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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

Pennsylvania's Battle for Student Learning Outcomes

One state's experience suggests some caveats to others who want innovation to proceed more smoothly.

Over the past year and a half, vociferous leaders have made some startling accusations about school reform in Pennsylvania. The target: Student Learning Outcomes, known popularly as outcome-based education (OBE).
To its proponents, OBE is a performance-based system that puts Pennsylvania on the leading edge of education reform. The new approach swings the state's regulatory emphasis away from the amount of time spent in school (Carnegie units) and toward the specification of rigorous outcomes for student achievement. The reforms also expand parental rights, broaden community participation in planning, and grant school districts new flexibility in educational program design.
To opponents, OBE is a calculated attempt to usurp parental authority, revive a previously defeated assessment policy, and impose a politically correct strategy that would force children to conform to state-mandated values and behaviors (Cussler 1993).
Typically, the criticisms have been emotionally charged, well organized, and well publicized. Among the more inflammatory anti-OBE materials is The New World Order, a videotape widely circulated by Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE), a national Fundamentalist Christian coalition. The video depicts a Christian student who is declared “at risk” and targeted for special services in the public schools. In one scene, the child is taken away as uniformed guards restrain the parent, who struggles to save her daughter from the clutches of the state.
When a defender of school reform protests, “We don't do that!” the response is, “Well, you might!”
Farfetched or not, this video and other protest literature have provided a common language for the opposition to school reform initiatives in Pennsylvania. Across the state, the distortions and accusations framed agendas, fueled controversies, and raised suspicions about the motives, costs, and claims of school reform.
Although many people inside and outside the education community supported OBE, few were able to defend it well. The climate of misrepresentation was formidable, the resistance took district personnel by surprise, and many people did not fully understand OBE and its implications. It is hardly surprising that resistance dogged the reform effort all the way to its passage in amended form in June 1993.
So what happened? And what was learned that could assist other reform efforts? The story began six years ago.

Regulatory Revisions Begin

Every four years, Pennsylvania's State Board of Education reviews its school code regulations. During the 1988 review, board members decided that two basic changes were necessary. First, vocational education students should meet higher academic standards because the workplace now demands workers who can solve complex problems. Second, the testing process should not be divorced from curriculum content. To meld the two, the board incorporated the idea of performance-based curriculum and assessment.
By 1989, the board began meeting with more than 50 business, industrial, and professional organizations. A broad theme soon emerged: Because learning outcomes are essential evidence of preparation for life in the 21st century, the state board's regulations must make expected learning outcomes explicit.
  • conducted work sessions with 37 statewide groups interested in the policy issues;
  • facilitated a December 1990 public hearing in Harrisburg;
  • conducted forums with national experts and leaders of the state's education community; and
  • consulted with university research advisers, educators, teachers, and administrators.
Most state board members believed that to help schools and educators refocus their instructional mission, the revised regulations had to concentrate not on time spent in class but on what was learned. This idea led to a renegotiated balance between state and school district prerogatives. Local school districts would get increased flexibility to design local outcomes and programs. At the same time, the state would insist that the focus of instruction shift to certain learning outcomes.
  • The State Board of Education needed to assume responsibility for creating a base of learning outcomes.
  • Districts would have to design their own core outcomes that would be in compliance with state requirements.
  • The state would need to design a process to assess whether district programs were focusing on the state-stipulated outcomes.

Determining Learning Outcomes

The effort to specify student learning outcomes was built around 10 Goals of Quality Education that were already in place in the state. In June 1991, committees of teachers, administrators, and university faculty assembled to develop student outcome statements for each goal area. About 425 outcomes were suggested.
In the next 4 months, 13 public hearings and 12 public meetings were held to discuss proposed school code regulation changes. By August 1991, Robert Feir, the board of education's executive director, sent a draft of the proposed regulations to board members. Feir's draft incorporated suggestions from public hearings, written testimony, Department of Education staff, and the board's own comments. By November 4, 1992, the State Board of Education agreed upon 10 curriculum goals: communications; mathematics; science and technology; environment and ecology; citizenship; appreciating and understanding others; arts and humanities; career education and work; wellness and fitness; and personal, family, and community living.
The board had also reduced the 425 outcomes to 57 statements that defined the skills and knowledge that students would be expected to demonstrate before graduating from high school in Pennsylvania. The number of statements was later reduced to 53.
The districts were to use the state learning outcomes as “benchmarks” with which to develop outcomes that would meet the needs of the students in their districts. Each district would be responsible for determining the ways that its learning outcomes would be measured and for submitting a strategic plan to the State Department of Education one year prior to the implementation of the plan.

Opposition Mounts

  1. Critics objected to affective learning outcomes. The outcomes had been framed to include affective aspects because certain affective traits had been identified as important outcomes for high school graduates. Further, the development of desirable affective characteristics was intended to counter the increasing incidence of violence and to satisfy demands for collaboration in the workplace.Nonetheless, the affective components of the new regulations alarmed some parents and religious groups, who maintained that home is the place to teach morals and values. CEE supporters were also concerned about the measurement of affective outcomes. Who, they worried, would determine whether a child has met an objective and therefore may graduate?CEE newsletters warned that OBE would lead to dire results. First, it would shift the emphasis from learning subject matter to conformity to the global citizen image. Second, OBE would use “operant behavioral conditioning based on the studies of [behavioral psychologist] B. F. Skinner.” Third, students would be forced to adjust their thinking through a value-changing, behavior modification curriculum. Such practices, OBE opponents claimed, were illegal under federal law (Tarkowski and Tarkowski 1992).Groups opposing OBE also questioned whose morals and values would be taught under the proposed learning outcomes. In particular, CEE feared that an OBE curriculum would include gay and lesbian studies portraying homosexuality as healthy (Riggle 1992).Debate around these issues became polarized and accusatory. At a town meeting, the chapter director of the Pennsylvania CEE warned that the controversy was nothing less than “a battle between secular humanists and persons who believe in Judeo-Christian values” (State School Minimums 1992). Further, she stated that “humanist doctrine has been written into the Pennsylvania State School Code .... [It] sounds good to the uninitiated, but ... [actually teaches] unbridled atheist/psychological religion” (Staible 1993).
  2. Critics contended that OBE was an attempt to revive a previously reversed assessment policy. Based on 10 Quality Education Goals, Pennsylvania had attempted, during the 1960s, to develop and implement the Educational Quality Assessment (EQA). Designed to evaluate students in both cognitive and affective areas, the EQA came under attack and was discontinued in the 1970s.Some wording of the OBE legislation is similar to that of the EQA. In addition, several State Department of Education officials who were involved in the original Goals of Quality Education were key players in drafting the OBE program. The similarities, however, were not necessarily negative nor a return to earlier regulations.
  3. OBE's critics feared that databases would collect information on children. In a February 1992 document, the CEE wrote: We object to the fact that we have no idea what the Department [of Education] is doing with the personal and private information on our families, which is in violation of Federal Law and State Policy....
OBE opponents worried that carefully worded test questions, recorded answer choices, and coded scores would make it possible for schools (or anyone in the state) to assess students' moral beliefs and values, as well as discover the most productive ways to modify those values (Tarkowski and Tarkowski 1992).

PAFT's Reservations

  • How will the proposed outcomes framework affect program development and job security for teachers? For example, what would prevent a financially distressed district from eliminating previously mandated courses and concocting minimal programs designed to have students do well on local assessments?
  • How will OBE affect teacher preparation, certification, and staffing?
  • How will high school programs in one district be compared to high school programs in another district?
  • How can equity be assured when tax burdens are growing heavier in poorer districts and lighter in wealthier ones (Cooley and Pomponio 1993)? Won't “systems with the most difficult educational tasks tend to have the fewest resources for improving their educational systems” (Cooley 1993)? Will financial constraints cause programs to be dropped, thereby reducing some students' opportunity to learn and chances to meet performance standards?

The Battle for Passage

Key education decision makers in Pennsylvania supported the transition to outcome-based education. Governor Robert P. Casey (1993) declared that an educational system that prepares children for a global economy is as important as the strength of the family. Nevertheless, the governor, sensitive to the intense opposition to OBE, asked the State Board of Education to delay its vote on the measure, scheduled for mid-November. Casey noted that although the proposed regulations were widely supported, some issues raised by parents, legislators, and other groups ... are of sufficient weight to merit closer examination ... [including] the specificity of certain outcomes, how the outcomes are to be measured, whether and to what extent matters relating to values should appropriately be included in the regulations, and whether the accountability criteria and testing strategy are adequate (1992).
The board agreed to the delay, but proceeded to revise and approve most of the proposed learning outcomes. Casey had recommended deleting all outcome statements under the goals of “understanding and appreciating others” and “personal, family, and community living,” but the board dropped only one statement under the latter goal.
The governor had also recommended deleting statements under the “wellness and fitness” goal. One, for example, concerned the knowledge necessary for decision making about disease control, including HIV infection. The board voted to keep all items except one, which required students to know and use community health resources. The board also agreed to an annual review of learning outcomes and state assessment standards.
Finally, in June 1993, the Student Learning Outcomes reform became law. The new regulations require 900 hours of instruction at the elementary level and 990 hours at the secondary level, but do not mandate that educational programs be organized according to students' chronological ages or achievement levels. Further—and contrary to the claim of critics—school districts are permitted to alter their instructional programs, grading practices, or organizational structures, but are not mandated to do so.
Students may demonstrate the achievement of learning outcomes in a number of ways—through completion of courses, assessment, independent study, other educational experiences, higher education courses, or advanced placement exams. To graduate from high school, students must complete a project in one or more areas of concentrated study.
Performance assessment was expected to measure students' achievement of the new outcomes, but revised standards and procedures have not yet been developed. It will take time to develop appropriate assessments, performance standards, and the benchmarks that students must demonstrate at transitional points of schooling.

In Hindsight

In Pennsylvania, the introduction of student learning outcomes became a major battle, rather than a reasoned debate, and the final language of the proposed regulations was somewhat muted. Because the state, in its enthusiasm for reform, did not cultivate the grassroots support necessary for reform, a vocal and effective opposition emerged, sensation overshadowed real issues, and the complex task of restructuring was complicated by pressure from outside forces.
  1. Communicate to stakeholders. A systemic reform like OBE requires clear lines of communication, yet in Pennsylvania, public information on OBE was not disseminated widely or clearly enough. Thus,DO build a strategic plan. Hold an educational summit, and craft a plan that cultivates support from all stakeholders.DO communicate strategies and examples of reform initiatives.DO explain how everything fits together so that people can see the whole system.
  2. Marshal support. The Student Learning Outcomes reform in Pennsylvania had broad support, but proponents failed to organize promptly and explain their rationale for the new system. Therefore, opponents seized control of the debate. Thus,DO shape the debate—and early. Agree on what the revisions entail.DO cultivate grassroots support. Executive leadership is important, but not sufficient. Get information out to schools and communities.DO make sure that the regulations have clear “fingerprints” on them. In Pennsylvania, the origin of the outcomes was obscure, and the committees that drafted them disbanded prematurely. Thus, vital lines of communication with practitioners were lost.
  3. Defuse the opposition. The OBE initiative disturbed the security of a known way of conducting education, drew out suspicions, and threatened the certainty that most children would learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. Worse yet, parents were not invited to help develop the initial draft of outcomes, and OBE's critics did not feel that they were listened to or respected when they first stated their concerns (Blair et al. 1993). Thus,DON'T ignore the national climate. In many communities, distrust of government runs deep, and people do not want the state telling them what to do.DON'T let schools exclude people or groups.DON'T let criticism fester. Be ready with an immediate response.DO be prepared for the nature and tactics of the opposition.

Blair, R. Cowell, and J. Stroup. (April 22, 1993). Personal communication to M. Cussler.

Casey, R. (November 16, 1992). Personal communication to the Honorable Donald M. Carroll, Secretary of Education, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Document No. 5120120. Harrisburg, Pa.: State Department of Education.

Casey R. (1993). Questions and Answers About PA's Education Reforms. Document No. 51201756. Harrisburg, Pa.: State Department of Education.

Clevenger, C., R. R. Cowell, R. G. Longo, J. Rhoades, and H. D. Wise. (Summer 1993). Notes from session 485, “School Reform in Pennsylvania,” Education Commission of the States National Forum and Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Cooley, W. W. (1993). The Difficulty of the Educational Task. Report No. 16. Education Policy Studies, University of Pittsburgh.

Cooley, W. W., and D. Pomponio. (1993). The Financial Equity Debate. Report No. 15. Educational Policy Studies, University of Pittsburgh.

Cussler, M. (October 8, 1993). Personal communication to A. Pliska.

Riggle, C., ed. (July/August 1992). “Analysis of Comments on SLO's: Approval Process.” Citizens for Excellence in Education. Erie, Pa.: NACE/CEE.

Staible, N. (July 1993). Memo to CEE Membership Nationwide. Costa Mesa, Calif: NACE/CEE.

“State School Minimums Raise Value Issues.” (October 1, 1992). The Greater Pittsburgh Newspaper.

Tarkowski, E., and M. Tarkowski, eds. (1992). “What Is Outcome-Based Education?” In Citizens for Excellence in Education. Erie, Pa.: CEE.

Ann-Maureen Pliska has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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