Looking at curriculum change in Tasmania: will essential learnings promote successful reform?
Dr Michael Watt offers a commentary on the Essential Learnings Framework in Tasmania. Dr Watt has taught in several secondary schools in Tasmania and has worked as an education officer in the State’s Department of Education. The following article provides a more extensive evaluation of the Essential Learnings Framework he has conducted. To obtain a copy, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In September 2001, the Community Leaders Group released the Tasmania Together report, which set out the initiative’s vision. The report was broken down into 24 goals containing 212 benchmarks, organised under five categories: Our Community; Our Culture; Our Democracy; Our Economy; and Our Environment. The Tasmania Together Progress Board was appointed in October 2001. Its role is to monitor and report to the State parliament on progress made towards achieving the benchmarks, encourage community organisations to adopt them, and oversee five-year reviews of the initiative. The first review commenced in 2005.
Tasmania Together provided the basis for developing a policy statement on education, Learning Together, which the Minister for Education, Paula Wriedt, released in December 2000. Learning Together presents a long-term plan for transforming Tasmania’s education system by providing lifelong learning across childcare, primary and secondary schooling, secondary college education, and library and information services.
The Learning Together report recommended that a further review be conducted to develop a school curriculum for the 21st century, monitor and report on student achievement, and link childcare programs to the school curriculum. In February 2000, a nine-member consultation team was appointed to conduct a three-year project to develop a curriculum, consisting of three phases: clarifying values and purposes; specifying content; and developing teaching and assessment practices.
Beginning in June 2000, district reference groups led more than 6,900 teachers, childcare professionals, business people, community members and students at meetings to help clarify the values and purposes of public education. The report on the consultation led to the publication of a statement in December 2000 identifying seven values and six purposes as important.
The statement of values and purposes formed the basis for developing five essential learnings: Thinking; Communicating; Personal Futures; Social Responsibility; and World Futures. Selected in November 2000, 20 schools worked with the consultation team to refine the essential learnings; determine outcomes and standards to describe knowledge, skills and competencies; and identify teaching and assessment practices consistent with the values and purposes.
The Essential Learnings Framework
Essential Learnings Framework 1, released in March 2002, presents the statement of values and purposes. It describes the essential learnings and highlights key elements within them, as well as identifying anticipated outcomes and proposing a set of learning, teaching and assessment principles. Teachers from more than 40 schools worked with the consultation team during 2002 to specify sets of expectations for students at different levels in order to provide the basis for the statement of outcomes and standards.
Essential Learnings Framework 2 was released in March 2003. It consists of three components: the Introduction to Outcomes and Standards outlines the structure of the framework and describes support available to teachers; the Outcomes and Standards organise the key element outcomes and standards by the key elements of the essential learnings; and the Learners and Learning Provision Statement discusses some key advances in the understanding of how learning occurs and what is known about the distinctive features of learners at different stages in their development.
The assessment system aligned to the Essential Learnings Framework consists of five components. Teams of teachers are calibrating the standards in the Essential Learnings Framework by writing sets of items, which are administered to random samples of students to ensure that they describe a sequenced continuum of student achievement accurately. The Quality Moderation of Assessment Process was designed to ensure consistency of teachers’ judgements in assessing student achievement against the key element outcomes in the Essential Learnings Framework.
Each school is required to reach an agreement with parents about reporting students’ progress, based on guidelines specified in the Assessment, Monitoring and Reporting Policy. The Student Assessment and Reporting Information System is designed to enable schools to meet requirements for reporting student performance to parents. An A&ndashE Report is issued to report student assessments to parents; it uses a standardised format for reporting student achievement from kindergarten to Year 10 on the key element outcomes in the Essential Learnings Framework against three performance levels for each of the five standards.
Implementation of the new curriculum and assessments in public, Catholic and some independent schools is being phased in over five years commencing in 2005, with full implementation due in 2009.
Public and academic debates
A public controversy emerged over criticisms raised by parents concerning convoluted language in brochures disseminated in August 2005. A publication, referred to as a ‘jargon buster’, which the Department of Education released on its website to explain this language, also drew criticism. These actions provided substance for an adversarial debate in the press between supporters and detractors of the new curriculum and assessments. Late in October 2005, the government launched a six-week campaign to promote the new curriculum and assessments to parents through advertisements on commercial television channels.
The public controversy eclipsed differences in opinion among leading educators about the new curriculum. Professor Alan Reid proposed a capabilities-based curriculum for Australia in a report published in February 2005, which had been commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training to explore whether the notion of national curriculum collaboration is still relevant. Professor Reid concluded by supporting essential learnings independent of subject areas as conceptualised in the Essential Learnings Framework.
A different view was presented in Benchmarking Australian Primary School Curricula, a study assessing the quality of outcomes in curriculum documents used in the six Australian States and the Northern Territory, which was released in September 2005. Its author, Dr Kevin Donnelly, reported that the key element outcomes in the Essential Learnings Framework rated poorly on a range of criteria against those found in documents used in all other Australian jurisdictions, as well as other countries.
While the constructs of the Essential Learnings Framework have been influenced by outcomes-based education, the essential learnings have their origins in curriculum thinking refined over a long period through a series of reports released by the Department of Education. They are supported by a research base encompassing child development, brain activity and intelligence.
However, the Essential Learnings Framework fails to give sufficient prominence to the core academic areas, particularly English, mathematics and science. The assessment system relied heavily on individual teacher’s assessments, raising concerns about issues of consistency. Teachers’ lack of readiness to report on students’ progress has been compounded by difficulties in implementing the components of the assessment system in a logical sequence within the tight timeframe set for its adoption.