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March 1, 1994
Vol. 36
No. 3

Outcomes-Based Education Comes Under Attack

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To proponents, outcomes-based education (OBE) is eminently sensible. Define the outcomes students should be able to demonstrate as a result of instruction, the OBE philosophy says. Organize curriculum and instruction to help students attain those outcomes. "The bottom line—the product—defines the process," says Alan Cohen, associate director of the Center for Outcomes-Based Education at the University of San Francisco. OBE "is purposeful, intelligent instructional and curriculum design." If schools apply OBE principles wisely, supporters say, more students will master essential outcomes and, thus, be more successful in school and in life.
But the compelling logic attributed to OBE by its supporters doesn't impress critics, who consider the OBE philosophy a recipe for disaster. OBE "is an experimental model," asserts Peg Luksik, a Pennsylvania parent and former teacher who has led the opposition to OBE in that state. "It sounds nice in theory," she says, "but it isn't working" where it is being applied in real schools. To Luksik and other critics, OBE would weaken academic rigor and result in lower standards for students.
Of all the contentious education issues in the past few years, perhaps only the voucher issue inspires the level of intensity and acrimony of the ongoing debate over OBE. The reason is not hard to fathom. Any discussion of OBE must address what successful graduates of our schools should look like, which is another way of asking what the purpose of education really is. "The questions ultimately get down to the fundamentals: what's worth knowing and what's the purpose of schooling," says Jay McTighe, an observer of the OBE movement who directs the Maryland Assessment Consortium. And the events of the past two years—during which OBE plans in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia and several school districts came under heated attack—suggest that sharp disagreements persist about the answers to these questions.
The debate surrounding OBE is complex, in part because there are no agreed-upon definitions of "outcomes-based education" or "outcomes." In addition, opponents and supporters of OBE frequently take differing positions on such issues as the merits of having students compete against one another, the efficacy of norm-referenced assessments and the "bell curve," and the reasonableness of expecting that all students can do high-caliber schoolwork. And their deeply-held beliefs on such issues color the debate surrounding OBE.
"This is a clash of world views," says Bill Spady, executive director of the High Success Network, Inc., and a prominent consultant on OBE programs. OBE supporters tend to believe that all children, under the right conditions, can attain desired outcomes, he says. Opponents tend to favor a more competitive model under which students compete with each other for limited instructional opportunities and a limited number of good grades or test scores. "You're going to have some parents who want their kids to have A's—but they don't want other kids to have A's," says Al Mamary, formerly the superintendent of the Johnson City, N.Y., public schools. And if schools move toward an outcomes-based system, "you're going to have to confront that."
Adding to the confusion surrounding OBE, critics frequently attack the concept by opposing various techniques they say schools have used as part of their OBE programs, such as mastery learning, cooperative learning, and heterogeneous grouping. Pointing to the possible negative results if such practices are poorly implemented (e.g., "smart" kids in cooperative groups will do all the work; the curriculum will be watered down and paced to the slowest learner), these opponents have concluded that OBE is ineffective. In effect, OBE has become a lightning rod for criticisms that opponents have about many different school practices.

Compelling Questions

Even if some of the charges made about OBE are off base, others raise compelling questions about whether the OBE philosophy translates well in the classroom. If some common outcomes will be held for all students, will they represent more than minimum competency? To what extent should outcomes stress traditional academic content versus more global skills or proficiencies? How will schools deal with the logistics of educating students who learn at different rates or through different learning styles? According to both supporters and opponents, OBE advocates have failed to answer these questions well enough to win widespread public support for OBE.
Virginia is a case in point. There, a new OBE program proposed by state officials fell into disrepute following repeated attacks by critics. The plan, dubbed by state officials the "World Class Initiative," included a "common core of learning" describing what students should be like and be able to do by age 16. The state also planned to revise its assessment system and to hold schools accountable for ensuring that students mastered the essential learning outcomes.
Architects of the new plan hailed the common core as breaking new ground in defining the complex, far-reaching outcomes that society ought to hold for its graduates. But opponents said the outcomes did not emphasize academics strongly enough. The draft plan said that each student should learn fundamental skills of thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. It suggested seven "dimensions of living": personal well-being and accomplishment, interpersonal relationships, lifelong learning, cultural and creative endeavors, work and economic well-being, local and global civic participation, and environmental stewardship.
The draft plan then elucidated sample outcomes for the various dimensions. For example, an outcome for the dimension of interpersonal relationships was that each student be: "A person who values connections with other people, and builds and maintains a variety of beneficial human relationships." A student who achieved this outcome, the draft plan states, would use the fundamental skills to build and support friendships; exhibit principles of truthfulness, fairness, and integrity; analyze conflict to discover methods of cooperative resolution; encourage and support the views and needs of family members, fellow members of the community, and work-related associates; and explore other cultures to understand, communicate with, and cooperate with people of other communities and nations.
Although state officials stressed repeatedly that such outcomes would not push schools to spend less time on academic subjects, opponents of the Virginia plan succeeded in convincing the public otherwise. "The message came across that what we were doing was teaching values and not academics, which was not the case," says Joe Spagnolo, former superintendent of public instruction in Virginia. Yet, he concedes, "The opposition just ate us alive in terms of public opinion." The number of very strong advocates and critics of the state plan was relatively small, he says, but the critics succeeded in convincing the middle ground of Virginia residents that OBE was risky and unwarranted. "Quite frankly, they influenced the middle more than we did." Ultimately, former Gov. Doug Wilder, at the time mired in an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, convinced the state board to abandon the plan.

Debate in Pennsylvania

Similar criticisms about OBE emerged in Pennsylvania. In 1992, the state board of education passed new regulations that would phase out the Carnegie Unit as the way to define graduation requirements. Instead, students would have to demonstrate mastery of essential learner outcomes before receiving a diploma. (As Update went to press, this initiative was still planned, although the implementation had been delayed.) But the state's proposed outcomes drew intense criticism, particularly the outcomes that appeared to emphasize student values and beliefs. For example, one outcome says that all students should "demonstrate their skills of communicating, negotiating, and cooperating with others," and another says that all students should "demonstrate that they can work effectively with others."
Luksik, who emerged as the key opposition figure, argues that such outcomes are ill defined, aren't measurable, and, in any case, are not really the primary mission of schools. "Tolerance is mandated," she asserts. "So could you please tell me how you test tolerance? If this is a graduation requirement, how much tolerance is enough tolerance? And how do you remediate" if a child doesn't show enough tolerance? If an A student doesn't work well with others, she continues, should that student be denied a diploma?
Other critics of OBE raise further questions. For example, Cheri Pierson Yecke, a former teacher of the year in Stafford, Va., who gives speeches opposing OBE, says that students' motivation suffers under OBE because pupils know they have multiple opportunities to pass a test to exhibit mastery of an outcome. So there's no pressure to study for an exam versus going to the movies, for example. Moreover, Yecke and other critics assert that higher-achieving students suffer in OBE programs because they must wait until their peers exhibit mastery of desired outcomes. "Teachers have to slow down the pace of instruction, which slows everybody down," she says. "Who gets a majority of the teacher's time? The kids who aren't performing."
OBE advocates counter that such problems already exist in traditional classrooms and that educators can minimize the possibility of such problems. Students should be provided with chances to learn material at a different pace and through different methods, but ultimately the class must move on, says Mamary. "If you don't do that, you'll fragment your class and you won't be able to manage it," he says. And students shouldn't have unlimited opportunities to retest: They should be able to show the teacher that they've made the effort to learn the material, he says. "If kids can retest at their whim, it's a poor case of implementing OBE," adds Spady.

Track Record

A more general criticism of OBE is that it represents a radically different way to organize schools—but that little research exists to support such a fundamental shift in the way schools do business. "To propose a change of monumental proportions that has not been proven is unethical," says Yecke. Part of the backlash against OBE arises because parents are saying: "Hold on here, my kid's not going to be a guinea pig in your experiment."
Partly because the term outcomes-based education is fairly new, and partly because it is interpreted differently where it has been tried, the OBE concept has not established a lengthy track record. Thomas Guskey, professor of education policy and evaluation at the University of Kentucky and a member of the board of the Network for Outcome-Based Schools, searched the ERIC system last fall for entries on "outcomes-based education," "outcome-based education," and "OBE." He found no citations at all for the first two and only 21 citations for the third, five of which did not relate to outcomes. By comparison, there were more than 100 citations for "curriculum alignment" and 1,600 citations for "mastery learning," strategies generally considered compatible with the OBE philosophy. But does the research literature on these techniques provide support for trying OBE? Experts disagree on that issue.
Spady argues that there are "tons of undocumented successes out there that have never become part of the research literature." But opponents, he says, counter that "all this local school district data is simply self-serving propaganda." Luksik suggests that an experimental research study be set up comparing (on the basis of standardized test scores) a school or district using one form of OBE to a group not using OBE. But OBE "is very context-laden," and would likely include different techniques and methodologies at different sites, says Karen Evans of the University of Minnesota, who has studied OBE. So an experimental design would be difficult to manage, she says. Besides, says Spady, there is no chance to gather research data if opponents succeed in blocking schools from attempting to use OBE in the first place.

Lessons for Leaders

  • Be clear about what you mean by OBE, and be especially careful about the language of the outcomes.In many of the skirmishes of the past two years, educators weren't clear themselves about what OBE really was. Opponents misunderstood or distorted what OBE is about. "You've got to be able to define it to defend it," says Mamary. "If you don't give meaning to the outcomes, someone else will.""There has to be a lot of attention to communicating in simple terms," says James Cooper, dean of education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. In Virginia, state officials, "try as they might, could not say simply enough and clearly enough what this common core [program] was," he says. "Then the opposition defined it" in their terms as "mushy-headed."
  • Consider starting with outcomes in the content areas.Experts themselves disagree on the nature of desirable outcomes. Spady, for example, believes that framing outcomes in the academic subjects limits the power of the OBE model. Good outcomes draw on content knowledge, but they don't stop there, he says.But David Hornbeck, who has advised several states on their OBE frameworks, suggests that "the starting point, and the emphasis, should be on the academic disciplines." Cooper believes that the Virginia plan, which was designed to be interdisciplinary, would not have encountered such resistance if outcomes were more obviously defined in the content areas. But the plan's architects felt that "that would have been business as usual, that it wouldn't have been a bold new approach." So outcomes were framed in more general cross-disciplinary language, and state officials were hard pressed to show where in the plan students were supposed to learn history or fractions.Grant Wiggins, director of programs for the Center on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure, believes that the modern incarnation of OBE tries to serve as a "countervailing force" to prevent important cross-disciplinary outcomes from falling through the cracks of traditional subject area divisions. But outcomes that aren't framed in the content areas run the risk of lessening the importance of academic content. Wiggins suggests using a "matrix" to ensure that both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary objectives are addressed in the outcomes framed for students.
  • Move slowly on attaching high stakes to the attainment of outcomes.If a district or state plans to require students to demonstrate certain outcomes to graduate, it's especially important for educators to show clearly what the outcome is and how it can be fairly and reliably assessed. But, experts warn, it's one thing to assess whether a student remembers who won the War of 1812; it's quite another to assess whether a student works well with others. In short, experts advise, don't attach high stakes unless the assessments used are up to the task.It may still make sense to suggest that displaying ethical conduct, for example, is a worthy outcome for students, says Bob Marzano, senior program director of the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory. And it may be good to provide students with feedback on how they are demonstrating (or not demonstrating) such an outcome. But when you make the awarding of a diploma conditional on demonstrating attainment of such an outcome, "I think you've crossed a big line," says Marzano.
  • Give parents a choice to opt out of an OBE program.No matter how much input the public has into an OBE plan, or how well thought out a school's OBE plan may be, some parents will not buy in. For that reason, Mamary and others suggest providing alternatives. In Johnson City, N.Y., for example, school officials set up an optional track for parents who wanted their children in a more traditional program, says Mamary. Over time, the need for the separate track disappeared, he says. "I predict that if you give parents the options, they'll come along" to eventually support the OBE program, he adds.

John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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