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Outcome-Based Hype

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We got an exasperating feeling of deja vu late last summer while reading an attack on outcome-based education published in the small, conservatively oriented education journal The New American. William F. Jasper, a staff writer at the magazine and the author of the Aug. 23, 1993, piece, had created a virtual echo chamber of recent O.B.E. criticisms, portraying it as an enigma and painting its advocates as neo-Victorian prudes oppressing moral values and the academic achievement of America's youths.

We believe this New American report, which carried the subtitle "Skinnerian Conditioning in the Classroom,'' can serve as a state-of-the-art example of the tactics used by outcome-based education's critics to discredit it.

Mr. Jasper and others attempt to "prove'' their case by recycling the same anecdotes of false allegations; they all quote the same "experts'' who ridicule reports of any educational programs oriented to improving education. And they never look at successful O.B.E. schools. They advise us that the educational establishment is responding, as usual, with the claim of victimization by extremists; that O.B.E. is a hallucinatory state of mind induced by those with a Marxian dialectic. But is this opposition to O.B.E. just a propagandized hype--or a reality?

The New American article says that angry parents are fed up with (a) schools teaching "higher-order thinking'' without a base of factual knowledge, (b) heavy tilting to the affective domain in order to manipulate and change feelings, attitudes, and values, (c) emphasizing the use of behavioral objectives loaded with vague terms geared toward producing "politically correct'' outcomes, and (d) putting a greater emphasis on subjective thought than objective knowledge. The author must have disregarded all social-science, education, and statistics courses at the secondary and postsecondary level. One's philosophical friends do not constitute "objective knowledge'' or a scientific justification. Mr. Jasper bases his arguments on hearsay from several O.B.E. adversaries who fail to understand America's changing society and want education to regress to the pre-Jefferson era when pauper schools flourished.

Ann Hertzer, who was trained in Mastery Learning as a teacher, has actually never done any research on outcome-based education, but she has denounced O.B.E. because it is, she says, "essentially a more advanced version of Benjamin Bloom's Mastery Learning, which is pure Skinnerian, behaviorist, stimulus-response conditioning and indoctrination.'' Mr. Jasper relates Mr. Bloom's taxonomy of behavioral objectives to a system in which the highest goal is moral relativism, which has no right or wrong answer. He continues by accusing the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development of being "a spin-off of the left-wing National Education Association,'' and calls the National Training Laboratory "yet another change-agent think tank and propaganda fount set up by the National Education Association to re-educate teachers along politically correct lines.''

The New American author suggests, on the other hand, that Phyllis Schlafly got a bulls-eye hit in the May 1993 issue of her Eagle Forum newsletter when she wrote this: "The education elitists who are promoting O.B.E. are perfectly content to have the school turn out quotas of semiliterate workers who can be trained to perform menial tasks under supervision to serve the demands of the global economy. O.B.E. graduates will never be able to aspire to the great literature in the English language.'' Mr. Jasper underscores Ms. Schlafly's statement by saying that O.B.E. graduates will neither "be mentally [n]or morally equipped to challenge the oppressive authority of the elitists.'' He totally agrees with Ms. Schlafly that "O.B.E. is converting the three R's to the three D's: Deliberately Dumbed Down.''

There is in fact a public "hysteria'' over this new educational reform--but it's extremist hysteria. The value society places on education is not yet realized by O.B.E. adversaries.

Education literature has revealed exemplary outcome-based-education models throughout America. For example, the entire K-8 program in the Johnson City (N.Y.) Central School District was designated as exemplary by the U.S. Education Department in 1985 because the district's results showed that:

  • At least 15 percent of the 6th graders finished at least the first half of algebra, and some students completed quadratic equations--their designated ending to algebra I content.
  • About 60 percent of the 6th graders hit the top of the Metropolitan Achievement Test for pre-algebra mathematics.
  • At least 30 percent of the 5th graders hit the top of the same test.
  • No more than two students in the entire school of about 420 failed to reach grade level on the Metropolitan Achievement Test, and this included all of the school's mildly handicapped students.

The North Sanpete district in Utah also experienced great success using an outcome-based program, with both primary and middle school children averaging a gain of over 17 months on the California Achievement Test in the very first year of implementation. In Maryland, the Frederick County schools have been using an outcome-based approach since 1986. According to the Baltimore Sun, results show that between 40 percent and 60 percent of Frederick County students received marks of satisfactory or above on the state's current performance tests. That compares with between 25 percent and 34 percent statewide. The high standards required for all county students give further evidence of the O.B.E. program's success. The number of students taking Advanced Placement tests for college credit has doubled since 1986, and the dropout rate fell from 3.2 percent in 1988 to 1.2 percent in 1992. The overall result is that the county went from being a good school system to one of the top three performers on Maryland's statewide tests.

This is an interesting and challenging time for stakeholders in a democracy. Intelligent people know that no nation can lead the world by maintaining the status quo. If educational reform is required to fully move us into the information age, and to continue the United States' role as a world leader, a paradigm shift is needed. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.'' We have the option of yielding to the unscientific hype of extremists or to embrace the results of scientific reality.

Floyd Boschee and Mark A. Baron are the authors of Outcome-Based Education: Developing Programs Through Strategic Planning (Technomic Publishing Company Inc., 1993). They teach in the University of South Dakota's school of education in Vermillion.

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