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Outcomes driven curriculum reform- reconstructing teacher work and professionalism

Bob Elliott & Clair Hughes

Paper presented at European Conference for Educational Research, Ljubljana, Slovenia, September 1998.

School of Professional Studies, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology, AUSTRALIA.


In many education systems reform of the curriculum has centered around some form of "outcomes based education". This means that there has been a shift from curriculum defined in terms of processes or content to curriculum defined in terms of what learners are expected to be able to demonstrate. The key question in such reform initiatives has become "What do the students have to show that they have learned?" (Griffin, 1998, p. 9). Accordingly, with the introduction of such reforms, there are likely to be changes in the way that teachers work is defined and changes in levels of responsibility associated with student learning outcomes.

The education reform act of 1988 in the UK saw the introduction of a National Curriculum accompanied by reforms in assessment processes. The introduction of benchmarks, descriptions of standards of student achievement, introduced in Toronto, Canada, (Rutldge, 1993) closely resemble the developments that occurred in England, and Wales. In USA many local school boards and states and districts have implemented initiatives associated with the identification of standards of achievement. The California Assessment Program is one example of where a statewide set of standards of student performance was introduced.

In Australia, there has been an attempt to define, at the national level, appropriate outcomes of schooling that should be expected from students operating at different levels. This was done firstly by identifying a set of eight key learning areas and, for these developing a set of profiles and curriculum statements. For each key learning area there is a set of strands and each strand is characterised by outcome statements constructed in eight levels. Given the politics of education in Australia it was not surprising to see each state developing its own outcomes based curriculum but, in reality, each one is drawn from the national parent documents. The situation is further complicated by the fact that catholic and independent systems have also developed their own versions of documents.

The impact of the introduction of such a system into Australian schools is little understood. Despite Griffin's (1998, p.9) comment that "one of the first responses from teachers is that the task is daunting but, after some initial reticence, the value of the task emerges and it seems worthwhile", the question of the impact of such a curriculum shift requires careful scrutiny. It is to this end that this paper is directed.

Evidence of the impact of outcomes driven curriculum

The evidence of the impact of an outcomes driven curriculum is varied and mixed. There are concerns about the impact on teacher work and associated costs but this needs to be tempered with the realisation that more improved assessment and reporting strategies are being achieved.

Many teachers now accept the inevitability of an outcomes approach to curriculum (Hancock & Roberts, 1994; Richards, 1995) and report on the positive contribution of the reform to planning and teaching. For example, Bachelor and Anderson (1994) and Hancock and Roberts (1995) report that teachers believe that an outcomes approach assists them in planning and teaching comprehensive curriculum programs and McLean and Wilson (1995) point to the benefits of making program outcomes explicit for teachers. Concerning specific initiatives in assessment, Warhurst (1994) points out that teachers report great satisfaction from opportunities to meet and exchange assessment ideas as part of determining levels of achievement and they feel valued when their judgments of student achievement are acknowledged. Broadfoot has indicated that a positive outcome of outcomes driven assessment reforms is that teachers become more effective in diagnosing learning needs and identifying ways to respond to this information.

Another important point which seems to emerge from the introduction of an outcomes based curriculum focuses on the collaboration amongst teachers. For example, McLean and Wilson report trends of a shared language emerging from encouragement to participate in collaborative planning and assessment while Kennedy (1995) highlights the role that standards identification plays in assisting teachers to understand students as they move from one year level to another in school.

This evidence needs to be tempered with some negative impacts. Kennedy (1995) has indicated the dangers that can occur if assessment demands take away from valuable teaching time and Warhurst (1994) points to the dangers of allowing "the assessment tail to wag the dog"

Perhaps the most negative feedback has been concerned with the intensification of teacher work. Teachers report that the time to assess and report using SPS profiles is significantly greater than that required by previous practices (Kennedy, 1995 b; Osborn, 1991). This increased workload together with perceived increases of bureaucratic reporting demands appears to lead teachers to reject the initiative. Accordingly, feelings of anxiety, frustration, anger and stress are reported by Broadfoot, et al, (1991), Forster (1995) and Osbourn et al (1991).

One variable which requires careful scrutiny is the way in which the documentation associated with the reform initiatives has mediated their reception and interpretation. In some cases, as documents become developed, they tend to incorporate more technical language and hence become more remote and complex for teachers. Similarly, the use of fine differences in language (a strategy to indicate varying levels of student achievement) needs to be investigated as a possible difficulty for teachers. For example in a particular case in point in the study to reported in this paper the difference between "show awareness that writers influence each other" and "recognize that writers influence each other" as a distinguishing characteristic between levels 2 and 3 is probably quite problematic for teachers. When faced with such indices of varying levels of achievement, it is likely that teachers will not react positively to documentation and consequently, the reform process.

One way in which these issues can be considered as a whole is to investigate the outcomes driven curriculum reform in terms of its impact on teacher professionalism. Such a focus not only allows the identification of positive and negative impacts but more appropriately indicates the changes in the quality of practice that are brought about by such reforms. According to Sockett (1989) professionalism describes the quality of practice- the manner of conduct within an occupation. By focusing on the concept of professionalisation it is possible to highlight how teachers' perceived obligations to their community are addressed in terms of their changing knowledge base and the relationships they have with clients. Accordingly, this paper examines the implications for teacher professionalsation following the introduction of a system of Student Performance standards (SPS) into a Catholic Education System (CES) in Australia.

Teacher professionalism

Various frameworks have evolved for considering teacher professionalism (Sockett, 1989; Lam, 1983; Sykes, 1990; Hart, 1992) but the frameworks are all quite similar. While that of Sockett, Lam and Hart are considerably close, on closer inspection of Sykes' framework, it appears that it is only the language that is different. The following framework is one drawn from these similar frameworks by which teacher professionalisation can be examined.

Ideal of Service. Sockett (1993, p.17) argues for a moral dimension to practice and a set of ideals which not only attract professionals but also provide a benchmark for discussing the moral purpose of the task. It is possible, for example, that the introduction of an SPS reform may make demands on teachers beyond those they feel they can fulfill- or even wish to fulfill. The introduction of a series of reforms into teaching may well be placing constraints on teachers which they believe stretch beyond what should be reasonably expected. In that case feelings of anger and concern are likely to emerge.

Professional community. Amongst all frameworks of professionalism is the idea that colleagues work collaboratively to maintain high standards. On this point it is interesting to note that Hargreaves (1994) points out that the provision of time for teachers to meet with colleagues has not resulted in increased collaboration On the surface it appears that the introduction of SPS curricula demands a strong priority for teachers to act collaboratively and this needs careful examination.

Epistemology of practice. There has been a considerable literature develop recently on the varying types of teacher knowledge and Sockett (1993) has referred to the relationship between these various categories of knowledge as "professional expertise". It is likely that the introduction of reforms such as SPS may lead to higher levels of such expertise as teachers seek to blend ideas concerned with assessment techniques, classroom management, information management and professional collaboration. However, given the intensification of teachers work it may be that teachers do not have adequate time to integrate such knowledge and consequently, not only become frustrated but also lose confidence. As one teacher noted in the Albany Consulting Group (1994, p.8)

I know myself, I just can't keep up and I'm pretty good at keeping up with things. I just can't keep up with all the things that are going on at the moment- there's no two ways about it.

Autonomy. In professional terms, autonomy refers to the ability to implement relevant theoretical knowledge and appropriate skills (Hart and Marshall, 1992, p. 14). For schools this probably translates into teachers playing significant roles in curriculum decision making. Sockett (1989) has argued that this is really a myth for many teachers claiming that teachers are often "hired to fit into niches designed by bureaucrats" (p. 98). With reference to this study there is a possibility that teachers may have less scope for decision making and that they may merely be required to follow a blueprint for assessment.

Code of ethics. If accountability in moral terms means maintaining appropriate ethical standards as expressed in a corporate code then this is not applicable in this case as no such code exists. However, teachers have, in the past, expressed a strong commitment to their students and the introduction of a systematic process of assessing and reporting into the requirements for teaching may impact on that commitment. Accordingly this an appropriate dimension for study.

The system and SPS.

The catholic system (CES) under study here consisted of over 800 teachers of years 4 to 7 in 106 primary schools.

Following the decision of the state government, the catholic system also decided to introduce a similar set of reforms based on the nationally developed Statements and Profiles- but with different sequencing and timelines. The CES decided to introduce the initiative focusing on English as the subject area because it was believed that it would be easier for teachers to implement (the corresponding state system decided to focus initially on mathematics) . It also decided to proceed at a slower pace than the state system- theoretically to enable time to monitor the introduction.

The timelines for the introduction of English programs in the CES were as follows:

1993 Trials for profiles for English

1995- 6 Familiarisation with English program

1995-6 School Program writing for English

1996 Moderation processes and reporting for English.

The document entitled "SPS in English" was to be the fundamental resource to be used by teachers in the process of reporting to parents on student achievement. This document, produced for use throughout the state was to be redeveloped during the time that CES teachers were implementing it. This time phase occurred because the state system had chosen to introduce mathematics as the first curriculum area for SPS reporting and consequently, teachers in the CES were introducing an innovation using materials which they knew were to be redeveloped in the future. This fact obviously played a part in influencing teachers' reactions to the process.

The study

Three schools were chosen as cases for the study- one large size (approx. 850), one medium (approx. 350) and one relatively small school( fewer than 100) using the strategy of purposive sampling (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Within these schools teachers were selected as informants of what was happening within the school. One informant was used in the small school and four from each of the other two schools.

The data were collected from these informants on three occasions:

Prior to formal inservice programs for the implementation of SPS

After the day of moderation

After reporting to parents

The interviews were conducted in a way which resembled Patton's informal, conversation interviews (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993). Using such a strategy, questions are embedded in a conversation which was "familiar and conformable to all respondents and one most likely to elicit the trust, confidence and ease among respondents necessary for yielding elaborate, subtle and valid data" LeCompte &Preissle, 1993, p.179). The questions were framed in an interview schedule prior to each interview but the schedule was merely a guide to data gathering as the questions were adapted to the conversation trends. Broadly, the questions were designed to elicit information with regard to:

reporting experiences using SPS

values inherent in practices of assessment and reporting and the teacher's role

controversial aspects of implementation as they impacted of teacher work practices

verification of interpretations and how these implied changed work values and practices

speculation about alternatives for practice

All interviews were recorded and transcribed. The analysis consisted of identifying themes within the categories using the processes of open coding of the transcripts and clustering. From the categories each school's response to the initiative was described in terms of the following clusters of ideas.

Understanding and interpretation of the policy initiative

School based initiatives in response to the initiative

Professional Development undertaken as part of the initiative

General responses

School's predictions for the future of the initiative

From the response descriptions using these categories conclusions concerning the impact on professionalism in terms of dimensions of professionalism previously discussed were drawn.


Ideal of Service.

While all the teachers in this study found teaching a satisfying occupation, the demands of additional workloads brought about by the introduction of the initiative and the uncertainties of what it held for the future, were considered excessive. In other words these teachers believed that the requirements of this initiative extended them beyond their boundaries of service to clients. What for them was quite enjoyable about teaching in previous times was now excessively demanding and they felt that they had less time for some of the teaching they most enjoyed. Concerning the English syllabus, they believed that topics such as Imaginative Writing could no longer be taught in a manner that it required. As well, dilemmas imposed by ethical dimensions (to be discussed below) seemed to draw time away from the teachers.

In practical terms one teacher indicated the extreme difficulty which he was experiencing to make time to spend with his family and two other teachers, at a different school, indicated that they were considering leaving teaching because of the excessive demands required of them since the introduction of the initiative.

Professional community

As might be expected, most teachers reported that the introduction of SPS promoted increased levels of collaboration amongst themselves but it is interesting to note the nature of the collaboration. For most of the time, collaboration seemed to focus on morale boosting strategies rather than discussions of a professional nature. In other words there was an emphasis on personal rather than professional.

At two of the schools teachers did report increased levels of collaborative activity in which teachers collaborated to improve classroom activity but at the other school (the largest school) levels of collaboration were already quite high and so it was difficult to consider issues improvement.

For professional discussions much of the time was spent on moderation activities- ensuring consistency across SPS levels.

Epistemology of practice.

In all contexts teachers reported professional growth over a range of professional areas. These were:

Deeper understanding of the English syllabus and School English Programs;

Knowledge which enabled them to develop more meaningful and purposeful programs based on syllabus documents;

Increased knowledge about and an expanded repertoire of assessment strategies;

Specific interpretations of student achievement based on the application of specific criteria; and

More knowledge about data management as it relates to assessment and reporting.

As well, because the initiative required teachers to report comprehensively on achievement in a range of areas, teachers were confronted with the need to understand syllabus areas which they previously had tried to avoid. In particular the strands of Viewing, Speaking and Listening related to Cultural and Social Understandings required teachers to develop more comprehensive knowledge about planning, teaching and assessment. If these areas had been previously overlooked by teachers accidentally then they seemed to provide no difficulty for them in developing new knowledge. However, where prior omissions were because of a lack of understanding and deliberate oversight then teachers reported difficulty in developing new knowledge. In one of the schools this was particularly evident when teachers were confronted with the whole idea of Viewing as a curriculum strand. One teacher exclaimed:

What does viewing mean? Viewing a text or a video? How do I mark that? Where do I get that information about a child from?

At best the introduction of the reform could be seen as creating dilemmas and difficulties for teachers which required their resolution. There were some instances where schools deliberately ignored some aspects of the initiative so that they would not be placed in such a problematic position. For example , one school decided to report to parents in the writing strand only -probably because they felt most comfortable there.

One of the barriers which emerged in the development of teacher knowledge for many teachers was the technical language of the documents themselves from which they were required to work. As the ideas were expressed in the document, teachers felt uncomfortable in attempting to understand the outcome statements and referred to them as "jargon". They reported their inability to distinguish between different key terms (such as "recognise" and "identify")- an inability hampered by a lack of explanation in the documentation. This caused frustration amongst the teachers and seemed to provide a negative context for the initiative.

Teachers reported frustration in not being able to apply the ideas to their contexts and this may be because the document, which elaborated the students' expected levels of achievement, covered a broad range of achievement. This breadth of levels of achievement is evidenced by the fact that the teachers believed that, typically, progression between levels seemed to take students about eighteen months. This suggests that there was a mismatch between the teachers' experiences of assessing students and the language they were now required to use. What actually happened as a result of this mismatch in one school was that teachers assigned levels of achievement more as a combination of the child's class level and achievement on a task than by direct reference to expressed levels.

This practice gave rise to another interesting phenomenon where teachers from the older grades placed pressure on the teachers of the more junior grades not to use the upper levels of achievement. They argued that the teachers from the lower grades had to leave "space" for them to work in the latter years. In other words they argued that the teachers in the lover grades should only use the lower levels of achievement so that they could use the upper levels- irrespective of actual student achievement.

This all suggests that the teachers were assigning levels of achievement on more global and general criteria than the specific criteria statements in the document alone. Certainly none of the schools had developed extensive checklists of achievement and this means that the feared atomising of the curriculum did not appear to be eventuating. Whether this was because of insecurities by the teachers in clinging to prior practice or a deliberate strategy to assign grades is not known but the result (avoiding the atomising of the curriculum) is probably desirable.

Thus, on balance, it appears that the introduction of the initiative has resulted in teachers' growing awareness and concerns regarding gaps in their knowledge of the syllabus and outcomes statements in particular and approaches to teaching more generally.


The introduction of an initiative such as SPS may lead teachers to feel that they have less autonomy for practice if they interpret it as a strict process that has to be adopted. Two of the teachers interviewed did not feel this way. These teachers believed that they had autonomy, particularly regarding their approaches to teaching. However all other teachers felt constrained by the amount of curriculum content they believed they were required to "cover". Accordingly, they felt pressured to teach in a way which was not always considered to be most effective- in particular providing students with opportunities to create their own learning rather than using traditional transmission models, "chalk and talk".

Ethical considerations

Various aspects of the initiative were seen by the teachers as impacting on the relationships between themselves, students, colleagues, administrators, parents and the system in which they worked. The following points were most noteworthy.

Teachers were apprehensive that the perceived slow rate of progression between SPS levels would impact adversely on students in a number of ways. They believed that slow progression through levels would remove incentives for students to work harder as the distance between the levels would typically take eighteen months to achieve. Using a single SPS level to describe the achievement of most students in a class would not be perceived as fair or just by students (or parents) who were aware of their achievements in relation to other class members and who expected this to be reflected in reports

They also expressed concern about the fact that students would suffer reduced self esteem when younger siblings received the same or higher SPS levels.

As noted previously, some the teachers in older grades pressured teachers of lower grades to reserve the upper levels of achievement for them- irrespective of actual levels of achievement by students. In such a case teachers are required to keep levels of achievement artificially low with the possible consequences of achievement being retarded.

Also, as noted above the workloads imposed on teachers were regarded as excessive. In one case during a discussion at a moderation meeting, teachers from one school believe they were being "exploited" by being asked to adopt a demanding recording system introduced by the principal.

The nature, scale and pace of the initiative was perceived by most of the teachers as being insensitive to the context in which they worked. They also believed that this demonstrated a disregard for their welfare and concerns.

Teachers also expressed concerns for parents in that they believed that SPS was a system which would not be readily understood by parents without extensive and comprehensive information processes. As such, they were concerned that parents may become disempowered or even alienated from the educational process if such sessions were not successfully implemented.


The data from this study indicate that, in so far as the impact of the introduction of an outcomes based curriculum on teacher professionalism, teachers face a number of dilemmas associated with the dimensions of professionalism. For example, the teachers in this study:

(a) believed that they experienced growth in professional knowledge but at the same time felt a decrease in confidence in applying their knowledge;

(b) valued the use of resources to assist them in their judgments but reported dissatisfaction with the resources;

(c) wanted to fulfill system requirements but were frustrated by the inconsistent exercise of authority and inadequate support from the authority.

Professional growth c.f. decreased confidence. As discussed above, the teachers reported deeper levels of understanding of a number of areas concerning what they were required to teach and processes of assessing these. However, at the same time, they reported that the process highlighted areas in which they felt their professional knowledge was rendered inadequate. They reported that their inability to move between the theoretical aspects of the syllabus and the reporting framework led them to feel less than confident. In particular, they felt uncomfortable with strands of Viewing, Speaking and Listening and the sub-strands of Cultural and Social Understanding in the sense that they did not understand the scope of these areas and were unable to devise appropriate teaching and assessment programs in order to collect, interpret and record appropriate information to assign the correct level of achievement.

Such a dilemma, caused by the need to engage with unfamiliar aspects of the initiative resulted in uncertainty, anxiety and disillusionment in the three school sites investigated. Under such conditions the teachers were left questioning their ability to introduce the initiative with confidence.

Value of resources c.f. dissatisfaction with resources. The teachers clearly recognised the need for a resource document which would enable them to make judgments about various levels of achievement. However, all groups of teachers pointed to the difficulties with interpreting various aspects of the document. This was often based around the use of particular pairs of words such as "choose" and "select" or "refers" and "consults". When the only discrimination between different levels depended on the interpretation of the differences between such words teachers became confused and lost confidence in their ability to assign levels of achievement. This process was not assisted by the system releasing different versions of the documents where various such pairs of words were interchanged- leading teachers to argue "just what is the difference in levels of achievement?"

Such a process led the teachers at one school to proceed in such a way as almost ignoring the policy documents. As one teacher noted:

As a whole school we sat down and said "Well, in Grade 7 most children would be at level 3, confident level 3 going into level 4, Grades 5 and 6 should be at level 3, Year 4 would be level 2 and maybe one level 2 child moving into level 3 and just had a broad range so we wouldn't have level 4 in grade 3 and Grade 4 and then level 3's in Grade 7."

As noted above, as well, the teachers felt that there were difficulties using a system in which it was inevitable that students would be reported as achieving the same level in two consecutive years. They felt that this would be a disincentive for the students. There were also problems with teachers from upper grades wanting to reserve the higher levels of achievement for the children in their grades.

Thus, irrespective of the teachers' abilities to undertake the assessing and reporting process in a highly efficient manner, they believed that the small number of levels available to them to report on student achievement had several disadvantages relating to accuracy, justice, self-esteem, motivation and accountability.

Fulfill system requirements c.f. frustration with inconsistent exercise of authority. On the one hand the implementation of SPS into these schools appeared to clarify the relationships between the school and the system in which they worked. Through a process of working out how to interpret the policy documents teacher identified a high level of authority with regard to interpreting and challenging a number of positions held by the system. However, there was also disillusionment expressed by many teachers because it became clear to them that a significant number of schools had simply ignored the system's directions to implement the policy. In fact within the region of this study fewer than one quarter of the schools actually implemented the policy direction.

In such an atmosphere the following comment from a teacher indicates the feelings of many:

I think that area of uncertainty is a big thing and wondering what really is expected of us. You hear from around the traps that one's definitely doing it, one's not sure if they're going to do it, one like ourselves, we're not going to do it. I mean do we really know what we're doing or should we do it, you know what I mean?

Thus, it is not a simple cause and effect relationship between the introduction of SPS into the schools and changes in teacher professionalism. Rather, as in many curriculum changes there are problematics and dilemmas that teachers have to face. Often an issue may assist the teacher to clarify an aspect of practice but, that the same time, also cause the teacher to question the practice. Accordingly, while the ideas of curriculum change are often described in terms of system impacts, care needs to also be taken to ensure that it is seen in terms of the teachers and impact on their professionalism. Further, to cast curriculum change in terms of problem solving- even from the point of view of the teacher- is simplistic because many issues are not simply problems. The issues are often dilemmas in which teachers have to balance the desirability of implied practice with the difficulties that such practice may bring. To this end curriculum change needs to assist teachers to resolve such dilemmas in an ongoing sense rather than provide assistance for problems which, once resolved, allow the innovation to be implemented.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 09 November 1998