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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

Overview / Is Outcome-Based Education Dead?

      Recent disputes over plans to launch outcome-based education (OBE) have left reformers baffled, discouraged, and defensive. Some think the movement is dead; in some places they avoid the word outcome and deny that their school's program has anything to do with OBE.
      In other places, though, OBE programs are flourishing. Johnson City, New York, for example, has compiled an impressive record of student achievement. In this issue, former superintendent Al Mamary (p. 24) explains why he believes the Johnson City program has been successful.
      The OBE controversy is confusing because OBE means different things to different people. Programs described as outcome-based are often very different from one another, and some similar programs use other labels, such as results-based or performance-based education. Johnson City educators identify their plan as the Outcomes-Driven Developmental Model, or ODDM.
      Bill Spady, the person most closely associated with the term OBE, would characterize the Johnson City program as transitional, because it emphasizes mastery of traditional academics along with some cross-disciplinary outcomes such as the ability to work in groups. It is not an example of the transformational approach that Spady advocates, which treats subject-matter as “enabling outcomes” related to the “performance roles” (p. 18) students will play in the future.
      Spady's categories have helped clarify some of the differences among outcome-based programs. His analysis also highlights a fundamental question inherent in the OBE movement: should the school curriculum be thought of as a collection of separate subjects, or should it deal directly with the demands of life outside school? The tension between academics and “real life” is not new; the existing curriculum has elements of both orientations: we have mathematics and music but also business education and health. Outcome-based education brings this question, which might otherwise remain obscure, out in the open.
      Some aspects of the OBE debate arise from differing views of what schools are like now and what they would be like if they were more outcome-based. Advocates see the dreary reality of much current practice and picture how it will be if OBE works: everything will be focused on the outcomes, learning activities will be authentic, and more students will succeed. Critics, on the other hand, emphasize how badly they think the proposed system will actually work: teachers will pursue soft issues such as self-esteem rather than academics, students will put off doing their work, and standards will fall.
      These contrary perspectives also apply to performance assessment, an essential element of outcome-based education. Opponents of OBE say it should not be used because teachers will not be able to assess performance accurately and fairly. Tom Guskey, an advocate of performance assessment, (p. 51) lends some credence to this concern when he reports research showing that performance assessment is more difficult for teachers to implement than some policymakers seem to realize. Pioneering educators have shown that it can be done, and done well. But as Kate Jamentz (p. 55) and her colleagues at the California Assessment Collaborative have learned, it requires extensive training and support. Unfornately, schools almost never have the resources they need, which means that educators and policymakers must decide whether to attempt change even though conditions are far from ideal.
      The questions raised by the debate over OBE are convoluted and difficult. They cannot be resolved, however, by refusing to deal with them. Educators and the public need to understand why society will be better served if schools clarify their purposes, reorganize as necessary to achieve those purposes, and expect students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills needed for success in life.
      End Notes

      1 W. Spady and K. Marshall, (1991), “Beyond Traditional Outcome-Based Education,” Educational Leadership 49, 2:67–72.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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