is moving to another stage. On paper, the systemic changes have been achieved, but much more work remains to bring the standards-based curriculum approach into the classroom. An intensive professional development training is planned for two colleges this calendar year. A set of trainers will work closely with program instructors over six to eight weeks to support individual and group transition. 

My own teaching has changed. On a daily basis, I am conscious of what I hope students will be able to learn and demonstrate that they have learned while I have them. In the past I had a curriculum outline: I went from a to b to z. Now I focus more on "today we're doing "x" and "what I want you to come away with is " For example, in a workshop on workplace culture, I might say that an outcome is that everyone learns at least two new ways to determine the culture of a business where they are applying for a job. At the end of the activity, I ask each student what new perspectives he or she had acquired as a result of this class related to understanding workplace culture as a job seeker. I get an informal assessment immediately from each session.

Lessons Learned
The past five years have been an interesting, crazy journey. We certainly learned a lot. A major curricular change takes longer than we ever imagined: collaborative work and systemic change involve hard work. We tried to involve as many people as possible, at different levels, from the beginning. We also tried to keep stakeholders informed at every step of the way. Perhaps we did not do a good enough job early on making sure that the need for change was well understood by teachers. 

I still think that the best way to make a major curriculum change is to start at the classroom level, with teachers, discovering their issues and fears, and then enlisting them as the agents of change. That scenario was difficult to put into practice. At some point, we understood that change was not going to occur until the policy guidelines did.

Professional development support has also proven to be an integral aspect of this change effort. What I think we did in Oregon was try to bring in new - although not radical - ideas and make them our own as we created the supporting policy system. Teachers are meeting now, since the guidelines have moved to a compliance phase, to share curriculum and exchange ideas for teaching in this new way. As one early participant mentioned recently, "I suppose none of us could have predicted where we are now, how long the project would take, or how our roles in supporting it would change. I'm so glad that we're still carrying the project forward."

About the Author
Dennis Clark is a workplace skills instructor at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. He now teaches at a One Stop Skills Center leading classes and workshops in basic computer skills, becoming a more valuable employee, and creating your future. He is also an Equipped for the Future field researcher and life strategies coach.

Resources on Standards-Based Curriculum
Harris, D., & Carr, J. (1996). How to Use Standards in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Marzano, R., & Kendall, J. (1996). A Comprehensive Guide To: Designing Standards-Based Districts, Schools, and Classrooms. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory.

Stein, S. (2001). Equipped for the Future Content Standards: What Adults Need to Know and Be Able to Do in the 21st Century, 3rd ed. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Woodard, K. (ed.) (1999). Alignment of National and State Standards: A Report by the GED Testing Service. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, GED Testing Service. 

Also see Focus on Basics, Volume 3, Issue C, 1999, devoted to standards-based education. 

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL