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'Outcomes-Based Education' Label Becomes a Big Umbrella

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At the root of outcomes-based education is the desire to raise student achievement and prompt the nation's schools to fix their sights on what children learn rather than on what administrators supply and what teachers teach.

The resulting programs, however, are hard pressed to stick to such concise goals. According to reports on efforts in various states and interviews with proponents, outcomes-based education has become a big umbrella that covers a number of approaches:
Restructured schools. As a guiding principle of restructured schools and systemic reform, outcomes-based education becomes a new way of approaching students and viewing classrooms. The concept is meant to stress the opposite of what reformers dislike most about traditional schools: the focus on regulations and credit hours and other benchmarks that lead to a high school diploma but provide little in the way of quality assurance.

  • Goal-driven schools. In other quarters, outcomes-based education focuses heavily on setting actual goals and outcomes--carrots meant to inspire school administrators and teachers to greater innovation and flexibility and increase student performance.
  • Improvements for all. Still another incarnation of outcomes-based education grows out of mastery-learning programs, in which teachers are guided by performance goals that influence their instruction. Such efforts, along with frequent assessments, are meant to bring all students up to mastery levels in each subject.

Only in recent years has outcomes-based education become a popular part of state school-reform packages. In states like Kentucky, O.B.E. is not a popular buzzword, but its influence can be seen in new performance-based assessments and reform concepts meant to focus less on process and more on student achievement.

In Pennsylvania and Ohio, wide-ranging outcomes themselves have become the focal point of the program.

In Illinois--whose outcomes-based education program wins applause from Pennsylvania's most outspoken O.B.E. critics--the state set standards for achievement in language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and writing. Goals are set but not measured in physical health and the arts.

Some observers term the Illinois program an accountability system rather than an O.B.E. model. The system measures schoolwide performance, sets improvement targets, and assists schools that fall below expectations.

In Washington State, lawmakers have pledged to move to an outcomes-oriented system, but have delayed the task of announcing exactly what the state expects until 1995.--L.H.

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