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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

A Fundamentalist's Defense of OBE

Both advocates and critics are painting outcome-based education with too broad a brush. Let's find a reasonable middle ground that all can agree on.

I am puzzled by the Christian Fundamentalists' criticism of outcome-based education (OBE). I am a public school administrator who was educated in the public schools, and I regularly attend what would be described as a Christian Fundamentalist church.
As I read various church reports and related information, it strikes me that my church is (surprise!) outcome-based. The church has a strategic plan, which includes a purpose statement, a statement of beliefs (doctrine), and the desired impact of the church on members of the congregation and the community. From the strategic plan, goals (outcomes) are established for the operation of the church that are in alignment with its purpose and doctrines. As a result, an organizational direction for the church is established and can be carried out. Responsibility and accountability are products of the goal-setting process. Why would this church or any organization operate differently?

Outcomes—By Chance or By Choice?

All schools have outcomes, whether by design or not. That is, all schools produce results of some kind. However, the difference between being outcome-based and simply producing outcomes is significant. An outcome-based school produces results relating primarily to predetermined curriculum and instruction. The focus is on achievement of results and, subsequently, the school has a greater possibility of not only attaining the results but also a higher level of quality in the process and product.
A school that does not specify outcomes simply accepts whatever comes as a result of the educational processes and, of course, places little, if any, emphasis on attaining results. Subsequently, quality in the process and product is acquired somewhat arbitrarily—which may be acceptable because, finally, a normal bell-curve distribution can be legitimately applied to the results. If the results do not occur by chance, they do occur as a consequence of circumstances perceived as beyond the control of the school.
Of course, when the results are of low quality, excuses abound: If only we had more funding, higher salaries, smaller classes, more teacher preparation time, more technology, a telephone in every room, or more planning time, then perhaps our students' achievement would be higher. Of course, who can argue with this inexhaustible list of desired inputs? The fact remains, however, that many educators promote inputs over outcomes precisely because accountability for outcomes is reduced, if not forgotten, as excuses become readily available.
With the current emphasis on accountability in public schools, the concept of outcomes must be addressed. After all, if educators are not forthright and specific about what is to be taught in the schools, how can any measurement be developed to determine the success of the enterprise? Educators may use other terms—learner goals, teaching targets, performance benchmarks, results, or objectives—in an attempt to disavow themselves from the controversial outcome-based education. The fact remains that all schools—politically, ethically, professionally, and educationally—must identify their outcomes by whatever terms they want to invent.

OBE—A Convenient Scapegoat?

Why is OBE so controversial when a simple, logical rationale exists for the concept? Indeed, it seems that the media are in a frenzy regarding OBE. OBE concepts are under attack—particularly from those individuals on the right side of the political spectrum, the Christian Fundamentalists. These opponents attack OBE as being everything from psychologically subversive to overtly satanic. For example, Hudson (1992) described outcome-based education/mastery learning as “a method of manipulating students through behavior modification based on B. F. Skinner's methods of repetitive reinforcement (training children the way he trained animals).” Please!
Both critics and proponents are painting OBE with a brush that is much too broad. It makes about as much sense for the Fundamentalist to bash public education because of OBE as it does for the secularist to bash Fundamentalism because of the past behaviors of Jim Jones, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart. But in the rush to judgment, this type of thinking is all too evident.
For some, OBE has become the convenient devil in public education. A parent recently complained to me that her son had, for the first time in his life, received a C on his first quarter report card. She blamed OBE. In fact, the student failed to turn in some required work in one of his courses and never made up the assignment. Now perhaps there was negligence on the part of the student, parent, or teacher that led to this crisis. However, the culprit was not OBE.
A local television station recently ran a feature on classroom innovations. The narrator described cooperative learning activities in a classroom in addition to curriculum integration involving English and social studies. However, the narrator concluded that what was being portrayed was OBE. Following the feature, the anchor broadcaster indicated that OBE was like education in the 1970s and that the concept was a failure then as it is now.
OBE is neither the devil nor the savior of our public schools. OBE is, first and foremost, a common-sense curricular design that specifies what is to be taught to students. Of course, the belief system, instructional methodologies, assessment procedures, and other factors are an integral part of OBE. In an attempt to make it a solution to every problem in education, educators have managed to dilute OBE. When every problem is not solved, OBE is the culprit. When schools are short of funding, OBE is blamed. When students don't do required work, we do not assign responsibility to the student, teacher, or parent. We blame OBE!

Some Concerns of OBE Critics

Despite the plethora of unfounded allegations regarding OBE, one legitimate criticism relates to the outcomes themselves. Critics view outcomes in social/affective areas as value-laden and as usurping the role of parents. Most public schools today simply do not have the time, money, personnel, or available programs to meet the social/affective outcomes that are being proposed. While the public school cannot exclude itself from these outcomes, a most pertinent question must be addressed: Should cognitive/academic or social/affective outcomes come first?
As mentioned previously, public school educators must examine the capacity of the schools to bring about certain outcomes. Significant societal factors—from media influences to dysfunctional families—exist outside of the school. Can the school displace these influences? Generally, no. What can the schools control? Without dismissing the importance of social/affective learning, the schools have the capacity to deal more effectively in the cognitive/academic domain. Almost any teacher and administrator will observe that students with high academic achievement are more likely to display better behaviors in the affective area than students who have lower academic achievement. Educators should stop fooling our students and ourselves. How can teachers and administrators attempt to build positive self-concepts in our students without emphasizing academic achievement in their lives?
Another cause of dissatisfaction with OBE lies in its confusion with mastery learning. As I said earlier, OBE should be limited primarily to a curricular concept, with the outcomes being defined as what is taught. Mastery learning pertains to how the curriculum is taught, including a standard of student learning. What is taught should be clear, and how such is to be taught should be clear in terms of expected levels of student achievement. Mastery learning is, essentially, the instructional vehicle of OBE, not OBE itself.
Should values be excluded from our schools' curriculums? Can values be excluded? Of course, the answer to both questions is no. A Fundamentalist, for example, might want American patriotism taught in the curriculum. Patriotism is basically and ultimately best demonstrated as an affective outcome. However, as such, patriotism relates closely to academic outcomes pertaining, for example, to the knowledge of American history and culture. Affective outcomes must be integrated with academic outcomes to achieve the highest level of student learning in both areas. And affective outcomes must be rooted in the academic framework rather than vice versa.
One example among hundreds is the integration of academic and affective outcomes in a group music performance. The members of the group display cognitive/academic skill in reading the music, playing their instruments, and following the conductor. However, from cognitively being able to perform, they also gain emotionally by relating to the music being played, expressing themselves, and working cooperatively.

Two Particularly Thorny Issues

Two concerns about OBE that particularly raise the ire of Fundamentalists are determining what type of outcome is being specified and prioritizing the outcomes. Advocates of affective outcomes in schools may argue that high achievement will not be attainable if students do not feel good about themselves. School climate becomes important, with an effective climate being defined as the presence of positive interpersonal relationships in the school, the absence of violence, and so on. In short, the emphasis is on creating a school climate based on social/affective behaviors.
Considerable evidence indicates, however, that when educators give social/affective outcomes top priority over cognitive/academic outcomes, neither outcomes may be achieved (Brookover et al. 1982). According to Brookover and his colleagues, schools that attempt to address social/affective behaviors first by focusing on affective outcomes may set themselves up for failure not only academically, but affectively as well. However, if schools address academic/cognitive behaviors first, then students will achieve higher levels of learning as well as improved affective behaviors.
The mission of a school is directed by its outcomes. If the mission is to be carried out successfully and within the current capacity of most schools, cognitive/academic outcomes with high standards must be emphasized. Of course, social/affective outcomes cannot be ignored, but they should be addressed within the framework of the cognitive/academic domain. By doing so, schools may effectively counter the arguments raised by OBE critics, including the Christian Fundamentalists.

Brookover, W., L. Beamer, H. Efthim, D. Hathaway, L. Lezotte, S. Miller, J. Passalacqua, and L. Tornatzky. (1982). Creating Effective Schools: An In-service Program Enhancing School Learning Climate and Achievement. Holmes Beach, Fla.: Learning Publications, Inc.

Hudson, K. (1992). Reinventing America's Schools: A Practical Guide to Components of Restructuring and Non-Traditional Education. Costa Mesa, Calif.: NACE/CEE.

End Notes

1 Editor's note: The revised 1993 edition of Reinventing America's Schools makes the same point with slightly different wording.

Randy Zitterkopf has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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