Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

Why OBE and the Traditionalists Are Both Wrong

While the traditionalists prefer a mandated curriculum and rigid top-down regulations, the outcome-based proponents are vague about ways students and teachers are to achieve compulsory end results. It's time for a more balanced approach.

As someone who can identify with both sides in the debate over outcome-based education (OBE), I might be uniquely positioned to comment on it. I'm an orthodox, traditional Christian who shares the Christians' theological concerns; yet I'm also a progressive educator who admires the schooling practices that are often tied to OBE, such as cooperative learning, age mixing, cross-level learning, self-assessment, student-operated conflict resolution, and so on.
If you've ever watched your friends feud—and believe each of them is right on several important points—then you know how I feel about OBE and the intense community opposition it often arouses. If you've ever been saddened when your friends attribute evil motives to one another, motives you know aren't true, then you know how I feel when my friends in public schooling and my friends on the Christian Right get their hair on fire.
Both opponents and proponents of outcome-based education frequently introduce the concept with a disclaimer: “OBE means different things to different people.” This may be a tip-off that both sides see OBE through presuppositions they themselves are unaware of. Joel Barker calls this “paradigm blindness.” Thomas Kuhn notes that paradigm blindness can be so complete that mainstream players in a given discipline may be literally unable to see data that contradict their paradigm. However, this phenomenon gives outsiders and newcomers an advantage. As a relative newcomer to education, I've used this advantage to pierce the OBE “edufog.”
Before I share the results, perhaps you'd like to know my own presuppositions. I like G-persons: Greenberg, Glasser, Gatto, and God (not in that order). Let me further reveal that I have a distinctly pro-freedom outlook on policy issues; that after being a businessman almost all of my professional life, I became interested in education after listening to a retired public school 5th grade teacher; and that in 1991 I opened an innovative K–12 school that combined school breakthroughs that I had learned from others. This background led me to understand outcome-based education by contrasting it with current education practice, which I'll call “input-compelled schooling.”

Input-Compelled Schooling

Input-compelled schooling emphasizes “covering the subject” and “being on task.” A high school senior describes an example of this input compulsion: “Sometimes a teacher says, `This is really a dumb book, but you have to read it.'”
In practice, input-compelled schooling also measures outcomes: 2nd graders must read, and 4th graders must know their times-tables. In high school, input-compelled schooling measures output in chunks called Carnegie units, each of which is about 5 percent of a high school diploma.
  • Input-compelled schooling is decaying. Tom Gregory points out that the American high school was designed when children were more obedient. Input compulsion may still work for 20 percent of the students, but perhaps 60 percent seem indifferent and 20 percent are at some level of rebellion. Mindless busywork, worksheets, and homework graded by the pound all provoke the very rebellion we decry. While most of the rebels are passive-aggressive, too many are becoming aggressive-aggressive.
  • Input compulsion exhausts and frustrates teachers who must comply with obsolete or witless sections of the education code, such as the one that caused the teacher to assign a book she thought stupid. At its worst, this “code-overload” can mean a choice between harming the children and violating the code. Principals tell me good teachers do the latter. Moreover, such micro-management makes a subtle statement that teachers do not have professional judgment; many of the best teachers leave because of lack of respect.With the exception of fire safety and some other details, OBE, in effect, end-runs the code. It allows local-level decision making about which means will be used to achieve the ends or outputs. To teachers who feel over-managed, even such decision-making crumbs seem empowering.
  • Input-compelled schooling is seen by many as not preparing students to enter the world. OBE proponents might say, “What gaineth a man if he passes high school classes and still can't compute bus fare or complete a tax return?” Traditionalists want good outcomes, too, so OBE proponents ask the obvious: Why not measure the outputs directly? OBE proponents contend that students will be energized by aiming at meaningful outcomes that will help them become successful adults.

OBE As Indoctrination

But if we need to move away from the suffocating regulations that compel inputs, why is outcome-based education not the answer? Recently my eyes were opened to OBE's—and Goals 2000's—underlying nature—and dangers.
As I was listening to one of Peg Luksik's tapes, this leader of the charge against OBE in Pennsylvania said something that repulsed me. She described an interchange with an OBE proponent who was trying to find some common ground. He asked if she would at least concede that an outcome upon which all could agree was that graduating students know that representative government is preferable to totalitarian government. She answered, “No!” I thought she must be evil, crazy, stupid, or a combination thereof.
But she went on to explain that she wants schools to teach that representative government is preferable to totalitarian government (an input), but to require kids to believe it (an output) is totalitarianism. Her insight broadsided me. In OBE I smelled Sparta, Rousseau, and Hegel: The child is the property of the state and must be molded to serve state interests. This is not education. This is indoctrination.
What I began to see is that OBE mandates outputs just as input-compelled schooling mandates inputs. I don't think a person can mandate education for someone else any more than he or she can mandate romance or salvation. For honesty and better communication, I want to strip away from outcome-based education its euphemism of “education” and rename it “outcome-compelled schooling.”
An analogy that may help clarify my point is slavery versus sharecropping. Plantation slavery is input-compelled. The slave owner makes the daily farming decisions. In sharecropping, landlord Legree compels outcomes, not inputs: “Johnny, you make your own decisions about planting, weeding, and harvesting. I'm deciding only the outcome: Your family delivers eight bales to me by November 1 each year. This is a `high-stakes' outcome because if you fail, I will punish you by taking away your home and means of feeding your family.”
  • Under input-compelled slavery, he had the dignity of an occasional sabotage. He could kill a cotton plant instead of a weed. Now, under outcome-compelled sharecropping, such moments of dignity are lost. He'd hurt himself.
  • Under input-compelled slavery, if he woke at midnight he could let his mind wander. Under the outcome approach, he worries about November 1.
The sharecropper eventually realizes that under input-compelled slavery only the work of his body had been taken from him, but with outcome compulsion even his mind has been confiscated: Now he has the straw boss's burden of goading himself into action.
This realization shook me. Had I missed something? After all, most of the big kids on the education block are cheering outcome-based education and Goals 2000 and are joining the mania for “national standards.”
Why do good people get caught up in OBE? One factor is the “Need Some, Force All” fallacy that permeates state and federal education circles and many local districts. Applied to education, this fallacy contends: “The worker of the 21st century must be a team player. The days of standing solo over a punch press are gone. Industry says the most common reason for dismissal of workers is inability to get along with coworkers. Therefore, to prepare students for the 21st century, our district has added a graduation requirement that all students will be able to work cooperatively.”
This logic is absurdly flawed. Just because some folks need to work cooperatively doesn't mean we should force it on everybody. After all, we'll still want sculptors, poets, authors, night watchpersons, and other solo workers. The educators' analysis of future needs was biased toward multinational corporations. Indeed, many OBE proponents fawn over bottom-line corporate types who predict the sort of worker 21st century multinational firms will want. Further, OBE proponents believe they have a right to mandate that students conform themselves to that vision.
Another reason good people get caught up in OBE is that it's politically correct. Some of the educators who know that coercing outcomes won't work fail to speak up because the cost has been too high: It has carried the risk of being branded a right-wing Christian, of seeming hopelessly out-of-date, or of being against “high standards.”

Compulsion on Both Sides

Neither outcome-based education nor input-compelled schooling, I've concluded, is an appropriate way to structure education. Both sides have the same unperceived presupposition: Compulsion in the cognitive and affective domains is necessary for quality education. William Spady and many other OBE proponents want schools to compel outputs. Edu-reactionaries want to return to the good ol' days of compelling inputs. Kids, with William Glasser and many alternative schoolers as allies, wonder why the grown-ups are so intent on coercion. Maybe the children don't know that we were raised that way and that's all we know. It's our paradigm.
Top-down setting of student outcomes in schools will fail in the '90s just as top-down “management by objectives” failed in business in the '70s. “Boss management” (Glasser's term) can never unleash the creativity and motivation that can come from a leadership style that is patient and kind; never boastful, conceited, rude, or selfish; delights in the truth and is ready to trust.
Perhaps the restructuring we really need is to divide the domains differently than does our age-graded, curriculum-driven present system. At my own school, Pioneer Christian Academy in Fresno, California, we will follow a model I call “balanced OBE.” We will use a traditionalist model in the moral domain: Adults decide outcome-standards for the moral virtues. A student cannot say, “I'm not taking integrity this semester, Mrs. Bartlett.”
On the other hand, we'll give students the freedom, responsibility, and help they need to design their own outcomes (with parental input) in the cognitive, affective, kinesthetic, artistic, and gustatory domains. We call these individually written outcomes “Dreams of Strength.” This model, we believe, reflects a correct understanding of Proverbs 22:6: “Educate a child according to his life requirements.”
If Americans don't restructure schools along the balanced OBE approach, and if we persist in moving toward conventional OBE, I fear student rebellion will grow. Resentment toward cognitive and affective bondage may lead many student to sabotage their own exams and assessments. Test scores will plummet, and superintendents will be replaced. Another risk is of ACLU lawsuits claiming mandatory affective domain outcomes are a form of mind control and an invasion of privacy.
In an attempt to extend its life, outcome-based education keeps renaming itself, but I think it will settle into the history books as “sharecropper schooling.” If we allow the pendulum to complete a reactionary swing back to input-compelled “slavery schooling,” students and teachers will be harmed, and we will be discarding the worthwhile reforms tied to OBE.
Rather than start another 10-year cycle, why not start looking now for the respect-based reforms that allow students to be treated with the respect and dignity that all individuals deserve? The students will reciprocate, and teachers will love teaching again.
End Notes

1 J. Barker, (1989 video), “Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms,” (Burnsville, Minn.: ChartHouse International).

2 J. Barker, (1989 video), “Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms,” (Burnsville, Minn.: ChartHouse International).

3 Daniel Greenberg is a founder of a school that gives students autonomy in the cognitive and affective domains. See D. Ruenzel, (January 1994), “The Classless Society,” Teacher Magazine.

4 Daniel Greenberg is a founder of a school that gives students autonomy in the cognitive and affective domains. See D. Ruenzel, (January 1994), “The Classless Society,” Teacher Magazine.

5 Daniel Greenberg is a founder of a school that gives students autonomy in the cognitive and affective domains. See D. Ruenzel, (January 1994), “The Classless Society,” Teacher Magazine.

6 T. Gregory, (1992), “Small Is Too Big: Rethinking the Impact of School Size,” Position paper prepared for the Hubert Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Available from the author at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47401.

7 L. Amspaugh, (Winter 1993), “Driving Teachers Away: All They Want Is a Little Respect,” California School Boards Journal; reprinted from Phi Delta Kappan.

8 P. Luksik, (November 4–7, 1993 audio-cassette), “Understanding Outcome-Based Education: Goals and Responses,” National Christian Home Educators Leadership Conference.

9 C. Swindoll, (1988), Growing Wise in Family Life, (Portland, Ore., Multnomah Press).

10 Incidents are described in “Torrance West High Caps Test Sabotage,” South Bay Daily Breeze, (May 25, 1989) and “District Is Sued over Requiring Community Service by Students,” Allentown/Bethlehem Morning Call, (September 1990).

Marshall Fritz has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 194047.jpg
The Challenge of Outcome-Based Education
Go To Publication