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The Trashing and Survival of OBE

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America has all but abandoned outcomes-based education--and with it the growing impetus for a genuine paradigm shift in educational practice.

For more than three years, conservative critics of progressive public school reforms have carried out an intense attack against anyone or anything purported to be "outcomes based." This offensive has been fueled by the constant repetition of inaccurate and inflammatory information, both about authentic outcomes-based education and a host of things that have little or nothing to do with it. The term "OBE" has taken on a life of its own and become the rallying slogan and the automatic justification for attacks on anything nontraditional.

As a result of this intense and highly effective opposition, a climate of intimidation prevails in many states and communities. Emerging attempts to expand America's educational vision beyond the 1893 curriculum structure of the Committee of 10 and the thinking and organizational patterns of the Industrial Age have been abandoned wholesale. Numerous future-focused state and local reform policies have been challenged and reversed. Once-frequent state and national OBE conferences and workshops are no longer held. Sound, badly needed state and local public school reform and restructuring efforts have been abolished. And many forward-looking state and local educators have lost their jobs. Those that haven't are in foxholes.

As a consequence, educators have responded by giving new names to everything related to "outcomes"--names like performance, quality, learning, or standards. And, since just saying "OBE" invites negative reaction, most local implementers of genuine OBE have gone underground. Sadly, the only people able to use the term these days are the people opposing it.

As a key target of much of this opposition, I cannot help but view this serious turn of educational events as grim--a conclusion that comes not so much from self-interest as from consciousness of the damage being done to the professionalism of educators and the future success of children. The public trashing of OBE represents the trashing of some of the strongest research in the field; the impetus toward genuinely systemic approaches to reform; and the hard work, careers, integrity, and professional standing of many exceptional change-oriented practitioners. Saddest of all, the much stronger conceptions of organizational purpose, curriculum change, and student learning and performance that were beginning to take hold in many states and districts have given way to the familiar and safe content priorities and "basics" of 40 years ago.

Despite this frustrating state of affairs, both my professional and personal judgment tell me that this period of extreme reaction against outcomes-based education cannot last--first, because it runs counter to the interests and the common sense of American society; second, because its foundation of distorted information will eventually be exposed and discredited; and third, because the basic tenets and purposes of real OBE are too sound, too familiar, and make too much sense to be ignored for long. The more the critics misrepresent the facts and defy common sense, everyday experience, and deeply held cultural values, the faster they will discredit themselves.

The odds weigh heavily against the critics because OBE's fundamental principles and basic applications appear in all aspects of human endeavor requiring competent performance. To kill off OBE and its principles, the critics would have to kill off professionalism, learning, and training in sports, music, drama, business, technology, journalism, communications, scouting, medicine, aviation, and a host of technical fields and other arenas of working and living in which people act and interact in relation to defined standards of excellence.

Eliminate the teaching, pursuit, and assessment of clearly defined standards of excellence and you undermine the functioning and further development of civilization. Eliminate the encouragement of young people to pursue, accomplish, or surpass defined standards of excellence and you eventually get the same result. Despite what the critics say to the contrary, anyone who has been involved in a genuine OBE implementation effort in the past decade knows that:

(1) Outcomes-based education is inherently about defining, raising, and accomplishing clearer, higher standards of learning and performance for more students than public education has achieved in this century.

(2) It achieves this through the consistent, systematic, creative, and simultaneous application of four powerful and compelling principles.

(3) Contrary to widespread belief, OBE is not a "program" or a curriculum of any kind. It is a paradigm of educational functioning that differs strongly from the time-based Industrial Age approaches to schooling with which we are so familiar and comfortable.

At OBE's heart are four principles, or standards of decisionmaking and action--principles that underlie the development and consistent application of high-level competence in most arenas of personal endeavor. Their shorthand names are: clarity of focus on outcomes of significance; designing-back from your ultimate outcomes; high expectations for high-level performance; and expanded opportunity for learning success.

While these principles have been all but ignored in the recent fury over outcomes-based education, those educators who have worked intensively on the design and implementation of OBE over the past two decades have conscientiously tried to apply them to the design, delivery, and documentation of instruction and student learning. These principles define what OBE is and how it must ultimately be judged.

  • The clarity-of-focus principle. This principle embodies the essence of the OBE paradigm and its open, success-oriented, "no surprises" philosophy. It is first and foremost about providing everyone with a stake in students' learning success with a clear picture, at the outset, of the ultimate learning results toward which all curriculum, instruction, and assessment are being directed. In doing so, it establishes: the fundamental purpose, major intent, top priority, concrete expectations, essential starting point, and significant "bottom line" of the instructional process.

    And it enables all interested stakeholders to become full partners in supporting each student's learning success. Without this clear picture, the purpose, expectations, standards, and criteria of student achievement remain clouded in ambiguity and only guessed at by interested stakeholders.

    Second, the principle shifts the emphasis of the existing paradigm of schooling away from its preoccupation with predefined programs, curriculum, courses, teaching, schedules, and calendars (the means of education) to successful student learning, performance, achievement, results, and the criteria that define them (education's ends). In OBE, what and whether students learn successfully are more important than when and how they learn it--a stark reversal of priorities from the existing system.

    Third, during the past decade, the implementation of this principle has been increasingly influenced by the notion of "outcomes of significance." The term "outcomes" has been elevated to mean "complex competences," and the term "significance" to mean "what really matters in the long run." This has dramatically shifted the focus of educators from the micro-instructional objectives that emphasize "student success on daily work" to "developing and demonstrating the complex abilities needed for career and life success."

    In a word, providing clarity of focus on outcomes of significance is sound, straightforward, powerful, and common-sense, though infrequently practiced in America's schools.

  • The designing-back principle. The term outcomes-based means basing things on your intended outcomes. This implies two frequently misunderstood things. First, determining your ultimate outcomes (where you want your students to end up) precedes everything else--and there are powerful, proven, systematic, participatory, "strategic design" processes for doing so.

    Second, curriculum, instruction, and assessment are derived, or designed back, from these ultimate outcomes. You don't develop outcomes for the curriculum you already have; you start with your ultimate outcomes of significance and build back (define, design, and develop) from there the learning experiences that your students will need to accomplish them. The more complex and significant the outcome, the more consistently and continually it must be addressed and developed during a student's career.

    In a word, designing back from your ultimate outcomes is sound, straightforward, powerful, and common-sense, though infrequently practiced in America's schools.

  • The high-expectations principle. Of the four OBE principles, high expectations for high-level performance represents by far the strongest challenge to widely accepted norms and practices in education. It challenges and redefines the meaning and relevance of prevalent practices regarding testing and grading, record keeping, class ranking, curriculum organization, curriculum tracking, and ability grouping. At its core lie two prerequisites: that educators establish clear, "criterion defined" standards of performance for students; and that they commit to having all students reach or exceed those standards before judging their work and progress to be "completed."

    The application of the high-expectations principle involves three key things: (1) raising standards of acceptable performance on major pieces of student work so that only high-quality performance is regarded as "finished"; (2) eliminating quotas and bell-curve assumptions regarding how many students can potentially receive excellent marks for excellent accomplishments; and (3) continuously expanding student access to high-level, challenging curricula. As I have documented, districts that have made a conscientious effort to address all three of these factors simultaneously have seen marked increases in student success in the highest levels of the curriculum.

    In short, high expectations for high-level performance are sound, straightforward, powerful, and common-sense, though infrequently practiced in America's schools.

  • The expanded-opportunity principle. This principle represents the embodiment of OBE's child-focused and success-oriented nature. It is also the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented of the four principles. It is not about giving students all the time they care to take to accomplish something, nor is it about giving students the same test repeatedly until they manage to come up with the right answers.

    Expanded opportunity reflects five realities about learners. First, their rates of learning differ, as do their rates of learning different kinds of things. Hence, one uniform schedule and pace for learning whatever is on the docket is bound not to work. Using time more flexibly is a key to expanding opportunities for learning success.

    Second, the modalities through which people learn vary enormously. One-method instruction, regardless of which method it is, is bound not to work as well as a multiple-method approach. Using an engaging, multiple-method approach is, therefore, another key to expanding opportunities for learning success.

    Third, few people learn things perfectly and permanently the first time they are exposed to them. Consequently, one-chance, schedule-driven instruction works only for a few, no matter how diligently students may apply themselves at the time. Providing students with multiple chances to engage in and demonstrate their learning on something of true significance is yet another key to expanding opportunities for long-term learning success.

    Fourth, only some can be called good learners and performers when the standards for judging learning are comparative. For everyone who does better, there is a counterpart who does worse, regardless of either's actual level of accomplishment. Enough "worses" and most students quit trying because they realize they can't win in what amounts to a perpetual contest against faster learners for being labeled successful. Consequently, assessing individual performance against consistent performance criteria is a critical means for expanding opportunities for learning success.

    Fifth, opportunities for learning success expand when students are given a clear picture of what is important to learn, clear paths and means for getting there, and clear standards that help determine their progress. Expanded opportunity is enhanced, then, through the implementation of the other three OBE principles.

    Providing expanded opportunity for learning success is sound, straightforward, powerful, and common-sense, though infrequently practiced in America's schools.

    The critics of outcomes-based education and related reforms eventually will be forced to justify their opposition to the importance and integrity of these four principles. I'm predicting that they can't. Clarity of focus, designing back, high expectations, and expanded opportunity are simply too sound, too straightforward, too powerful, too imbedded in mainstream American culture, and make too much sense to be relegated to the trash heap of educational debate and reform for long.

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