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March 1994 | Volume 51 | Number 6
The Challenge of Outcome-Based Education
Besieged by critics, supporters of outcome-based education are struggling to confront the implications of their philosophy.
Just two years ago, the rhetoric supporting a massive American shift to an education system organized around student outcomes was cresting.
From Congress to the State House, politicians and educators advocated higher standards for student learning. One expert after another opined that consensus was needed on what students “should know and be able to do” at the culmination of their K–12 experience. Then, the thinking went, schools would refocus their programs to help students attain these desired outcomes. Ultimately, students would earn a diploma not by merely sitting through a series of required courses—they would have to demonstrate their proficiency in these common outcomes. “Outcome-based education” (OBE) was the label loosely applied to this results-oriented thinking.
The talk sparked a spate of activity. Acting on the impetus provided by national education goals, a national process was launched to describe outcomes in the major subject areas. State after state undertook to craft common learner outcomes, or to require districts to do so. One state, Pennsylvania, pledged to phase out the traditional Carnegie unit, saying that within several years the state's high school graduates would have to demonstrate attainment of outcomes, not merely accrue the necessary clock hours in required courses. If put into practice, the changes proposed in Pennsylvania and elsewhere would have marked a dramatic shift in the way schools do business.
Since then, however, the OBE bandwagon has stalled. In Pennsylvania, the state was forced to curtail its ambitious OBE plan in the wake of fierce opposition, much of it mobilized by organized religious conservative groups. Among their criticisms, opponents claimed that the state's proposed outcomes watered down academics in favor of ill-defined values and process skills. Similar charges were lobbed against OBE plans in other states, and state officials in Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, and Virginia have been forced to revise, delay, or drop their efforts.
In the face of the opposition, many OBE enthusiasts are retrenching, pondering how an idea that, on its face, appears so sensible, proved to be so controversial. “I think OBE is largely done for as a saleable public term,” a former Pennsylvania official who played a key role in the state's OBE plan says darkly. “Now, nobody can use the O-word,” jokes Bob Marzano, senior program director at the Mid-continent Regional Education Laboratory (McREL).
One reason OBE has sparked differences of opinion is that many people—even within the camps of proponents and opponents—define the term differently.
At one level, outcome-based education is the simple principle that decisions about curriculum and instruction should be driven by the outcomes we'd like children to display at the end of their educational experiences. “It's a simple matter of making sure that you're clear on what teaching should accomplish ... and adjusting your teaching and assessing as necessary to accomplish what you set out to accomplish,” says Grant Wiggins, director of programs for the Center on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure. “Viewed that way, nobody in their right mind would have objections to it.” In this sense, outcome-based education is a process, and one could use it to come up with schools as unlike one another as Summerhill or one E.D. Hirsch dreamed up.
At another level, policymakers increasingly talk about creating outcome-driven education “systems” that would redefine traditional approaches to accountability. In policy-ese this means that schools should be accountable for demonstrating that students have mastered important outcomes (so-called “outputs”) not for their per-pupil ratio or the number of books in the school library (so-called “inputs”).
Both the outcome-based philosophy and the notion that schools should have more autonomy (site-based management) have been adopted as the new conventional wisdom guiding accountability, despite the lack of compelling research evidence supporting either reform, points out Thomas Guskey, professor of education policy studies at the University of Kentucky. Policy wonks love the crystal clear logic of OBE and Site-Based Management—at least on paper. “Outcome-based education gives them the `what' and site-based management gives them the `who'” in their accountability system, Guskey says.
Parents and educators familiar with a specific version of outcome-based education often equate all OBE with the model they've heard most about. But the models differ. The Johnson City, New York, public schools, for example, have gained a national reputation for their outcome-based education program. The Outcomes-Driven Developmental Model, as they refer to their model, has contributed to impressive gains in student achievement of desired outcomes over the past two decades (See “On Creating an Environment Where All Students Learn: A Conversation with Al Mamary,” p. 24). Another highly visible model of outcome-based education is that espoused by Bill Spady and the High Success Network (See “Choosing Outcomes of Significance,” p. 18).
The different interpretations of outcome-based education help explain why, even among those who support an outcomes-driven education system, sharp divisions persist over what it would look like. For example, business leaders and policymakers appear to strongly support the idea of outcome-based accountability systems. But their conception of desirable learning outcomes appears to be very different from that offered by educators.
The very nature of outcome-based education forces one to address inherently controversial issues. “The questions ultimately get down to the fundamentals—what's worth knowing and what's the purpose of schooling,” says Jay McTighe, an observer of the OBE movement who directs the Maryland Assessment Consortium. “Outcome-based education gets to the heart of the matter.”
Proponents of OBE suggest that an outcome-based education system would help to address some of the problematic conditions confronting contemporary schools.
Numerous experts, for example, believe that the currently expressed outcomes for student learning are neither sufficiently rigorous nor appropriate for the requirements of students' adult lives. One national study after another has shown that graduates of U.S. schools are able to demonstrate very basic levels of skill and knowledge, but that they lack higher-order thinking skills. Put simply, many students can (and do) make it through the education system without learning needed skills and knowledge, even though they've earned the requisite number of Carnegie units and passed minimum competency exams and classroom tests. Under OBE, students would be required to demonstrate these necessary outcomes before graduation. Just as pilots are required to demonstrate their facility at flying an aircraft (not merely sit through the required instruction), students would be pushed to display the outcomes society holds important.
This raises the related equity issue. The futures of many students are compromised because the outcomes held for them are low or unclear. As they progress through school, such students are frequently tracked into low-level courses where they are not held responsible for the outcomes necessary for success after graduation. As long as the credentialing system is based on seat time, one student may earn a diploma by taking advanced placement history and calculus, while another makes it through the system taking watered-down academic fare. Put another way, some students—and some schools—are held to high standards, while many others are not. According to the OBE philosophy, all students will be held responsible for attaining common outcomes. And schools will be responsible for altering present conditions to prepare them to do it.
In addition, OBE can bring some needed focus to the way schools are organized. Currently, state and district regulations—including graduation requirements, competency tests, textbook adoption policies, local curriculum guides, special mandates to teach about AIDS or gun safety—combine in a patchwork of diffuse and oftentimes contradictory signals to which teachers must attend as they plan instruction. In the system envisioned by OBE enthusiasts, the desired learner outcomes become the foundation upon which decisions about curriculum, instruction, assessment, staff development, and so on are based. Presumably, such a system would be better aligned and focused and, thus, more efficient than the system now operating.
As promising an approach as OBE may be, even proponents have struggled to explain how schools can successfully act upon the implications of their philosophy. Few schools appear to have actually reorganized their curriculum and overhauled their assessment and reporting schemes to reflect new, higher outcomes. More commonly, schools and districts draft outcomes based on the present curriculum or write ambitious and far-reaching new outcomes while changing the curriculum very little.
The reason seems to be that schools, districts, and states that have attempted to use OBE philosophy very quickly find themselves struggling with some difficult challenges.
The first is deciding what outcomes should form the heart of an OBE plan—and no aspect of OBE has proven quite so contentious. Opponents of OBE have consistently charged that traditional academic content is omitted or buried in a morass of pedagogic claptrap in the OBE plans that have emerged to date.
For example, a draft plan in Virginia, since shelved, contained six major areas of student outcomes: environmental stewardship, personal well-being and accomplishment, interpersonal relationships, lifelong learning, cultural and creative endeavors, work and economic well-being, and local and global civic participation. According to the draft, a student outcome for personal well-being and accomplishment was “a responsible individual who has a good sense of his or her abilities and needs, and uses that knowledge consistently to make choices likely to lead to a healthy, productive, and fulfilling life.” A worthy aim, to be sure, but critics convinced the general public that such outcomes would lead to more “touchy-feely” exercises and less history and math in the schools.
Supporters of OBE find themselves in a precarious position. Many of them believe strongly that an educated graduate is not just someone who has absorbed a set of discrete experiences in the traditional academic domains. The OBE movement “has taken shape around the idea that the educational experience is too fragmented, and that important outcomes not easily pegged to typical subject area divisions and pedagogical approaches are falling through the cracks,” says Wiggins. But architects of OBE plans find it extraordinarily difficult to weave the academic content into the broad outcomes. “If you say that the purpose of school is not control over the disciplines, but control over these more generic capacities,” then there is a danger that traditional rigor will be diminished, says Wiggins. “Because if you now say that the purpose of a literature program, for example, is to teach people to communicate effectively, you are now saying, implicitly to some people, that it doesn't matter if you read Judy Blume or Shakespeare to accomplish that end.”
OBE advocates have struggled mightily with the question of whether one set of outcomes will fit the needs of all students; those who will go on to Harvard as well as those who will clerk at K-Mart. One option would be to craft outcomes based on the kind of curriculum taken by students in the advanced college-prep track—outcomes derived from physics, U.S. history, and so on—and push more students to attain such outcomes. But the more common approach taken by OBE planners has been to frame outcomes that describe students as “effective communicators” or “problem-solvers.” Parents of high-achieving students, in particular, fear that such nebulous outcomes will result in less academic rigor in their children's program.
Good outcomes have to have three elements: the content knowledge, the competence (what the student is doing), and the setting (under what conditions the student is performing), says Kit Marshall, associate director and co-founder of the High Success Network, Inc. Content is essential, she says: “you can't demonstrate anything without the basics.” But the field has fallen short in defining what a good outcome is, she says. “Many so-called outcomes are really more like goals, and they aren't assessable as such,” says Marshall. “We have not clearly defined in a large enough sense what an outcome is, or what a demonstration of an outcome looks like. The field has not done that well enough.”
The drafting of common outcomes for an OBE system requires enormous time and care. Even then, outcomes will appear too vague for some or too specific for others. If outcomes are too “global,” McTighe notes, critics ask “Where's the beef?” But if a state specifies dozens or hundreds of outcomes, it is attacked for “prescribing the curriculum” and treading on local initiative.
A second major challenge facing any move to an outcome-based system is redesigning student assessment and reporting programs. Since OBE requires students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, the assessments used to evaluate their performances become critically important.
But are the student assessments currently available up to the task? Although assessment experts know how to measure basic levels of skill and knowledge, they have less proven experience measuring higher-order outcomes within the subject area domains and almost no track record with the transformational, cross-disciplinary outcomes that some OBE plans envision.
Many experts say that performance-based assessments—not standardized, multiple-choice tests—are necessary to measure student attainment of outcomes. “Many outcomes demand a type of assessment that is more performance-oriented” because most current tests fail to measure the applications of knowledge described in new outcomes, says McTighe.
David Hornbeck, a former state school superintendent in Maryland who has advised states on outcome-based systems, believes the field is making progress on designing assessments that measure complex tasks. “We can measure much higher levels of knowledge and skills than we try to measure routinely now,” he says, citing improvements in the assessment of student writing. But most experts agree that designing assessments linked to high-level and broadly written outcomes present enormous technical challenges.
One reason assessment is so critical, of course, is that OBE philosophy suggests that students should demonstrate their attainment of outcomes before receiving a diploma, a notion some experts referred to as “performance-based graduation.” But even OBE proponents suggest moving very cautiously in considering whether to deny students a diploma based on their failure to demonstrate their proficiency on the assessments currently available. On certain outcomes, it's probably wise to give students feedback on their performance, but not to deny advancement or a diploma to students who fail, suggests Marzano.
Dubious outcomes and the prospect that assessment of those outcomes would be used in a high-stakes fashion fueled the criticisms about OBE in states such as Pennsylvania. But not holding students accountable to outcomes carries consequences, too. The Kentucky accountability system measures schools on their ability to help students to attain state-defined learner outcomes. Schools are held accountable (and can be taken over by the state if they show insufficient improvement), but students are not, says Guskey of the University of Kentucky (See “What You Assess May Not Be What You Get,” p. 51). In fact, the state-required assessment of 12th graders is administered during the spring of their senior year, and is not connected with graduation requirements, “so students can just blow it off” without consequences, says Guskey.
A third major challenge facing those wishing to move to an OBE system involves building the capacity of schools to make the changes necessary for students to master required outcomes. On paper, OBE suggests that each school's curriculum and instruction would be re-organized to support agreed-upon student outcomes. In reality, many practices and traditions—mandatory standardized testing programs and college admissions requirements, for example—combine to create an inertia preventing local schools from changing very substantively in response to the precepts of OBE. This is true of other reforms besides OBE, notes Wiggins: faced with the prospects of a major new reform, educators often “retitle what they are already inclined to do.”
For example, many of the schools claiming to practice OBE appear to offer the same set of courses as before, even though they've drafted new outcomes. A real tension exists between the curriculum educators might wish to implement and the one that responds to current conditions and constraints. For example, “Right now, given our transitional education system, we've got to respect and respond to the fact that algebra is still a door to college,” says Marshall. “So regardless of whether or not someone thinks that you'll ever use algebra, we've got to see to it that we're holding ourselves accountable, that we're expanding students' options, not limiting them.”
Because drafting new outcomes and developing new assessments linked to them are such difficult tasks, they have drawn more attention than the question of what can be done to build schools' capacity to help students attain new outcomes, believes John Champlin, executive director of the National Center for Outcomes-Based Education and the former superintendent in Johnson City, New York “Outcomes are what we want, but what we have to do is to change the capacity of schools” to help students attain them. States need to place as much attention on the capacity-building side of outcome-based systems as on the accountability side, he says.
Although it's impossible to predict precisely what the future of outcome-based education is, there are several likely trends.
OBE plans will probably rely more heavily on outcomes defined in traditional subject areas, rather than the “transformational” outcomes that cross the disciplines. “The starting point and the emphasis should be on the academic disciplines,” says Hornbeck. This is the model of the national standards for content and student performance, which are being crafted in all of the major disciplines and which will be published over the next year or two (mathematics standards have already been written). States that have defined outcomes within the subject areas, as in Kentucky, for example, have not encountered the same degree of opposition as states that attempted to create cross-disciplinary outcomes.
Another likely trend is that states will move slowly on attaching high stakes to outcome-based education plans. Few states, for example, are likely to abolish the Carnegie unit as the basis for graduation, as Pennsylvania plans to do. Instead, bet on more states attempting to define learner outcomes, aligning assessment programs with those outcomes, and compiling student assessment data with other indicators of school performance as part of the accountability system. Until (and unless) performance-based assessments shore up their technical qualities, or the outcomes are more clearly defined, high-stakes uses are likely to be frowned upon.
A third trend is more systematic attempts to communicate with the public what outcome-based education is about. Educators substantially underestimated the degree of public confusion and disagreement with OBE in several of the states that attempted to launch programs. “There has to be an awful lot of attention to communicating in simple terms,” says James Cooper, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Virginia's OBE plan foundered, he says, in part because opponents convinced the middle ground of citizens that OBE (as defined in the state's proposed “common core” of learning outcomes) would mean lower academic standards. “The vagueness [of the plan] was a real political problem,” says Cooper. State officials, “try as they might, could not say simply and clearly enough what this common core was. Then the opposition defined it in their terms as `mushy-headed.' ”
It may be that the public believes that the present performance of schools does not warrant the restructuring that would result from a true application of OBE's precepts. “People are really not that dissatisfied with what's going on” in schools, Cooper believes. “People are interested in school improvement, but not necessarily in break-the-mold schools or break-the-mold education.” As a result, “major sweeping changes are exceedingly difficult,” and modest, incremental changes seem the only plausible route.
John O'Neil is Contributing Editor to Educational Leadership.
Copyright © 1994 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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