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Critics Assailed as Pa. Panel Approves Outcome Rules

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HARRISBURGH, PA.--A Pennsylvania regulatory panel last week overrode the objections of a vocal group of conservative parents and endorsed a sweeping set of rules calling for outcome-based education in the state.

Approval on a 3-to-1 vote came as one panel member switched from opposition to support of the regulations after concluding, during several hours of public comment, that critics did not understand the proposals and had failed to raise legitimate objections.

The dramatic finale to the proceedings of the Independent Regulatory Review Commission paved the way for the state education department to advance a pioneering initiative that requires students to master learning outcomes rather than take a prescribed number of courses. (See Education Week, March 11, 1992.)

After listening to advocates and opponents for nearly three and a half hours, Commissioner Robert J. Harbison 3rd said he was reversing his decision, made at the beginning of the meeting, to offer a motion to disapprove the regulations.

"I am embarrassed by what I think is your lack of knowledge of the issues,'' Mr. Harbison sternly told the audience, which was filled predominantly with opponents.

While acknowledging that some modifications still need to be made, he said to disapprove the regulations would send the wrong signal and invite a continuation of the controversy that has plagued the department's proposed plans.

Mr. Harbison and others made clear their concern that a relatively small group of parents could obstruct a process that been going on for two years and has had the input of parents, educators, and officials throughout the state. "To vote for [disapproval] would send a message that you have won,'' he told opponents.

As the unusually large crowd of about 100 left the meeting, however, one opponent warned, "You haven't seen anything yet.''

The five-member I.R.R.C. is empowered to scrutinize all state-government regulations, but is not authorized to amend them. A fifth member of the commission abstained on last week's vote.

Lawmakers Seek Changes

The regulations approved last week provide the curriculum and assessment framework for outcome-based goals. Regulations detailing the actual learning outcomes are scheduled to be readied by the state education board by September.

The rules are based on a set of goals covering a wide range of topics, from mathematics and science and technology to wellness and fitness and personal, family, and community living.

Within broad parameters laid out by the state, local districts are expected to develop their own designs for learning, with the input of parents and the community. It will also be up to the districts to assess student outcomes, while the state will assess districts every three years.

The regulations earlier had been approved by the Senate and House education committees. The full House, however, by a 150-to-47 vote on April 6, passed a nonbinding resolution urging that the process be delayed pending an investigation by a special legislative committee.

The action was taken as a result of intense lobbying by the Pennsylvania Coalition for Academic Excellence, a loose-knit organization of various parent groups numbering about 2,000.

Representative Ronald R. Cowell, chairman of the House education committee, attributed the House action to political expediency. "[The vote took place] three weeks from [primary] election day. In my view, the resolution is a pretty meaningless gesture.''

Although it voted to approve the rules, Mr. Cowell's committee had asked for 10 specific amendments, including several that the parent coalition has highlighted. One would ensure that the state assessment excludes all data identifying individual children. Another would allow parents to have their children excused from participating.

Still another recommended change would expunge "lifestyles'' from the goal of having students learn to appreciate and understand others. Critics have seized on that word to suggest that the goal promotes homosexuality.

In order to accommodate the suggested changes, Representative Cowell asked the I.R.R.C. to disapprove the regulations but to cite specific reasons for doing so. Otherwise, he said, it would appear as though the commissioners were "buying into arguments that this education reform is going in the wrong direction.''

"The real fight,'' he said, "ought to be around the outcome statements.''

Robert Feir, the executive director of the state education board, initially agreed that such a strategy would be satisfactory. Later, however, he said he would prefer the I.R.R.C. to approve the rules, contingent on promised revisions by the education department. Whatever reasons the panel might cite to disapprove, he said, it would look as though the commissioners were "abandoning procedures in the face of controversy.''

Mr. Feir also noted that disapproval could delay the strategic-planning process for the first wave of districts, which are scheduled to begin implementation in fall 1993.

Teaching of Attitudes Faulted

Although some critics of the overhaul have focused on specific concerns, a large segment essentially wants the plan scrapped.

The Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, for example, is concerned that fiscally distressed school districts will use the more flexible system to eliminate classes and assign teachers to courses for which they are not certified.

But the most vocal critics have been members of the parent coalition. Some members of the coalition are affiliated with Citizens for Excellence in Education, a California-based group seeking the return of Christian values to the schools.

Generally, the coalition opposes what it views as government encroachment into parental territory through the teaching and testing of attitudes and values and the modification of behavior.

Under the environmental goals, for instance, the parents suggest that students may have to believe in vegetarianism in order to demonstrate the proper attitude. "What are those [correct] attitudes? How do you measure that attitude? How do you remediate an attitude?'' asked Peg Luksik, a coalition leader.

The state has repeatedly said only academic areas would be tested.

The coalition also contends that parents were not informed of the regulations and state officials have not been responsive to parents' questions. But a represenatative of the 148,000-member Pennsylvania Congress of Parents and Teachers said that organization has been involved throughout the process of developing the regulations and has raised concerns to which state officials have responded.

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