Liberal Education

A Big LEAP for Texas

Imagine trying to coordinate the efforts of fifty community colleges, thirty-eight universities, and six university systems—encompassing nearly 1.5 million students—within the constraints of accreditation, state and federal regulations, increased accountability, decreasing state support, increasing costs, and loudly articulated pressures for cost containment. Imagine trying to balance the needs of the “new traditional” student who must juggle family, work, and school with the expectations of providing a robust college experience. Imagine trying to respond to the need to update curricula continually in order to address societal and workforce needs, while also providing for smooth transferability. And imagine trying to do all of this in the context of a quickly changing technological environment, full of MOOCs, badges, and alternative educational providers.

It can be very trying, indeed.

But imagine, also, what it might mean for those 1.5 million students as they make their way in this quickly changing world. Imagine empowered graduates who stand ready to tackle the complexities they face in a world where the job they may hold tomorrow doesn’t even exist today and the colleagues they may work with are half a world away. This is the state of complexity we live within. This is the state of Texas—and, perhaps, the state you find yourself in, as well.

This article chronicles the ongoing journey of a group of educators in Texas who are engaging with each other and with the resources available through the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in order to address these challenges and leverage the opportunities that come with them.

In 2006, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a statewide regulatory body, convened the Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee and charged it with updating the core curriculum that is mandatory for all public institutions in Texas. At the time the committee began its work, the state-required core, set forth in 1997, included forty-two to forty-eight credit hours, which were distributed across eight specific “component areas” representing various disciplines. Each component area was tied to between five and twelve “exemplary educational outcomes.” In addition, institutions were expected to address six “intellectual competencies” and eight “perspectives.” While the intention to provide a common foundation for learning across the state was commendable, its implementation resulted in a complex set of criteria that posed challenges for both assessment and transfer.

The committee drew upon the wisdom and resources developed through AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative to guide its work, and it published two white papers with recommendations for improving undergraduate education in Texas. The second of these papers provided explicit recommendations that align closely with LEAP’s Essential Learning Outcomes.1

Addressing the challenge of transferability

As a statewide group composed of members from community colleges and universities alike, the Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee worked hard to find the right balance between the need to localize and personalize education in order to make it clearly relevant and engaging, on the one hand, and the need to facilitate students’ ability to transfer to another institution without undue loss of credit, on the other. Achieving robust transferability was a key priority for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Yet, individual campuses were also well aware of the local needs of their students and the importance of ensuring that the content of early classes is highly engaging so that students connect with enthusiasm in their early coursework.

In the 1997 state mandates, transferability of the core was anchored in providing the same content, regardless of where the student took the course. This was promoted through a set of “exemplary educational outcomes” designated for each area of the core. The practical challenge here was that the outcomes needed to be sufficiently generic to apply across, for example, all fields of natural science, while still being sufficiently specific to ensure that a student could smoothly move from one institution to another. Finding the right balance proved difficult. When the outcomes were sufficiently general to apply to both physics and astronomy classes, for example, they were too diffuse to address the issues of transfer adequately.

The LEAP framework provided an alternative. Rather than anchoring on content, the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes allow for an anchoring on skills. This was the strategy adopted by the committee (see table 1). Both the Texas core and LEAP build upon a breadth of disciplines, ensuring that students are exposed to a range of disciplinary perspectives and frames. These provide the context for developing the skills needed for the world to come. The aspects of personal and social responsibility, also clearly articulated in both frameworks, are also anchored in key skills, such as decision making and intercultural competence.

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In terms of progress toward a major, the courses in the foundational component areas offer introductory content. These courses also provide the context for cultivating skills essential to both citizenship and career—a key goal of liberal education (the “core”). By practicing the skills across a variety of disciplines, students gain “transferability” in two senses. First, when they move from one institution to another, they can be assured of gaining the full set of skills. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, they learn to recognize the skills in the context of more than one discipline or situation, allowing for “transfer” into a variety of life situations.

The Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee created a matrix (see table 2) to indicate which component areas within the core would give special attention to each of the six learning outcomes, assigning a minimum of three skill areas to each component area. This was done to ensure that students would gain from repeated exposure to those skills across contexts, regardless of where they took a particular part of the core.

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Advantages in the changing context of higher education

By viewing the core curriculum through the lens of skills rather than content, the committee was able to address a key challenge in the broader educational environment. In the current “Google-enabled world,” content is no longer primarily the responsibility or even the purview of education. Content is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and freely available. Yet we know that access to content does not result in education. Individuals become educated when they learn to make productive and appropriate use of content, making clear judgments about what content to use and how to use it, and combining that content in new ways to bring new understanding. This requires the cultivation of key skills—the very skills outlined by LEAP and recommended by the committee. This move from anchoring on content to anchoring on skills allowed the committee to “recalibrate college learning to the needs of the new global century.”2

Addressing challenges of assessment and accountability

The Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee also grappled with the need for assessments that balance the need to provide feedback for students with the need to use assessment results for institutional improvement and accountability. The first step in addressing the assessment challenge was to move from a complex variety of items (six “intellectual competencies,” eight “perspectives,” and a total of thirty-seven “exemplary educational outcomes”) to a more streamlined set of expectations, which is articulated in the six outcomes drawn from the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. By focusing on six key skills and addressing them repeatedly across the core, institutions gained clarity and the potential to measure student growth. Moreover, AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) rubrics not only provide a practical tool for institutions to use in assessing student work, but they also open the door for the possibility of external benchmarking of student achievement.3

In these ways, AAC&U’s LEAP initiative provided an excellent framework for the committee, as it is built upon shared educational goals and values: inclusive excellence, clearly constructed learning and highly valued outcomes, high-impact practices to move students toward deep learning, and authentic assessments that demonstrate the integration and application of knowledge and skills. By anchoring on these shared values, the committee was able to explore a variety of strategies to meet the challenge of creating a cohesive curriculum that would also facilitate transfer of credit between institutions. LEAP’s advantage is that it provides a well-defined, yet flexible structure. It sets parameters without either requiring a level of conformity that would limit the creative energy of faculty and students or obscuring those unique aspects of a particular college or university.

Moving from the work of the committee to the work of the consortium

Through the Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board provided an excellent framework for the work of revising the state-mandated core curriculum. The committee facilitated robust conversations and engaged in multi-institutional dialogue about the challenges facing the state. As the individual institutions moved toward the implementation of the new plan, however, it seemed prudent to engage in the work outside the structures of the coordinating board. With the board’s approval, a voluntary association was created by interested institutions across the state. The creation of this new association helped decouple the work from the oversight role of the coordinating board, which allowed the institutions themselves—and the faculty within them—to take the lead.

Pursuing the LEAP path

When the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the new core curriculum, many on the Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee realized that more support would be needed to implement the new curriculum statewide. Representatives from colleges and universities across Texas began a dialogue that culminated in the formation of the LEAP Texas Task Force. Initially meeting in September 2011, the LEAP Texas Task Force was composed of representatives from each of the six systems in the state and the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas as well as representatives from individual community colleges, private institutions, and one independent public institution. At this especially inspirational meeting, the representatives dreamed of what could be and began outlining strategic paths. Very quickly, the LEAP Texas Task Force realized that broad-based inclusion and support would be needed from institutions across the state, if such a “grassroots initiative” was ultimately to become an official “LEAP state”—joining California, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin as formal partners with AAC&U in the LEAP States Initiative.4

Through targeted, system-based work, AAC&U’s LEAP States Initiative fosters cross-campus collaborations in order to raise levels of inclusion and success for all students. In the summer of 2011, in an effort to initiate such collaborations, the LEAP Texas Task Force issued a call to institutional representatives across the state, seeking their responses to the prospect of Texas becoming a LEAP state. As a result of a series of responses to this call from interested institutions, interactions with AAC&U staff members, and revisions of the core curriculum, it was determined that the LEAP Texas initiative would focus on four key areas.

1. Leveraging the redesigned state core curriculum. The first step in the LEAP Texas initiative was to foster cross-institutional conversations concerning the alignment of the state outcomes and institutional core curricula in the component areas. (The new core outcomes and applications within component areas are shown in table 2.) The LEAP Texas initiative group coordinated several statewide meetings to discuss institutional alignment and strategies for the implementation of the new outcomes. Participants from the various institutions were particularly interested in discussing how to integrate state core outcomes in specific areas (e.g., implementing instruction and assessment of communication skills in life and physical sciences).

2. Assessing core objectives. When expectations for the application and implementation of the state outcomes are firmly established in the curriculum, the LEAP Texas initiative will facilitate collaboration on the development and implementation of authentic assessment methods across participating institutions. The AAC&U VALUE rubrics will serve as a starting point and will be modified as needed to fit the expectations for the outcomes.

3. Improving achievement through high-impact practices. LEAP encourages institutions to foster the development of high-impact practices across curricula. The LEAP Texas initiative will raise awareness of the benefits of embedding high-impact practices within the undergraduate experience. And institutions across Texas will benefit from AAC&U resources and assistance as they identify, explore, and implement strategies to enhance high-impact practices.

4. Becoming a LEAP state. The fourth key area of activity for the LEAP Texas initiative was to engage state higher education institutions in a conversation about becoming an official partner with AAC&U through the LEAP States Initiative. This conversation was contextualized by many challenges, including multiple institutional structures and systems, an increasingly diverse and growing student population, increasing demands for accountability, the proposition of a new core curriculum for the state, and a period of rapidly changing technology and globalization. To be proactive in addressing these challenges, the LEAP Texas initiative has focused on the structure and depth of research found in the LEAP framework. Table 3 provides a view of how LEAP themes resonate with core curriculum activities in Texas.

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The tenth LEAP state

In January 2014, by which point LEAP Texas had become a voluntary coalition of more than sixty higher education institutions across the state, Texas had officially become the tenth LEAP state. As a consortial partner in AAC&U’s LEAP States Initiative, LEAP Texas will continue the work of leveraging the redesigned state core curriculum for the overall improvement in undergraduate education, creating a capacity for inter-institutional collaboration in robust and authentic assessment, and embedding high-impact practices in the undergraduate curriculum.

Notes

1. Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee, Revising the State Core Curriculum: A Focus on 21st Century Competencies (Austin, TX: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2011), http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/index.cfm?objectid=6EA8957A -D7E2-C369-67F42EC166BC88FC.

2. Association of American Colleges and Universities, College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007), vii.

3. For more information about AAC&U’s VALUE initiative, see http://www.aacu.org/value.

4. For more information about AAC&U’s LEAP States Initiative, see http://www.aacu.org/leap/states.cfm.


Loraine Phillips is assistant vice provost for institutional effectiveness and reporting at the University of Texas at Arlington. David Roach is associate dean for academic affairs at Texas Tech University. Celia Williamson is vice provost for transfer articulation at the University of North Texas.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors' names on the subject line.

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