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Who's Afraid of O.B.E.?

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How did an idea with such wide currency in education and so much momentum get such a bad name? That's the question educators and politicians are asking themselves these days about outcomes-based education if they dare utter the phrase at all.

Ill tell you one thing, says James Watkins, a superintendent in Canfield, Ohio. Politicians better not use anything with the term outcome in it, because that is a key word that will really send people into orbit.

Outcomes-based education O.B.E., for short is not a program, but a way of thinking about schools. In theory, proponents say, it looks like this: First, decide what students should know and be able to do when they graduate. Find ways to measure whether they are learning it. Then, free educators to help children reach the target. And reward schools and students for meeting the outcomes, instead of for time spent in class.

The idea of redesigning education around high standards for student per- formance is at the heart of the school-reform movement. And it has been endorsed by such prominent groups as the Business Roundtable, the National Governors Association, and the Education Commission of the States.

But somewhere between the idea and its implementation, critics say, O.B.E. has stumbled. It has become associated with dumbing down the curriculum, stressing values over content, and holding students accountable for goals that are so vague and fuzzy they cant be assessed at all.

Faced with an unexpectedly clangorous opposition, some states are backpedaling rapidly. Others are trying to regroup and rescue what they view as a basically sound idea from extinction.

In Georgia, a state task force on educational outcomes-based flexibility has abandoned efforts to set learning goals for students. We have been promised that there will be no legislation pushing O.B.E. in our upcoming legislative session, says Sue Ella Deadwyler, the publisher of an anti-O.B.E. newsletter in the state.

Virginia backed away from its plans to require a common core of learning for youngsters after Gov. L. Douglas Wilder announced that he would not endorse a move toward value-based education.

In Littleton, Colo., a slate of candidates last month won control of the school board after a campaign in which it contended that the districts ap- proach to outcomes-based education devalued academics.

A new law in Washington State requires the creation of statewide learning goals for students. But after heated opposition from community groups, the state delayed announcing precisely what those goals will be until 1995. Be- cause of objections to O.B.E., the bill also stresses that a performance-based system does not require schools to adopt an outcomes model. Decisions regard- ing how instruction is provided are to be made, to the greatest extent pos- sible, by schools and school district personnel, not by the state, the law says.

Minnesota began moving toward an outcomes-based system in 1990. But this fall, Gov. Arne Carlson said the state board of education should consider delaying its plans until it is sure the community is behind the effort. I want all the soft goals out, he explained. I want the hard, definable, measurable goals in.

The Kitchen Sink

Robert Simonds, the president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, one of the most outspoken critics of O.B.E., warns: You havent seen anything like the back- lash that's come out of this. ...This is radicalism. Its extremism. And its going to explode.

One problem is that, while people refer to O.B.E. as a uniform set of ideas, in practice, states have approached it quite differently. According to the e.c.s., at least 34 states are now moving toward an outcomes-based system. But Kathy Christie, an information specialist with the organization, says its hard to describe what that means.

Its kind of like its in the eyes of the beholder, says Rep. Ronald V. Ger- berry, the chairman of the House education committee in Ohio, because it means so many different things to different people.

In some cases, the state board of education has mandated what students should know and be able to do across school districts. In others, policymakers have put forth a broad set of learning goals for students, but have left it up to districts whether to use them. Yet a third group of states has mandated that districts go through the process of designing their own learning goals and as- sessments.

Some states are setting outcomes within the traditional academic disciplines mathematics, science, English, history. Others, such as Florida, have tried to identify broader, more interdisciplinary goals.

Simply having outcomes does not specify how they should be taught or measured. Yet, many people have come to associate O.B.E. with such other controversial reforms as cooperative learning and heterogeneous grouping.

Many people seem to assume that, if you're going to have these standards, then you have to go to performance-based assessments, you have to drop report cards, you have to take away Carnegie units from high school, Ms. Christie says. No you don't. You have the standards. You make sure that students are meeting them. But you could do it in the most traditional way possible, if you wanted to.

William L. Spady, the director of the Colorado-based High Success Network, ad- vocates something called transformational O.B.E. Under this framework, [n]one of the prevalent features, programs, and structures of schooling are assumed to be inherently appropriate or useful if they do not directly support the exit outcomes that a district defines, he states.

But even Spady now says, Outcomes-based education has simply become the name of the kitchen sink and included in it is ... everything that says we've got to do business a different way in schools to reach more kids and be successful with them.

Historical Roots

The concepts now labeled outcomes-based education go back at least to 1949. In that year, Ralph Tyler wrote a book titled Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. One of the things that Tyler stressed, says Tom Guskey, a profes- sor of education at the University of Kentucky, is that, before you can teach anyone anything, you have to decide what it is you want them to learn and, second, what evidence you would accept to verify they've learned it.

Tyler referred to these goals as objectives. And his ideas soon generated a mountain of curriculum materials based on the learning objectives that stu- dents should master for every grade and course. But hundreds of specific ob- jectives for every subject led to a fragmented approach to instruction, Guskey says.

The mastery learning approach, developed by University of Chicago professor Benjamin L. Bloom in the late 1960's, suffered from similar drawbacks. Its goal was to get all children up to grade level by breaking down learning into digestible chunks of materials and skills. Students were retaught and retested on the materials until they had learned them. Theoretically, all children moved at their own pace. But, in practice, critics maintained, the quicker students were held back as they waited for the slower learners to catch up.

By the 1970's, many educators had rejected this behavioristic approach for something called competency-based education. It, too, focused on mastering a core set of knowledge as the end results of education. But the goals tended to be broader and more related to real-life endeavors. Eventually, though, competency-based education also fell out of favor. The complaint: It focused too much on basic skills, to the detriment of higher-order learning.

Looking for a Tradeoff

It was at this point that politicians like then-Gov. Lamar Alexander of Ten- nessee began talking about a tradeoff. They would focus less on inputs and state regulation of education if the schools would agree to be held more ac- countable for results, or what students had actually learned. But these policymakers wanted students who could do more than diagram a sentence and add numbers. They wanted graduates who could think for a living and who could com- pete in a global economy. The push to create national education goals that would be pegged to the highest standards in the world came out of this move- ment.

Today, many states use such words as standards, goals, and outcomes almost in- terchangeably, further confusing a lay audience. The actual phrase outcomes- based education grew out of the writings of Benjamin Bloom. He used the term learning outcomes to describe the goals students were supposed to meet.

But the supporters of O.B.E. do not necessarily champion Blooms pedagogic ap- proach. While mastery learning centered on the acquisition of individual sub- skills in a particular class, outcomes-based education is more concerned with what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate. Then educators work backward to structure the curriculum for a particular grade level or discipline.

The problem is that its a lot easier to define and measure simple goals, such as adding three-digit numbers, than whether someone is an astute problem- solver or a lifelong learner. How do you get evidence on that? Guskey asks. I joke with people and say, You want kids to be lifelong learners. But what are you going to do? Call them up five years after they graduate and ask for their library card?

Vague and Fluffy

The problem, writes Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is not with measuring outcomes, but with the particular outcomes that O.B.E. reforms propose to measure.

O.B.E. standards in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, Shanker argues, are vague and fluffy. They're too light on academics and too heavy on jargon. And they are so vague that they would be satisfied by almost any level of achieve- ment.

For example, Ohio's 24 outcomes, the status of which is now uncertain, call for high school graduates to be able to function as a responsible family mem- ber; maintain physical, emotional, and social well-being; and establish priorities to balance multiple life roles.

The national education goals focus on defining what students should know and be able to do within traditional content areas. But many of the states that have run into trouble with O.B.E. favored an interdisciplinary approach that eschewed setting detailed goals in math or science.

In Virginia, says James Cooper, the dean of the school of education at the University of Virginia, people couldn't show where math was going to be learned directly, where science concepts were going to be learned. They were all interwoven in there, but it was hard to explain it and hard to make the general public understand it.

At minimum, he suggests, the connection between the outcomes and traditional academic disciplines needs to be explicit, rather than implicit.

In setting learner outcomes, policymakers have also tried to balance state authority with the local control of school districts. But in some cases, the results have been so ambiguous that their good intentions have backfired. In Virginia, notes the Roanoke Times & World-News, no matter how many times Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr., the states superintendent of public instruction, claimed that the goals would not undermine academics or interfere with family values, the message never took.

What Is Ethical?

Not surprisingly, outcomes that touch on the values or attitudes that students should possess when they graduate have sparked the most controversy.

In Pennsylvania, proposed student-learning outcomes dealing with self-worth were deleted from the final document. In Virginia, an outcome on personal well-being and accomplishment called for a responsible individual who has a good sense of his/her abilities and needs, and uses that knowledge consistent- ly to make choices likely to lead to a healthy, productive, and fulfilling life.

Washington State dropped a controversial goal that asked students to demonstrate that they would be responsible and caring individuals in society.

In Iowa, policymakers tried to define what students statewide should know and be able to do. But they eventually abandoned the effort, opting instead to hold schools accountable for whether they had defined performance outcomes for students. Former State Director of Education William L. Lepley says: We treated academic and applied performances about equally with what Id call the character, ethics, or values performances that we wanted kids to know and be able to do. And that's where we got into trouble.

If I were to do this over, he adds, I would have started the project with a clear emphasis on a common core curriculum and set performance standards there, and then tested it out with a number of school districts in all of our regions in the state.

The attempt to address issues of character has particularly riled many parents, who worry that their children will not graduate unless they exhibit a sufficient level of truthfulness or right thinking.

In Gwinnett County, Ga., parent Debbi Schwier asserts that of the 34 outcomes of significance set by the school district, only eight are strictly academic. Outcome number 23, for instance, requires students to identify personal and community values and to demonstrate integrity by choosing and applying responsible and ethical courses of action.

What is ethical? worries Schwier. Because you have to understand they will as- sess these outcomes. ... If attitudes are going to be an emphasis, then what attitudes are correct?

There are real divisions within American society about which values are desirable. And the attempt to set learner outcomes has brought such clashes to the fore.

Values Aren't Outcomes

But Spady of the High Success Network maintains: Values aren't outcomes. An outcome is a demonstration of learning, which means that kids need to do some- thing. The problem, he says, is that some states and school districts have talked about specific attitudes as the outcomes, or specific affective states as the outcomes. We never believed that's appropriate.

Its crazy to say a kid will not graduate from high school if he doesn't have high self-esteem, agrees Arthur J. Chambers, the director of education and special services for the Johnson City, N.Y., public schools, which have been using an outcomes-based approach for more than 20 years. You don't get an A or a B in concern for others.

Districts can decide to foster such attributes, he says, but the heart of it all is strong academics.

Attempts to set values-oriented outcomes have proved an easy target for con- servative groups that have begun to attack outcomes-based education wherever it surfaces. People for the American Way, the liberal watchdog group, reports that political or religious conservatives have organized anti-O.B.E. campaigns in 14 states. It cites such groups as the Christian Coalition, Citizens for Excellence in Education, the Eagle Forum, and Concerned Women for America in particular.

There's intense political pressure organized political pressure being placed on many, many districts in many, many states not to do this, Spady says.

He accuses many of these groups of finding the worst examples you can and using the worst examples to characterize the whole beast. In the past few months, conferences organized by his network have been disrupted by adherents of the political leader Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., who have threatened to drive Spady out of business.

But while the opposition may be led by relatively small, but vocal, groups, they are not the only ones concerned about the directions that O.B.E. has taken. In Ohio, says Representative Gerberry, This thing caught fire. It was no longer any single individual group that you could pinpoint. It was the masses. Watkins, the Ohio district superintendent, adds: They have fanned the flames so that the good, solid person, John Q. Public, they've raised some real issues with him. And he believes in what they're telling him.

Politically Retarded

But the perception that outcomes-based education is failing everywhere, or that all state policymakers are retreating from it in panic, is also wrong.

New Yorks Johnson City district, for example, has been using an outcomes-based approach since 1971, with good results. The district has identified only a handful of learner outcomes for its graduates. But it also has outcomes for specific courses and lessons. For the past decade or so, students in the working-class community have consistently scored above grade level on stan- dardized tests.

The difference, suggests Chambers, the education and special-services direc- tor, is that the outcomes were developed from the ground up, by teachers and citizens. Then, teachers were supported and given the time to seek out the best knowledge available about how to help students reach the goals. An ex- tended school day and year enable children who fall behind to catch up outside normal school hours.

Some states think that you can mandate outcomes, Chambers says. We created the conditions to develop outcomes from the inside out.

Kansas has developed a new accreditation system, based on high standards for what students should know and be able to do. Last January, the legislature devoted almost four weeks of hearings to Quality Performance Accreditation after an outcry arose from community groups. Connie Hubbell, the president of the Kansas state board of education, says policymakers listened and learned.

I think a lot of our terminology was misleading or too much education jargon, she explains. We had to reduce the number of outcomes, rewrite our outcomes, so that they were much more direct.

A resolution approved by the Kansas legislature last spring specifies that those outcomes related to student academic achievement are the most important and should be emphasized over any others. In addition, it requires that out- comes worded in a vague and confusing fashion be rewritten to clearly communi- cate that student outcomes will focus on academic achievement and are not designed or intended to alter individual moral or religious beliefs.

In Florida, Blueprint 2000 outlines a handful of interdisciplinary learning goals for students. Douglas Tuthill, the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and the chairman of the committee that developed the student-performance standards, says: We had nice, simple non-educationese lan- guage about what we were going to do. And we had a lot of meetings up front.

The state held more than 25 public hearings and spent some 18 months develop- ing its goals. But the effort paid off.

A lot of times, we in education tend to be politically retarded, Tuthill com- plains, and we allow people to define terms and define political agendas for us. We didn't let them do that in Florida.

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