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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

The Possible Outcomes of Outcome-Based Education

If OBE is to be more than just another fad, we need to address the working educator's practical concerns.

The OBE Bandwagon rolled into my school district recently via a series of day and half-day lectures. I couldn't help but wonder whether OBE would become just another fad. That would be a shame because there is much to appreciate in the ideas of outcome-based education.
  • eliminate permanent failure—because students who have not yet achieved the standard will still have the opportunity to do so; and
  • eliminate compromised standards—because students would be expected to achieve the identified outcome before moving on.
  • reduce rote learning, absorption of miscellaneous facts, and slavish adherence to procedural knowledge;
  • increase students' ability to appreciate and deal with realistic situations like those that will engage them later in life; and
  • eliminate tracking—because this form of OBE expects all students to achieve the same outcomes, although perhaps at different times.

My Concerns About OBE

I've been a fan of some of these ideas since the early '70s, when I joined a handful of teachers who developed an alternative high school for dropouts in our urban district. We eventually produced a workable system of performance contracts and flexible scheduling that still exists. At this same time, I was undergoing a reeducation at the hands of Wilbur Brookover and other professors at Michigan State University. There, I gained new insights into the role of teacher expectations, the positive and negative effects of various school climates, the structural aspects of school organizations, and the societal functions of schools.
Based on these experiences, I have some concerns about my district's OBE training program. For example, our training has been offered in a non-OBE format (for example, time-based traditional lecture). Why aren't our trainers “walking their talk”? The message seems to be that some situations are not appropriate for OBE strategies.
The version of OBE being promoted in our district also requires us to reorganize the entire curriculum around exit outcomes, or those things we want our students to “be like, do, and know.” Most exit outcomes express very general characteristics like those in a typical job reference letter: “displays ingenuity,” “is a self-starter,” and “works well with others.” So, exit outcomes are likely to be similar from one district or school to the next.
Why, then, does our district have to reinvent the wheel? The OBE trainers say that this process develops local ownership. Their approach, however, uses a group consensus model, which may provide little ownership for any given individual. Wouldn't we still have ownership if we chose someone else's exit outcomes and adapted them? Compare fixing your supper from scratch versus selecting it from a cafeteria menu—whichever method is used, you still have to eat it.
Even if we develop our own exit outcomes, the degree of consensus necessary remains unidentified. What percentage of the internal and external stakeholders has to subscribe to an outcome before it gets added to the list?
A critical realization about outcome-based education is that choosing it over a traditional time-based approach means that—given the individual differences within populations—students will progress through a given set of outcomes at different rates. This means that schools must learn how to handle scheduling problems that result from students starting and ending outcome sets at different times.
My experience suggests that simply chopping the curriculum up into discrete performance chunks—to be consumed by students at different rates—is difficult. To expect teachers and administrators to simultaneously carry on normal business, reshape the curriculum, and change the delivery system is asking too much.
Why not make the transition to flexible scheduling within a traditional curriculum first? Teachers will realize two major benefits from performance contracts and flexible scheduling. First, they will gain a lot more control over their interactions with students. Students will have to do worthwhile things to get credit—they can't just hang around and receive a grade at the end of the semester. Second, individual students' progress will be much more visible, and thus rewarding to teachers, than it is in a group setting.
Having been won over by the beneficial aspects of this first step, teachers can move on to change other features of traditional schooling. For example, they could then take a serious look at weaving together subject areas that have been traditionally distinct. Or, they might tackle the idea of deciding which outcomes all students can demonstrate.

Some of the Obstacles Ahead

A host of other implications, if left unexamined, may present serious roadblocks. For example, a benefit of individualization is that it eliminates the group arena that defines students' failures. But, individualization also reduces opportunities to perform successfully in public. There's just no audience for common activities. We need to remember that it's possible to have too much individualization, and plan for group activities within a generally individualized structure.
Another consequence of increased individualization is that some students will finish earlier than others. Will the number of under-17-year-old high school graduates increase? What implications will such early departure have for the world of work, for higher education, and for the probable impact on the size of the teacher workforce? Also, how will parents react to losing the child-care function that schools now provide for all children for at least 13 years?
And what about the students who are approaching their early 20s and are still not close to finishing? They have to be encouraged to keep trying. Most of all, we need to have faith that they can still demonstrate competence on all the outcomes.
OBE proponents speak favorably about different age levels learning together side by side. In the early years of our alternative school, when we were housed with an adult high school program, some older male students harassed younger female students. We need to be prepared to deal with a greater degree of cross-age problems of this kind.
If, as OBE proponents say, the boundaries of time and space for what we now call “school” become less distinct, the demands on parents' time and resources will increase. School activities will become more like after-school activities. Who will manage all the getting around that needs to take place in order for “significant culminating outcomes” to be demonstrated? What additional liabilities might schools encounter as a result?
The degree of focus students can bring to indirectly supervised study must also be considered. Think of the many “all-but-dissertation” doctoral candidates out there. Are K–12 students going to learn to be mature enough to meet their responsibilities for completing tasks?
Another concern is the school's tendency to reinforce social stratification. If schools start providing good solid instruction to all children and stop being a “gatekeeper” over employment opportunities, then middle- and upper-class parents may become concerned about the future opportunities for their children. What pressures will the wealthier segments of the population bring to bear against OBE practices?
OBE proponents tend to oppose national curriculum proposals and rigid standardized testing. But the tests—if not valuable themselves—have a level of objectivity that we ought to value. We need to assure ourselves that the “culminating demonstrations” we ask our students to perform are worthwhile, and common to all. As a teacher, I need to believe not only that my judgments are objective, but that other teachers' are, too. In short, who will judge the judges?
The weakest element of the OBE approach has to do with the perceived value of effort over ability. A necessary condition for OBE to succeed is a conviction that all children can achieve a common set of outcomes if given sufficient time and support. Our OBE trainers treat this point perfunctorily—as if it's a foregone conclusion that all of their trainees believe it.
Why is this important? Well, suppose you don't believe it. Then your first thought is that one common set of outcomes makes no sense. Or, if a common set of outcomes remains a goal, then those judged to be less able will be excused from making more significant demonstrations. After all, we will say, “What can you expect from those kinds of students?”
If we can't give more than lip service to the idea that all children can learn equally well, where does that leave us?

Let's Begin the Debate

Now, you might think that these concerns are sufficient to turn away from OBE. But this is not so.
For all the difficult problems facing OBE, none seems intractable if we try to be smart about its implementation, and if we open a genuine debate about the benefits and pitfalls. OBE promises to lead us out of our discontent about schools. The following insight came from a brief conversation with the founder of the company providing our training.
In response to my question about why Asian educators can be so successful with time-based systems while we cannot, he replied, “First, they have societies that uniformly value and support teachers and schools. And second, they value effort over ability more than we do.” In contrast, the United States is characterized by a weak belief in the value of education, disengagement between home and school, and lack of consistent financial support. What's worse, social deficiences such as one-parent families, substance abuse, and violence seem increasingly present in the lives of American children.
The reason that outcome-based schools can overcome the lack of support and negative societal factors that so strongly influence traditional time-based performance is that an OBE school can extend its hand to all children and say: You have problems in your life? OK, we'll hang on to what you've done so far. We'll keep tabs on you, and we'll help when we can. When your problems (or our problems) recede, we'll pick up where we left off. In other words, the interruptions in schooling that occur in the lives of too many of our students can be treated as bad dreams to be forgotten, rather than as a growing burden of missed work that is rarely remediated. That's the doable part of OBE.

Barry McGhan has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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