Phil Hatlen's Corner (Blog)

Blog posts from our board member, Phil Hatlen, and guest bloggers, addressing issues related to blind and visually-impaired children.

Origins of the Expanded Core Curriculum

I once knew a woman named Mamie Clemmons.  She was on the residential staff of the California School for the Blind in Berkeley.  Around 1968 I lost track of her, later to discover that she had bought a large house in the foothills of North Berkeley.

Mamie moved into this house along with six recent graduates of the California School for the Blind.  She knew all the young people living in this house from their student days.  She knew that when they graduated from school, they would not be ready to enter into the social, educational, and occupational mainstream of their communities.  She knew what they knew: they were very bright, capable academic students.  She knew what they didn’t know: how to live effectively, happily, and productively in the community.

So Mamie started a half-way house for blind young people who needed some maturing and a lot more independence before they ventured into the community by themselves.  She didn’t know much about vocational training, instruction in independent living skills, orientation and mobility, etc.  Mamie knew a lot about what blind students didn’t know because they could not learn visually and casually. 

I connected myself to Mamie, those young people, and that house for more than a year.  And I slowly came to realize what had been so obvious to Mamie.  We were graduating students from our high schools who may have been excellent academic students, but were ill prepared for life.

As a new teacher for blind and visually impaired children in 1956, I was filled with  motivation and passion.  I was going to assist blind children attain the same level of academic learning as their sighted peers.  I was going to be certain that blind children had equal opportunities and responsibilities. 

I truly believed that the population of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) children I would be teaching were first and foremost children, and blindness was an insignificant part of who they were. 

Were my colleagues and I the zealots of inclusion in the 1950s?   Perhaps.  We acknowledged no differences in the educational needs of blind children and their sighted peers.  Our role, as resource and itinerant teachers, was to assure that the blind child stayed up with her sighted peers.

In my geographic region, it’s difficult to overemphasize the investment we had in making certain that blind children succeeded in inclusive settings.  What could we do to prove to the world that blind children belonged in classes with sighted peers?  We could make certain that their academic skills were at least as good as their classmates.  We would be very careful about implying that the blind child had any special needs.  Of course, any special needs were ignored since the entire school day was invested in making certain the child succeeded in the regular classroom.

Then reality hit.  Students from local school programs began graduating in large numbers in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In the Spring of 1970, two friends and I were having lunch at a Berkeley restaurant.  We began talking about our disappointments regarding the students we had taught who never set foot in a school for the blind.  We believed their futures were bright, that they were already a part of their community, and assimilation into work, education, and social life was a natural. 

Well, all of you know how wrong we were.  That conversation over lunch is one of the more vivid memories I have of my professional life.  We began to talk about the difference between solving a binomial equation and dressing yourself; about grammatical correctness and filling out a job application.  As you know, the list goes on.  We had done very well in teaching the academics to these students.  They certainly proved they could compete with sighted students in their classes.  But the hidden skills, those learned by sighted students through casual observation, those necessary to live a full, satisfying life, had not been a part of their education.

By the time the importance of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) became apparent to me, I was working as a professor at San Francisco State University, preparing teachers for blind and visually impaired students.  By 1970, I was discussing the unique curriculum needed by blind and visually impaired students.  I had identified five areas of uniqueness, and I was relentless in my zeal to inspire this next generation of teachers to emphasize their importance.  They were:

  • Orientation and Mobility
  • Social Interaction Skills
  • Independent Living Skills
  • Career Education
  • Leisure and Recreation Skills

I would write these five items on the chalkboard, then write another column that included:

  • Reading
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • History
  • Language Arts

Then I asked my students the question:  “Which of these lists is more important in the education of blind children?”

The answer I always wanted to hear (but often didn’t) was that the two lists were of equal importance, at which time I would say, “Then give as much instructional time to independent living skills as you give to teaching mathematics.”  The students would all nod in agreement, then go out and teach mathematics to the exclusion of independent living skills.  It wasn’t that they changed their mind, it was because the system wouldn’t allow the teachers to devote time to the unique curriculum.

In 1972, some colleagues and I were successful in opening the Living Skills Center for the Visually Impaired in San Pablo, California (a suburb near San Francisco).  The term “transition” was not being used in special education circles then, yet the Skills Center was a transition program, delivering the Expanded Core Curriculum to young people after high school graduation.  Because we truly believed that instruction in this curriculum would quickly be added to the curriculum of school-age students, we did not expect to need the Skills Center for more than a few years.  It still exists today, and is a model of post-secondary delivery of the Expanded Core Curriculum.

Since about 1970, the Expanded Core Curriculum has had several names.  At some point, “unique curriculum” became “specialized curriculum”, then “disability specific curriculum”.  None of these terms seemed to capture the hearts of administrators, teachers, or parents.  Then, late in the 1980s, a man named Jack Hazekamp, Consultant for Visual Impairment, California State Department of Education, said to me, “You ought to write a paper on the educational curriculum needed by blind and visually impaired students.  All over the country states are adopting a core curriculum.  It comes under many names, but what it amounts to is a list of courses and skills high school students need in order to graduate.  We should have our own ‘core curriculum’”.

I knew what Jack said was true, that educators of the deaf had successfully done this in a number of states.  Yet I sat on the idea for several years, until the birth of the National Agenda.  The Expanded Core Curriculum was born as a subset of the National Agenda.   It has been widely accepted, but is difficult to deliver in inclusive education systems.

While the Expanded Core Curriculum has been adopted as a necessary curriculum for blind and visually impaired students, and while its critical importance is stressed by most of my colleagues, I continue to search for better methods of implementation.   At this time, I believe that most students do not receive assessment or instruction in all areas of the curriculum.  It’s my impression that there are many reasons for this, but that the primary one is that most itinerant teachers were being over-worked before there was the Expanded Core Curriculum.  Then, along comes a new finding in our profession that requires teachers of the visually impaired to add significantly to their jobs.

Frankly, I believe that most teachers of the visually impaired continue to consider their primary function as making certain that their students are successful in their regular classes.  Attaining this is a full-time job, relegating instruction in the curriculum to whatever “spare time” the teacher has.  However, before we look for other approaches to provide instruction in the curriculum, let’s remember what is already being provided, in most cases, very successfully.  First, an area of the Expanded Core Curriculum is defined as “Compensatory Skills”.  Teachers of the visually impaired address this need all the time as they assist students with adaptive methods to access the regular core curriculum.  Next, orientation and mobility instruction is an area of the curriculum, and the vast majority of students receive instruction in orientation and mobility (O&M). 

I’ve been very reluctant to accept the possibility that infusion into other areas of curriculum could adequately address still more of the Expanded Core Curriculum.  The example I have used many times is in the area of social skills.  I have often asked teachers whether they teach social skills.  They answer “Yes, I correct inappropriate social behavior, such as rocking or eye poking”.  “So”, I say to myself, “you try to extinguish inappropriate social behavior, but you don’t necessarily teach appropriate social skills”.  At this point in my own learning curve, I am willing to concede that much of the Expanded Core Curriculum can be addressed through infusion in other curriculum, even academic core curriculum.  But, my friends, do not be lulled into a sense of complacency by assuming that all the assistive technology your student needs will be taught in a generic technology class.  Remember that the Expanded Core Curriculum is comprised of areas of instruction needed by blind and visually impaired students because they cannot learn casually and visually from their environment.  Unless you are certain that an infused program in an area of the Expanded Core Curriculum compensates for visual learning, you might want to consider your role in teaching skills in that area.

Recently I’ve been suggesting “The Gift of Time” as one possibility that would provide the visually impaired learner with the opportunity to receive appropriate instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum while still in school.  Instead of having 12 years in school, blind and visually impaired students would have 14 years, spacing out academic courses through the years so that Expanded Core Curriculum courses could be inserted at various age and grade levels.

In my state, many local schools are referring young adults to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, requesting that we provide instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum, most of the time after the student has met all high school graduation requirements.  There are other creative ideas that colleagues have developed, and I’d like to hear from readers of this article regarding your ideas.

We must not fail to assure that every child receives an assessment in all areas of the Expanded Core Curriculum, and is then provided appropriate and critical instruction.

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page last updated: 01-15-2016, 11:14:50 am