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To the Editor:

Your Sept. 22, 1993, issue included a long article describing the growing confusion over and criticism of outcomes-based education ("Pa. Parent Becomes Mother of 'Outcomes' Revolt''). This kind of criticism and confusion is slowing the progress of outcomes-based education in many areas of the country, and therefore needs to be addressed.

In the most basic sense, outcomes-based education, or O.B.E., represents a shift in the focus of education. Until recently, education focused primarily on instruction, or teaching. In fact, every state has laws requiring evaluation of teachers. We now realize that teaching is only a means. The end is learning, or results, or outcomes. This shift in focus is appropriate and necessary. What is taught and how, is secondary. What is learned, and how well, is primary.

Other than clarifying the categorical confusion (that is, ends or means), O.B.E. does not espouse any specific "values.'' Schools and school districts decide the outcomes to be learned, just as they have always decided the material to be taught. Communities in our country vary tremendously. The outcomes they choose for their students will vary accordingly.

In logic, there is a fallacy called reductio ad absurdum. Any good idea can be extended to the absurd. In fact, we do this all the time. In the name of freedom of speech, we justify pornography. In the name of the right to bear arms, we justify possession of machine guns and armor-piercing bullets. We take basically good ideas and corrupt them. This does not invalidate the "goodness'' of the original idea. In fact, some schools may well be misusing outcomes-based education. This does not change the soundness of the basic idea. We should be more concerned with learning results (outcomes) than inputs (teaching).

Examples of efforts at outcomes-based education that are floundering are frequently put forth as reasons to abandon it. That's analogous to saying the Wright Brothers should not have tried to fly because previous efforts failed. There are also outstanding successes in O.B.E. Clearly, the most advanced is the Johnson City, N.Y., public schools. This nationally validated outcomes-based program has produced extraordinary results.

It is true that some of the proposals of the most well-known "experts'' in O.B.E. are too theoretical, too abstract. This is becoming more recognized by the schools. Again, the fact that some people are doing a good thing wrong does not make the "good thing'' itself inherently bad.

I've also heard some religious folks are very concerned about some aspects of outcomes-based education. As a religious person myself, I can understand. Criticism such as "They're teaching high self-esteem'' fascinates me. Done properly, high self-esteem means students learn to respect themselves, see themselves as capable, able, worthwhile people. (In a religious sense, they see themselves in the image and likeness of God.) If extended to the absurd, this self-respect (self-love--we are to love our neighbor as ourself) becomes arrogance or pride. Once again, corruption of a good idea doesn't make the idea itself bad. The devil can quote Scripture for his own purposes. That doesn't make Scripture bad.

Another criticism I've heard is that outcomes-based education teaches values--"whose values?'' We must recognize that schools have always taught values--good or bad. Whether O.B.E. is used to teach healthy values or not is a function of how people use it. There are, contrary to the view of many, basic values that can be agreed upon by almost all of us--things like justice, kindness, respect, tolerance, patience, honesty, etc. All schools should teach these common values. If individual communities choose less universally accepted values, that's up to them. There is absolutely nothing inherent in outcomes-based education that says you should or should not teach things like sex education. In fact, these kinds of courses have been taught in schools that have never considered O.B.E.

There is not a good idea in existence that hasn't been corrupted by some. Nonetheless, outcomes or results are the proper focus of education. We can no longer justify the costof education by focusing on teaching. The quality of our product, or learning, is what matters. Teaching is only a means to learning. While we can debate what should be learned, the focus should be primarily on learning, or results, or "outcomes.''

Thomas F. Kelly
Shoreham, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Education Week obviously still must learn that what California Department of Education officials say about their reading-instruction framework cannot be taken at face value ("California Officials Clarify State's Approach to Reading,'' Oct. 20, 1993). You were told that the 1992 decline in California's reading scores was because the 1987 framework had been "misinterpreted'' by educators. This framework does not discourage phonics instruction, the officials went on. You were misled on both counts.

The 1987 framework calls for "a phonics program taught in meaningful contexts'' (from page 4 of the document). Thus, reading instruction should follow the principle that "almost all the rules, all the cues, and all the feedback can be obtained only through the act of reading itself'' (page 9), the framework explains. Direct and systematic teaching of phonics information is unnecessary, teachers are led to believe.

More effective than sounding out unrecognizable words, the framework directs, is for students to practice "leaving the more difficult task of learning individual words until after students have experienced the delight of understanding meaning in sentences.'' Students can comprehend written materials satisfactorily, the framework therefore argues, without recognizing the separate words in sentences.

The fall-off in reading scores in California easily could be accounted for by teachers who attempted to follow this disastrous advice. Thus, contrary to the California department officials, it likely was the implementation of their 1987 framework, not the lack of such application, that depressed the state's reading scores.

Patrick Groff
Professor Emeritus
School of Teacher Education
College of Education
San Diego State University
San Diego, Calif.

Vol. 13, Issue 09

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