Changing a State’s Regulations: How Pennsylvania Has Done It

Whether they are Re:Learning schools or not, Pennsylvania schools this year received the first unambiguous message that new principles now underlie what the state expects from a public education. The State Board of Education circulated in September a 100-page document that redefines state curriculum and assessment regulations; after extensive public discussion and revision, it will take effect.

Gone are the rules dictating how many minutes must be spent each year in how many subjects to accumulate so many credits; gone are the narrow distinctions between vocational and academic tracks; gone is the focus on setting minimum standards and diagnosing individual student deficiencies through standardized tests. In their place is a thorough and deep articulation of “higher order learning outcomes” that sets high expectations for what students should know and be able to do. Assessment, in turn, will test the strengths and weaknesses of school programs in meeting the expected outcomes, allowing local assessment to determine individual student proficiency.

The state’s new goals revolve around specific “learning outcomes” that would teach students to think critically, develop a sense of self-worth, learn independently and collaboratively, adapt to change, and make ethical judgments. These habits of mind show up in specific recommendations for cross-disciplinary curriculum areas ranging from communications to science and technology, the arts and humanities, citizenship, and career education.

The changes reflect an intensive two years of effort including many public meetings aimed at involving parents, educators, business leaders, and the community. The language of the new regulations shows marked Essential School influence; key CES and ECS staff met with the state board, and Re:Learning people attended every public meeting to represent the Coalition’s point of view. Adopted under Democratic Governor Robert Casey in 1988, Re:Learning is the state’s primary school reform initiative but not its only one.

“The message is clear to Pennsylvania schools, Re:Learning schools or not,” says Jean di Sabatino, the state’s Re:Learning coordinator. “Everyone is going to have to change to come in line with the state guidelines. Somehow it makes the changes seem less radical, which is good for resistant schools.”

Indeed, resistance to Essential School ideas is as present in Pennsylvania as anywhere. “We had 250 parents show up last week at a meeting in Lancaster, worried about eliminating tracking if an Essential School program was extended in one school,” says Pat Smith, a CES Senior Associate who serves as liaison to the Pennsylvania effort. And teacher unions have voiced fears that eliminating course requirements could encourage schools in fiscal trouble to cut back on programs.

“This state is a good barometer for school change nationwide,” Pat Smith observes. “Most of its schools already consider themselves good, though they are not unreceptive to reform. But because their problems are not desperate they tend to be somewhat conservative about change.” The state’s mix of rural and urban districts and its political balance of power, agrees the state board’s Bob Fier, makes it “about as close to mainstream America as I’ve seen.”

The new curriculum regulations imply teachers who are differently prepared, able to cross disciplinary lines and comfortable with the role of coach as students learn in more active ways. Indeed, the next big step for Pennsylvania’s board is revising its teacher certification regulations, and it intends to use the same process over the next year in doing so. “The most productive route will be to work with higher education people to change teacher preparation,” says Fier. The state’s university system is already closely allied with the Re:Learning effort, serving as close partners to Re:Learning schools and placing student teachers there as “junior colleagues” in the change effort.

Schools will play out the new regulations in their own ways, Bob Fier predicts, but now that their concepts are embedded in the state code, recognizable Essential School patterns are likely to show up fairly consistently in the next three to five years. “The political reality is that public schools don’t have much time to prove they’re going to do things differently,” he says. “We’ve had to move very swiftly for the kind of changes we’re talking about.”