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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue C ::: September 1999

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Articulating Learning with EFF Standards

by Jane J. Meyer
"I finally understand what I am doing in this class!" said Rosa, after her teachers explained the Equipped for the Future framework. She had been attending family literacy classes for four years, improving her reading, writing, and math skills, and becoming more involved in her children's education. But, because the GED had remained elusive, she felt she was not successful, even though she was volunteering daily at her children's school, taking a leadership role in her community, and participating actively in local politics. In the fall, 1997, when Rosa's Canton, Ohio, Even Start program adopted a standards-based approach to education using Equipped for the Future (EFF), learning began to make sense for Rosa and her fellow students.

EFF identifies three adult roles —worker, family member, and citizen —and 16 skills that are essential to be effective in these adult roles. EFF calls the skills, which are divided into four groups, generative skills. The description of each skill defines the standard against which student performance can be measured. The 16 skills are listed in the below.

Immediate Connection
The first time I saw EFF I knew it would be perfect for our program and for our students. I had been struggling to articulate what Canton Even Start was about. It was so much more than parenting skills integrated with academics, which was the description I usually used. I was also searching for ways to measure and document skills beyond reading, writing, and math. An hour-long presentation at a conference introduced me to EFF and began to answer my questions.

Our Even Start students also connected to the EFF framework after only a brief introduction. They could see themselves and their daily lives in the framework. Because EFF standards are based on using skills in context of the adult's roles, Rosa and her classmates were finally able to measure and document their progress in a meaningful way. Although Rosa never did pass the essay portion of the tests of General Educational Development (GED), she wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper expressing her concerns about an off track betting issue in an upcoming election. She also was able to demonstrate writing proficiency by writing notes to her children's teachers, a personal mission statement, and a monthly parenting column for her housing project's newsletter.

Prior to adopting EFF, our program used a competency-based approach to instruction and assessment, focusing on building the specific competencies needed to pass the GED. As a family literacy program, we taught GED competencies in the context of parenting. This approach seemed to make a lot of sense, since competencies break down learning into manageable chunks. Learners saw success. What they didn't see was the big picture: how these individual successes "fit" in terms of broader roles.

The switch to standards-based education meant focusing on the skills, rather than the specific context in which they are learned. We redesigned our Even Start program to target the development of the 16 EFF skills. Our curriculum spirals around the skills, revisiting them within new contexts in each of the three roles. We now measure student achievement in the ability to transfer skills learned in one role to another: to apply the skill across contexts.

Identify Goals
After an introduction to EFF, we ask our students to identify personal goals in one or more of the skill groups and record these goals in their portfolios. The teachers design project based learning activities that help the students develop the skills they have identified as goals. Teachers plan by identifying possible learning opportunities for each skill within the project. They record these ideas on a planning sheet that lists the 16 skills. At the end of the project, students use this form to document their skill development.

For example, a recent project entailed setting up a family math night for the elementary school in which the Even Start class is housed. Some of the learning opportunities the teachers identified were: developing writing skills by writing a formal proposal to the principal, developing math skills by preparing a budget for the project, and developing planning skills by organizing the project and carrying it out within the allotted time. Others included developing technology skills by creating a flier on the computer to advertise the program, developing research skills by searching out age-appropriate hands- on math ideas, and developing speaking skills by greeting guests at the program and giving the directions for the math activities.

As a group, the students planned the project, then they divided into committees to do the work, choosing their committees based on their learning goals. Octavia had set a math goal so she volunteered to work on the budget committee. Rosa had a writing goal so she served on the committee that wrote the proposal requesting permission to do the project and financial support from the principal. Lou wanted to improve her computer skills so she worked on the publicity committee.

At the end of the project, students assessed their development using the standards and documented this progress in their portfolios. Canton Even Start portfolios are three-ring binders with the EFF skill wheel on the front. Tabs divide the notebook into 16 sections, one for each skill. The students keep their goal sheets in the front and place evidence of skill development behind the tab for each skill. Before doing this, they reflect on their accomplishments by completing and attaching a form on which they explain what they can now do with the skill that they could not do before. Students reflect on four relevant dimensions as they relate to development of the particular skill: increased knowledge base, increased independence in using the skill, increased range of situation in which they can use the skill, and the fluency and ease with which they can use the skill.

For this project, Octavia inserted the budget her committee prepared in the math skill section of her portfolio. She noted that although she had already known how to add, subtract, and multiply decimals, she had not known how to line up a formal budget and set up a system to record expenses. She included a budget sheet she had developed to help her keep track of her personal finances.

Rosa placed her committee's written proposal along with a response from the principal in the writing section of her portfolio. She recorded that she had learned to organize her thoughts into paragraphs with topic sentences, but still needed help with subject and verb agreement. She had never written anything that would be read by someone as important as the principal before, but realized now she has good ideas that she can and should express in writing, with proofreading assistance.

Lou placed a copy of the flier her committee created on the computer in the technology section of her portfolio; she had already known how to change fonts and type size, but now knew how to center, bold, underline, and use clip art. She also indicated that she now feels more comfortable getting in and out of word processing, saving, and printing without assistance.

Communication Skills

Read with understanding
Convey ideas in writing
Speak so others can understand
Listen actively
Observe critically

Interpersonal Skills
Cooperate with others
Advocate and influence
Resolve conflict and negotiate
Guide others

Decision-making Skills
Use mathematics in problem
solving and communication
Solve problems and make decisions

Lifelong Learning Skills
Reflect and evaluate
Take responsibility for learning
Use information and communications technology
Learn through research

The switch to standards-based education has not been without challenges. Staff and students understand the concept of learning the set of competencies that build to the GED credential. It's more difficult for students to set their own goals and for teachers to guide them in identifying and developing the skills necessary to reach their goals. And, although students easily understand Equipped for the Future and see relevancy in the roles and skills, many still look to the GED as the ultimate measure of success.

Staff need additional training in goal setting, in using student-centered learning strategies, and in facilitating student reflection and evaluation. Increased preparation time is necessary to plan the learning projects and gather the materials that lead to skill development and transfer across the roles. Grant applications and state reporting systems often are not easily compatible with EFF standards.


As funding sources demand increased accountability, our use of standards-based education will be helpful. EFF standards allow all students to articulate their achievements in terms of what they can do in their daily lives in addition to how they meet, or fall short of meeting, the GED competencies. Using EFF standards our program had the same percentage of earned GEDs as when we focused on GED competencies. However, our graduates — GED recipients or not — develop a broader set of skills that help them daily to be effective in their roles as workers, family members, and citizens.

The greatest benefit that focusing on standards has brought to Canton Even Start has been the clear articulation of both program and student goals. From initial recruitment through graduation, the standards permeate all activities. Staff and students can easily explain the thrust of the program and can communicate it to collaborating partners and stake holders.

Student goals are clear because they express what the students want to be able to do in their daily lives. Progress is assessed in terms that are meaningful and obvious to the students: new things they can do, things they can do with greater independence, ways they can use skills within a broader range of circumstances, and things they can do with greater ease.

Under the competency-based system, Rosa considered herself a failure because she did not attain her GED. With the EFF standards-based system, she can be counted as a success. Although Rosa may never earn her GED, she can articulate her accomplishments and her next goals on the path of lifelong learning. She knows she is a success.

About the Author

Jane J. Meyer began working in adult education 10 years ago as a volunteer tutor. Since then she has been a family literacy teacher, facilitator of Canton's Even Start program, and is currently Coordinator of Adult Basic Literacy Education for Canton City Schools.

Career Passport

One of the goals of Canton Even Start is to help participants become employed. We assist all graduates in creating a career passport containing formal documents that identify and describe their marketable skills. It is designed to help students in identifying and marketing their skills to potential employers. For the employer, the career passport provides a detailed and reliable source of information about the graduate's abilities, so, in turn, they can better match applicants to job openings.

The passport consists of five components: a cover letter from the school administrator that describes the program and endorses the student's competency list, a resume, a list of competencies achieved by the student, two or three references, and certificates earned by the graduate. Certificates might include the GED, attendance certificates, and awards.

The centerpiece of the passport is the list of competencies achieved by the student. Our program focuses on the development of the 16 EFF skills, so we have developed a list of possible competency statements for each skill standard. Teachers document skills at the basic, intermediate, or advanced levels of competency. For example, under the skill "writing," competencies include "writes messages to communicate with others," "writes using standard conventions of spelling, punctuation, and grammar," and "conveys ideas in writing to ask for information, provide direction, influence others, and deepen understanding." Teachers review students' portfolios and select the competency statements appropriate for the level of development documented for each skill.

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