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Proposal to Ax O.B.E. Pilot in N.C. Rankles Reform Advocates

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Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.'s proposal to kill North Carolina's experiment with outcomes-based education has rankled some educators who say state leaders are too impatient with their own reforms.

Mr. Hunt cut the $6 million slated for the program in the budget proposal he released last month. And if the legislature approves the Governor's budget, there will be no state support for the final two years of what the legislature approved as a five-year pilot.

Viewed as part of the more than $200 million in reductions that Mr. Hunt called for in the state's $10 billion budget, a $6 million cut could be seen as little more than a nip.

But to district officials who are part of the O.B.E. experiment and to others who have supported it, the Governor's move is just the latest example of how state leaders cannot seem to finish what they start.

Backsliding?

In recent years, the plug has been pulled on several education experiments in the state, critics said, including efforts to lengthen the school day and year.

Outcomes-based education is the theory that students learn better when expectations for student achievement are measured by changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes rather than grades. The North Carolina legislature approved an O.B.E. pilot program in 1991 to test the effectiveness of the theory.

If that pilot program is cut, the state "will have copped out on a real commitment," said Superintendent A. Craig Phillips of the Vance County schools, one of nine districts participating in the program.

The Vance County district would lose $355,000 in each of the next two years under the Governor's plan. That money currently is used to pay eight instructional specialists who work in district classrooms.

Officials in other districts said they would have to eliminate staff development and technology programs or seek new funding.

"In education in this state and others, we have constantly backed up on things we have said we need to do," said Mr. Phillips, who was state schools superintendent for 20 years. "The public and the political leaders have not been willing to wait for the results that do not come overnight."

Controversy associated with the O.B.E. concept in North Carolina made it a political liability for the Governor, Mr. Phillips said.

An O.B.E. project in the Gaston County school district was attacked by conservatives and eventually lost its funding from the New American Schools Development Corporation. (See Education Week, March 10, 1993.)

But communities were supporting the state's pilot program, John Dornan, the president of the North Carolina Public School Forum, said in testimony before the state board of education last month.

Commenting on the board's efforts to reorganize the state department of education, Mr. Dornan said an ideal agency "would not ask people to experiment if it was not committed to the experiment."

Mr. Dornan recently directed a study of Southern states that pointed to the harmful effects of start-and-stop reforms. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1995.)

A New Focus

Eliminating the O.B.E. pilot was part of the Governor's cost-cutting efforts and the state's new focus on teaching basic skills, said G. Thomas Houlihan, Mr. Hunt's senior education adviser.

State budget analysts reported last fall that the program has not been fully implemented at any site and probably would not produce conclusive results.

"The bottom line is that the Governor had to make some hard choices to reach a balanced budget," Mr. Houlihan said.

He rejected the notion that Mr. Hunt is targeting the program because of o.b.e.'s political baggage.

"I don't think he's for O.B.E. or against O.B.E.," he said. "There's just a clear movement in this state to focus on reading, writing, and mathematics."

Legislators are widely expected to sign off on the Governor's proposed cut.

"O.b.e. has never worked and will never will work," first-term state Rep. Ken J. Miller said.

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