The Expanded Core Curriculum: Where We Have Been, Where We Are Going, and How We Can Get There

Wendy Sapp and Phil Hatlen

Print edition page number(s) 338-348


Abstract: Although teachers consider the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) critical for students' success, they do not provide their students adequate instruction based on principles of the ECC. A minimum level of competence for assessment and instruction in the ECC should be established for novice teachers. Personnel preparation programs should evaluate how to prepare teachers better to implement the ECC, and professionals should commit themselves to teaching the ECC in a way that ensures their students' success.

First formulated by Hatlen (1996), the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) refers to the generally accepted nine areas of instruction that children and youths with visual impairments (both those who are blind and those with low vision), including those with additional impairments, need to be successful in school, the community, and the workplace. The framework of the ECC gives service providers and parents a common language and understanding for structuring assessments and planning educational programs. This article describes the evolution of the ECC and articulates the nine areas of the ECC. A summary of research on the current state of instruction based on the ECC in the United States is provided, along with recommendations for improving the implementation of the ECC in classrooms.

A brief history

Throughout the history of educating students with visual impairments, teachers have realized that the amount of instruction these students need is greater than the traditional reading, writing, and arithmetic curricula. Samuel Gridley Howe, who established the first U.S. residential school for children who are blind in 1829, believed that although these children should adhere closely to the public school curriculum, they must also be educated on the basis of their individual interests and abilities (Hatlen, 2000). More recently, the Division on Visual Impairments of the Council for Exceptional Children adopted revisions to two position papers on the role and function of the teacher of students with visual impairments. In one paper, Ferrell and Spungin (2007) identified areas of instruction in which teachers should be proficient, and in the other paper, Silberman and Sacks (2007) described additional areas of expertise that teachers need when working with students with visual impairments and additional disabilities. These detailed position papers provide an excellent guide for personnel preparation programs that are planning their course work, for teachers who are identifying areas in which they need to improve their skills, and for administrators who are evaluating teachers' abilities.

Documents in the United States and abroad support the need for students to receive an education that meets their unique needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) states that in addition to addressing academic achievement, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) must address students' functional performance and must meet each of the students' other educational needs that result from their disabilities. Although the ECC is not explicitly mentioned, the reauthorization clearly supports the provision of instruction in all the areas of the ECC, since these are functional and educational needs that result from a disability. International support for specialized instruction is found in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1990, p. 29.1.a), which states that every child has the right to an education "directed to the development of the child's personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential." The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by 193 countries, indicating its worldwide acceptance.

The ECC

The ECC proposes that instruction for students with visual impairments should include all the traditional areas of academic instruction and instruction in areas that are directly affected by a child's visual impairment. Since the original formulation of the ECC, the curriculum has evolved, resulting in the addition of the area of self-determination skills and the modification of visual skills to the more comprehensive sensory efficiency skills area.

The ECC should be taught by certified teachers of students with visual impairments and orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists. Often parents may take a leading or collaborative role in some areas, such as independent living skills or social skills, but their involvement does not relieve teachers of the responsibility of assessing and instructing as needed. The ECC consists of the following nine areas: compensatory or access skills, career education, independent living skills, O&M skills and concepts, recreational and leisure skills, self-determination skills, social interaction skills, use of assistive technology, and sensory efficiency skills.

Compensatory or access skills

Compensatory skills refer to the skills that students with visual impairments need to access all areas of the general education curriculum at levels that are commensurate with their sighted peers. Access skills refer to the skills that students with visual impairments, including those with additional disabilities, need to access the curriculum as independently as possible.

Compensatory and access skills include concept development, spatial understanding, study and organizational skills, speaking and listening skills, and adaptations that are necessary to access all areas of the core curriculum. Access skills vary on the basis of the students' needs but may include braille, large print, print with optical devices, tactile symbols, calendar systems, adapted sign language, or recorded materials. The compensatory and access needs of the students cannot be met within the existing core curriculum and must be addressed by a teacher of students with visual impairments.

Career education

The concepts and skills that all students acquire in vocational education are not sufficient for students with visual impairments. Sighted students have many opportunities to learn about careers and work habits through visual observation. Students who are visually impaired need to have firsthand experiences with various jobs and roles in life to make personal, independent decisions. For example, they will not know what a bank teller does without spending some time job shadowing a bank teller or engaging in other hands-on learning about the responsibilities of a bank teller.

Independent living skills

Most activities of daily living, which sighted people perform without thinking, must be taught to students with visual impairments--everything from personal hygiene and food preparation to financial management and organizational skills. Some of these independent living skills are part of the general curriculum for all students, but they are not usually presented in a sequential, organized manner sufficient for students who are visually impaired or provide adequate hands-on experiences for these students. Achieving a satisfying, rewarding adult life will be difficult for individuals with visual impairments if they are not well grounded in independent living skills.

O&M skills and concepts

O&M is the systematic way in which children and youths with visual impairments orient themselves to their environments and move as safely, efficiently, and independently as possible in those environments. O&M concepts begin with understanding one's own body and progress to include all the concepts that are necessary to plan a trip in rural and urban environments. O&M skills begin with the simple understanding of how to move one's body with control and advance to the skills that are necessary to navigate complex environments safely, cross streets, and access transportation. Specially prepared O&M specialists are required to provide students with the experiences they need to develop O&M concepts and acquire O&M skills that will allow them to travel as independently as possible.

Recreational and leisure skills

Students who are visually impaired are rarely given the opportunity to participate in recreational and leisure activities unless they have been taught these activities. They will not know whether they will enjoy bowling, for example, if they do not have the opportunity to learn to bowl under supervision. In contrast, sighted students may decide to try bowling purely because they have observed other people bowling. Recreational and leisure skills for students with visual impairments must be planned and deliberately taught, focusing on the development of lifelong, enjoyable activities.

Social interaction skills

Social interaction skills are the concepts and skills that people use to interact with one another. They are learned primarily by observing others who are engaged in appropriate social interactions. Children and youths with visual impairments miss out on much of this incidental learning of skills that are as basic as making eye contact and as complex as skills for joining a group of peers or asking someone out on a date. Direct sequential instruction in social interaction skills will help children and youths who are visually impaired have more opportunities for social interactions and decrease the chances of social isolation throughout their lives.

Self-determination skills

Self-determination refers to a person's right to decide freely and without undue influence how he or she wishes to live his or her life. To develop self-determination skills, children or adolescents who are visually impaired must be provided with the necessary knowledge and experience. They must learn which choices are available to them, have the skills necessary to take advantage of these choices, and be given opportunities to make age-appropriate choices for themselves. To do so, they often need direct instruction in learning to evaluate options and in making choices.

Use of assistive technology

Assistive technology refers to the mainly electronic tools that are designed to provide access to text and other learning materials and opportunities, and the support needed to learn to use the tools. Technology equalizes the ability to access, store, and retrieve information between sighted people and those with visual impairments. However, the use of various software and peripheral equipment that are specific to people who are visually impaired requires that appropriate technology be provided and that the many skills in the use of assistive technology be taught by a specialist in the education of these students.

Sensory efficiency skills

Sensory efficiency skills include visual efficiency, auditory learning, and the development of advanced tactile skills. It has long been recognized that visual efficiency skills must be taught to children with any level of remaining vision so that all sensory input can be used in the process of learning. Conducting functional vision assessments, planning activities to enhance the use of vision, and determining the most appropriate use of materials and devices for individual students are the responsibility of teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M specialists.

Auditory learning is an essential means for many students with visual impairments to access information. When print and braille reading is supplemented with listening skills, the students' learning is enhanced. Moreover, when the students reach high school, because of the variety of reading materials in inaccessible formats, in all likelihood they will need to depend partially on recorded books or live readers.

Tactile graphics are a necessary part of the books and other learning materials that students with visual impairments use, but the profession has only recently recognized that a deliberate, sequential system is required for teaching students to correctly interpret such graphic materials. To allow a student to take a high-stakes test without the requisite skills in reading tactile graphics is to put the student at a decided disadvantage. Students who are visually impaired need to learn, in a gradual, developmental manner, that there are systems for displaying real things in abstract form.

Research related to the ECC

Recent research has supported the importance of the ECC and has investigated the current state of ECC instruction in the United States. The Council for Exceptional Children (2009) included all nine areas of the ECC in its list of the knowledge and skills that beginning teachers of students with visual impairments need. It included only the skills and knowledge that have been validated by research as valuable for the education of children with disabilities, thus indicating that the larger educational community recognizes that all areas of the ECC are important for students with visual impairments.

In Sapp and Hatlen's (2007) survey of the views of teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M specialists of the ECC, all the participants responded to open-ended questions with positive comments about the importance of the ECC in the lives of their students. Most of them discussed how the skills in the ECC prepare students for real life. Some went further, stating that when students master ECC skills, it is the "difference between life and a successful life," and students who receive high-quality instruction in the ECC have a "richer quality of life" than do those who do not. Some participants were even more passionate about the importance of the ECC, stating, "It [the ECC] is everything...almost more important than academics" and "What point is there in reading/writing/math if you have no friends and can't get a job?"

Lohmeier, Blankenship, and Hatlen (2009) completed a survey of professionals' views about the National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities (Huebner, Merk-Adams, Stryker, & Wolffe, 2004) and the ECC. They found that most respondents believed that teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M specialists were knowledgeable about the ECC and that most were committed to the need for assessment and instruction in all areas of the ECC. Unfortunately, they also found that most respondents did not believe that these professionals had the time to teach all areas of the ECC.

Lohmeier et al.'s (2009) findings are supported by those of other studies that reported that teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M specialists do not have enough time to teach self-determination skills, one of the areas of the ECC (Agran, Hong, & Blankenship, 2007). A direct evaluation of how teachers of students with visual impairments spend their time also showed that the teachers spent most of their time on academic and compensatory skills and only a limited time on other areas of the ECC (Wolffe et al., 2002). Much of the time that the teachers spent on areas of the ECC that are not closely tied to academics occurred in an unplanned and unstructured manner that limited their instructional effectiveness.

Sapp and Hatlen's (2007) national survey of 50 professionals who attended 16 university training programs found that more instruction for preservice teachers in the ECC is provided now than in the past. Students who graduated in the past 10 years, compared to students who graduated earlier, rated their training higher in all areas of the ECC, with differences in scores on career skills, self-determination, social skills, and technology skills reaching significance (p < .05). Despite this improvement, all but two respondents listed suggestions for skills in the ECC for which they wished they had received more training: skills in specific areas of the ECC, ways to incorporate the ECC into the typical school day, applying the ECC to students with a range of visual and intellectual abilities, and incorporating the ECC into students' IEPs and lesson plans. The differences in responses indicate that some personnel preparation programs are strong in preparing teachers for providing instruction in the ECC, but that all can improve in some areas.

Strategies for implementing the ECC

Despite the consensus that the ECC is critical for the success of students with visual impairments while in school and after graduation, mounting evidence shows that teachers are not completing their professional preparation with adequate skills in teaching the ECC and are spending much of their time with students tutoring academics, rather than teaching the essential skills of the ECC. If students who are visually impaired are to be successful, the status quo must change. How can the field institute this change and ensure that all teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M specialists are adequately prepared to provide instruction in the ECC?

What teachers need to know

Most students who are completing degree or certificate programs in visual impairments are familiar with the ECC and can name the nine areas of instruction. Beginning teachers need a much higher level of proficiency in the ECC than a simple recitation of the areas. They should have a deep understanding of all the areas of the ECC, know methods for providing instruction in the ECC, and be able to implement strategies for incorporating the ECC into educational programming.

Teachers of students with visual impairments need to be proficient in the skills and knowledge that are related to each area of the ECC. It is not enough for teachers to know that students with visual impairments may have deficits in social skills: they must know how to assess their students' social skills and provide targeted instruction for the areas of deficit. In addition, they should know how to apply ECC assessment and instruction to all children who are visually impaired from birth to age 21, those with low vision and total blindness, those with severe multiple impairments, and those who are academically gifted.

Beyond assessment and instruction, teachers of students with visual impairments must be able to incorporate the ECC into students' IEPs using legally defensible language and to integrate the ECC into their students' daily schedules, finding time for direct instruction as needed and opportunities for the meaningful generalization and maintenance of skills throughout the day. Many teachers who are knowledgeable about and proficient in assessing and teaching the ECC struggle to find enough time to provide the needed instruction, and they often lack knowledge about writing goals and objectives for nonacademic skills. Teachers also need to be aware of alternative methods of providing instruction in the ECC, such as summer programs, after-school programs, and short-term placements. The ability to integrate ECC instruction into students' IEPs and daily schedules is critical for students to experience success in the ECC.

Incorporating the ECC into a student's typical day can be challenging, but it is feasible. Many ECC skills can be embedded in the general education curriculum. Most general education curricula include skills that overlap with the ECC, such as working in groups (social skills), learning about different jobs (career education), reading a map (O&M), and managing money (independent living skills). Teachers of students with visual impairments and O&M specialists can preteach, coteach, and reteach ECC concepts that are partially covered by the general curriculum as one way to incorporate the ECC into a student's education.

Furthermore, many ECC skills can be practiced naturally throughout the day. For this practice to occur in a meaningful way, an assessment should identify that a student has a need in an area of the ECC. Planned direct instruction by a teacher of students with visual impairments or an O&M specialist must be provided to ensure that the student adequately acquires the basic skills. Careful evaluation of the school day, including transition periods, lunch, and recess, can be used to identify the times when the student will practice the skills. School staff should monitor and collect data on the student's daily performance, and appropriate personnel should provide feedback and additional instruction as needed. Regardless of how the ECC instruction is provided, it is critical that sufficient time be allocated to provide adequate instruction in all areas of the ECC that require intervention.

In addition to assessment and instruction, teachers of students with visual impairments must be able to explain the importance of the skills and concepts of the ECC to administrators, parents, and other educators who may not understand the need for time and resources to be spent on the ECC. For ECC instruction to be most effective, these teachers need to have administrative backing, the entire educational team needs to reinforce the skills being taught, and the family needs to support the instruction that is provided. When the teacher of students with visual impairments educates others about the importance of the ECC, professionals and families can work as a cohesive team providing adequate instruction and practice in the areas of the ECC.

How will teachers learn the ECC content?

We propose a three-pronged approach to improving the ability of teachers of students with visual impairments to implement the ECC. First, personnel preparation programs must provide adequate instruction, so their graduates are able meet students' ECC needs. Second, the field of visual impairment should create baseline standards for what first-year teachers need to know about the ECC. Third, professionals must take responsibility for continually improving their own instructional skills in relation to the ECC.

To prepare teachers of students with visual impairments to teach the ECC, personnel preparation programs must provide adequate instruction in the ECC at the preservice level. Teachers who are entering the field should have adequate skills to provide instruction in the ECC. First-year general education teachers would not be allowed to teach a first-grade class if they did not know how to teach children the first-grade curriculum, including reading, writing, adding, and subtracting. Over time, they will improve their skills, but they must have a basic level of competence when they begin teaching. In the same way, first-year teachers of students with visual impairments must have a basic ability to assess and teach all areas of the ECC to their students. With experience and continuing education, they will improve their skills, but they must gain a basic level of proficiency in their preservice training programs.

Most preservice programs are committed to teaching the ECC along with many aspects of the traditional curriculum that have been taught since programs for teachers of students with visual impairments were first formalized. The evidence is clear, however, that most graduates do not feel adequately prepared to provide instruction in the ECC. A common complaint of faculty in personnel preparation programs is that there is not enough time in their courses to cover all areas of the ECC in depth. We challenge personnel preparation programs to reevaluate every component of their course work. Are there readings, activities, and lectures that are needlessly repetitive or that emphasize skills that are not critical for a first-year teacher? Could they be replaced with more emphasis on the ECC? For example, could a program eliminate an hour-long dissection of a cow's eye and use that time to provide instruction in teaching students to use optical devices?

Furthermore, we challenge the field to develop standards for the specific knowledge and skills that first-year teachers need for instructing all students in the ECC. The standards must address the needs of all students with visual impairments, regardless of their age, degree of visual impairment, and presence or absence of additional disabilities. Whichever of the many methods for developing specific standards is used, input should be gathered from all relevant stakeholders, including faculty in personnel preparation programs, administrators who hire and supervise new teachers, recent graduates of personnel preparation programs, experienced teachers of students with visual impairments, and students and family members. Smith, Kelley, Maushak, Griffin-Shirley, and Lan (2009) completed a Delphi study on assistive technology competencies for teachers of students with visual impairments that can serve as an example of a way to determine new teachers' knowledge and skills related to the ECC. Detailed specific standards would assist personnel preparation programs in providing the instruction most needed by their students.

Finally, we challenge professionals to take responsibility for improving their skills in all areas of the ECC. Teachers of students with visual impairments should continuously evaluate their own abilities and seek ways to acquire new knowledge and improve their skills. Reading professional literature, attending face-to-face or web-based conferences and workshops, and networking with colleagues are all ways for teachers to improve their skills. Learning about techniques and research with other populations can also be applicable to their students; for example, learning effective methods for teaching self-determination skills to children who are nonverbal can be adapted and applied to students with visual impairments who are nonverbal. By taking personal responsibility for their professional skills, teachers of students with visual impairments can move beyond a baseline level of skills in the ECC to become master teachers.

Conclusion

Pat, a 20-year-old man with low vision, graduated from high school last year. He began receiving services from a teacher of students with visual impairments as a toddler. Throughout his education, teachers of students with visual impairments worked with him three hours a week, three to five days a week, enlarging his reading materials, tutoring him in academics, and explaining his special needs to his classroom teachers and other students. Pat was on the A-B honor roll throughout school. His teacher of students with visual impairments saw that his materials were organized, helped him to study and complete assignments, and ensured that he was able to pass his end-of-course test and standardized examinations. Pat entered college but discovered that he was unable to keep up with his course work. His roommate became frustrated because Pat was unable to wash his laundry, keep track of his belongings, or find his way to a new location independently. Pat thought about getting a part-time job, but he did not know which jobs he could do or even how to go about applying for one. He had only one close friend, who attended a different college, and he did not know how to meet new people. At the end of the semester, he dropped out of school, moved home, and began collecting Social Security Disability Income.

Aaron, another 20-year-old young man with low vision, attended the same college as Pat. From the time he began receiving early intervention services as an infant, his family and teachers focused on helping Aaron to be independent upon graduation from high school. Throughout his educational career, his teacher of students with visual impairments and his O&M specialist identified and focused on skills that would prepare Aaron to thrive without the support of professionals. As a result of carefully planned instruction, by the time Aaron entered high school he was able to function independently in his classrooms, advocating for his needs when teachers forgot to make reasonable accommodations. He had a well-developed social network with whom he spent much of his free time. He traveled independently to meet his friends, go on dates, and get to his part-time job. His teacher of students with visual impairments and O&M instructor each worked with him one hour a week during his senior year of high school to provide instruction on the few skills that needed refining, such as independent living (for example, budgeting and shopping for food), career (for instance, identifying his career interests and the requirements for those careers), O&M (for example, how to orient to a new campus and community when going to college), and assistive technology. Aaron is thriving in his college community. He has joined two clubs and spends time with several new friends when he has a few moments free. He has received As and Bs in his courses and has even found time for a part-time job at a lawyer's office, since he hopes to be become a lawyer himself. The resident adviser (RA) in his dorm has suggested that he consider becoming an RA next year, since he has adjusted so successfully to college life and is well liked by the other students in the dormitory.

As these two examples have demonstrated, success in school goes beyond ensuring that students are able to pass their courses and graduate from high school on time. Children and youths with visual impairments deserve the opportunity to have full, rich lives that include good educations, strong social lives, meaningful careers, and the ability to live and travel independently. The components of the ECC have long been recognized as critical for promoting the quality of life of students who are visually impaired, and recent research has supported the provision of instruction in these areas. To provide this instruction, teachers should have a deep understanding of all the areas of the ECC, know methods for providing instruction in the ECC, and be able to implement effective strategies for incorporating the ECC into educational programming.

Toward this end, the field of visual impairment has a responsibility to establish a minimum baseline of skills in the ECC that are necessary for new teachers of students with visual impairments to assess and teach all students who are visually impaired. Personnel preparation programs must continue to improve the instruction they provide to novice teachers about the ECC, including assessment, instructional methods, and realistic ways to provide instruction. Teachers should commit themselves to maintaining and improving their skills in teaching the ECC and to finding creative methods for providing the ECC instruction that their students need. As professionals, we are ethically responsible to give students the opportunity to gain skills in the ECC, so they have the opportunity to live up to their potential. Students deserve nothing less.

References

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Wendy Sapp, Ph.D., educational consultant, Visual Impairment Education Services, 347 Golf View Drive, Cohutta, GA 30710; e-mail: <wksapp@charter.net>. Phil Hatlen, Ed.D., private consultant, Education for Persons with Visual Impairments, 19026 20th Avenue NW, Shoreline, WA, 98177, e-mail: <philhatlen@gmail.com>.

Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, June 2010, © American Foundation for the Blind, All Rights Reserved