Welcome to the Curriculum & Leadership Journal website.
To receive our fortnightly Email Alert,
please click on the blue menu item below.
Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
Follow us on twitter

From national curriculum collaboration to national consistency in curriculum outcomes

Michael Watt

Dr Michael Watt has taught in several secondary schools in Tasmania and has worked as an education officer in the State’s Department of Education. The current article summarises a more extensive paper. To obtain an electronic copy, contact him at michaelgwatt@bigpond.com.
This article examines the influence of both outcomes-based and standards-based education on curriculum reforms in Australia. It compares developments in Australia with those in the USA and assesses whether the move towards greater national consistency in curriculum outcomes in Australia confirms the dominance of outcomes-based education or reflects a shift to standards-based education.
By gaining a deeper understanding of the elements and influence of both outcomes-based and standards-based education on curriculum reforms, policymakers and curriculum developers are more likely to be able to assess the ramifications of applying these models within the Australian context.
Curriculum reform in the USA
Some states in the USA began applying an outcomes-based approach in the early 1990s. However, conservative Christian groups attacked this approach for what they saw as the presentation of radical social, political and economic values, the promotion of a whole language approach in reading, and multicultural education. In the aftermath, leading conservatives and liberals forged a consensus about what students should learn. The new consensus relegated outcomes-based education to a marginal position in curriculum reform, and put in its place the idea of national standards based in academic disciplines. The impetus for a standards-based approach derived from the six National Education Goals expounded following the Charlottesville Education Summit convened by President George HW Bush in September 1989. 
Policymakers set nationally recognised groups in key disciplines the task of developing national content, performance and opportunity-to-learn standards. These groups focused the resulting content standards on cognitive learning, and based them in traditional academic disciplines, setting the standards movement apart from outcomes-based education. In the latter, outcomes frequently cover affective or psychomotor behaviours, are usually organised around interdisciplinary or non-disciplinary topics, and are often so vague as to be inherently unmeasurable. In the USA, standards-based education has now relegated outcomes-based education to a marginal position in curriculum reform.
Trends in Australia
In Australia the adoption of corporate management approaches by education systems led to the incorporation of outcomes-based education as a significant assumption underlying national curriculum collaboration in the 1980s. Policymakers considered outcomes-based education to be compatible with the drive for economic reform because it promised the delivery of measurable outcomes. 
Outcomes-based education gained a pre-eminent position in Australia because it represented the most recent form of behaviourist theory. The principles of programmed learning and mastery learning introduced into Australian education in the 1960s and 1970s provided a foundation for the acceptance by education officials of outcomes-based education in the 1990s. One of the milestones in its acceptance was a visit to Australia by a leading advocate of outcomes-based education, William Spady, who conducted a series of workshops in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in September 1992, sponsored by a consortium of national and state organisations.
The pattern of Australian curriculum reforms as reflected by the analysis of Australian curriculum documents presented in this paper shows the influence of both outcomes-based and standards-based approaches to education. The principles underpinning the national statements and profiles were derived mainly from curriculum practices inherent in the National Curriculum being developed at that time for England and Wales. The analysis of these documents revealed that the format and content of some of the national statements resemble the statutory orders for the National Curriculum, suggesting that the latter documents were a prominent influence on the national statements. The organisation of both the national profiles and the attainment targets in the National Curriculum into levels also suggests a common derivation. On the other hand, the specification of the national profiles as outcomes and pointers is so profoundly different to the specification of the attainment targets in the National Curriculum as to suggest that another source, outcomes-based education, was becoming an important influence at this time.
The analysis of the curriculum frameworks and syllabuses produced by the Australian States and Territories shows that the statements of rationale presented in these documents are substantially different from those presented in the national statements and profiles. Although a classification can be ordered along a continuum to form two distinct classes of ‘outcomes-based’ or ‘standards-based’ at the extremes, an analysis applying this typology suggests that the ‘outcomes focus’ in these documents presents a more complex pattern. It confirms that certain principles of outcomes-based education may be the paramount influence on some aspects of these documents, while certain principles of standards-based education may be an important influence on other aspects. For instance, the influence of outcomes-based education is reflected in some documents by the presentation of outcomes comprising of a mixture of curriculum and content standards, or the organisation of subject matter into interdisciplinary and non-disciplinary topics as essential learnings. Therefore, some documents show a stronger influence of outcomes-based education, while others show a closer affinity with standards-based education.
The appointment of Dr Brendan Nelson as the Australian Government Minister for Education, Science and Training in November 2001 shifted the national education agenda more firmly towards the establishment of greater national consistency between education systems. In order to establish greater national consistency in curriculum outcomes, the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) agreed in July 2003 to develop statements of learning setting out essential knowledge, understanding, skills and capacities for English, Mathematics, Science, and Civics and Citizenship. At its meeting in May 2005, MCEETYA agreed to develop statements of learning for Information and Communications Technology, which had been added to the legislative requirements by the Australian Government. In 2004, MCEETYA directed the Australian Education Systems Officials Committee to develop the Statements of Learning for English as a pilot project. Published in 2005, the Statements of Learning for English set out statements of learning and professional elaborations. The analysis of the knowledge, understanding, skills and capacities indicates that the Statements of Learning for English show a closer affinity with standards-based education. This finding suggests that the principles of standards-based education could underpin this initiative by shifting curriculum reform towards promoting the development of clear and measurable content standards based on cognitive learning.
In summary, outcomes-based education continues to influence curriculum development in Australia, especially through the use of interdisciplinary or non-disciplinary topics. However, the principles underpinning curriculum development may be shifting from those principles championed by advocates of outcomes-based education to ones espoused by standards-based education. The difficulty in providing definitive conclusions about this issue lies in the failure of education authorities in Australia to develop criteria to assess the nature and quality of outcomes in curriculum documents. Independent evaluations could be important for identifying the strengths and weaknesses in the quality of outcomes in curriculum documents, but also for clarifying the philosophic positions on education held by curriculum developers. Forming a cadre of educators to evaluate outcomes in curriculum documents may offer policymakers the best hope of resolving competing needs to identify essential learnings and to specify rigorous academic standards, thereby providing a clearer direction for curriculum development in Australia.

Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Educational evaluation
Education policy
Federal-state relations
United States of America (USA)