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WEAC Research Paper

The Debate Over Outcome Based Education

In "Through the Looking Glass," Alice argues with Humpty Dumpty over the meaning of a word. He replies scornfully, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

In many ways that symbolizes the war of words over Outcome Based Education, where there are as many definitions of the concept as there are combatants. It's a war that has led to contentious school board elections, petitions, protests and threats against teachers and administrators in Wisconsin and many other states, a war that shows no sign of letting up. But in this battle, both sides agree on one thing: the jargon surrounding the ideas is obscuring the real goal of educating students.

At its most basic level, Outcome Based Education (OBE) is where the school and community first determine what skills and knowledge students should possess at graduation, then work backwards from there to develop curriculum, strategies and materials to help students achieve those goals, or "exit outcomes."

Most agree that's a sound concept, and something that good districts have been doing all along.

The idea wasn't that controversial until the mid-1980's, when educational consultant William Spady was actively preaching the gospel of his brand of OBE to districts around the country. For him, schools couldn't be successful until they were completely transformed, creating institutions that expanded beyond the schoolhouse walls and involved total hands-on instruction that could be applied directly to the students' lives.

Built on the concept that all children can learn, but not necessarily on the same day or in the same way, some schools have implemented OBE by getting rid of both traditional grading and grade levels, and creating portfolios of students' work that will be used for assessment rather than a collection of test scores.

Transformational OBE

They did this in pursuit of what Spady called "transformational OBE," and a lot of educators saw great things in it. But along the way they found the road to implementation was a rocky one, with some parents and teachers objecting to radical changes in an educational system that hadn't changed much in a century.

As more schools implemented OBE to meet their local needs, it became more difficult to agree on what OBE really meant how it would translate into the classroom or even what the term signified.

For Bonnie Dana, director of instruction at DeForest Schools, OBE simply means the joint efforts of a district and the community to examine what children should learn and decide what works and what doesn't. For her, it's based on community involvement, with parents and educators working together to create a new system of education. "This is why I think communities would embrace this they have the chance to speak their minds," Dana said.

For John Fortier, an assessment consultant at the state Department of Public Instruction, OBE means moving away from traditional standardized multiple choice tests. It means giving students a more meaningful way to show how much they know about a subject by letting them write about it or demonstrate it.

OBE is just misleading educational rhetoric to Whitnall School Board member Ted Mueller, president of the Independent School Board Members of Wisconsin, a private group of school board members opposed to many of the state's educational goals. For him, OBE is just another educational fad that will move schools away from academics, overburden teachers, and make educational progress impossible to measure. "If you can't prove that it works," Mueller said, "don't experiment on my kid."

Criticisms and responses

Educators such as Dana say it sometimes seems they spend as much time responding to OBE critics as they do educating children. One of the biggest criticisms is that OBE "dumbs down" education, lowering standards so all students can reach a minimum level of achievement.

Gene Malone, a retired Kenosha teacher and organizer of the Freedom 2000 anti-OBE group, predicts that a national policy of OBE will create "a nation of illiterates" because of lowered standards.

Mueller said the concept that "all children can learn" is a faulty one anyway, since no educational system will ever help students who either cannot or will not participate in school. But don't tell that to Mary Ellen Goerke, a teacher at DeForest's Leeds Elementary. In its second year of a three-year OBE-like pilot program, Leeds is emphasizing integration of subjects, blurring the grade level distinctions, and creating educational projects where students work both together and alone.

Goerke said she has seen students get more excited about learning than ever before, since the school began using these principles. "It does mean more work, no question. But the enthusiasm of the students makes up for the extra work," she said.

Building a Dream House

One recent project at Leeds involved students designing and building models of their "dream house." Along the way, they researched the career they would like to pursue as adults, chose an area of the country to live in, researched the costs of living there, and worked with architects and computer-aided design programs to create the homes. Then they learned to fill out loan applications for their dream house, and made appointments with local loan officers to discuss financing the construction."

It was real life, it was fun, and they remember it," Dana said.

Opponents also say OBE outcomes deal too much with student attitudes and feelings and not enough with measurable academic achievements. Malone believes the OBE movement is designed to funnel computer data about students and their families to the national Department of Education in order to create a national education system he calls "red, white and blue socialism."

But general opinions on OBE outcomes are misleading, Fortier said, because the outcomes can be just as academic or value-based as the district decides. At the state level, outcomes Fortier helped develop for the DPI are meant only to further academic goals, he said.

Some of the 17 "Wisconsin Learner Outcomes" include the following: revise a product, performance, system, and idea in response to relevant information; transfer learning from one context to another; defend a position by combining information from multiple sources; recognize, define, and solve a problem.

Fortier said it's ironic that while much of the criticism of OBE comes from conservatives, the push toward the concepts was often led by conservatives wanting to de-emphasize traditional measures of education like funding per student, class size and seat time.

Many of the OBE critics in the DeForest district, Dana said, have not taken the time to find out what's really going on at Leeds. "If people see something specific that they want to object to, that's fine," Goerke said. "But to disagree without even knowing what we're doing; that's wrong."

The concept that seems to inflame both sides the most is whether OBE is necessary at all. There's no question that outcome-based reforms are needed, Dana said, with a national school system mired in practices that were designed to make better factory workers at the turn of the century. Both the amount of raw knowledge and the competencies needed to survive in the job market have greatly expanded, she said, and schools need new ways to keep pace.

Preparing Students for the Present and Future

"Schools have been doing a great job of preparing students for 20 years ago," Dana said." There's nothing wrong with horses, but we use cars now." Relating subjects to one another and to the real world outside the classroom is the only way to get students motivated and understanding the stake they have in their own futures, she said. "If you teach something just for the sake of teaching something," Dana said, "kids will forget it just for the sake of forgetting it."

Malone is unconvinced, saying "no one was clamoring for the restructuring of American schools." He believes districts should concentrate on the standards of the 1950s the last time, he says, that American public education was "world-class."

Mueller is skeptical because OBE, in his view, means throwing out all three components of education curriculum, instruction, and assessment for new ones." If you change assessment at the same time, how can you tell that something is working?" Mueller said." There's no other industry that would let that happen."

At Leeds, though, Goerke said, students take the same standardized tests as other school buildings in the district, and there are always paper-and-pencil assessments included with each unit.

Political Consequences

The political fallout from the battle over OBE has been easy to measure. In April 1994 elections, three members of the Verona School Board were ousted in favor of "Target the Basics" candidates who opposed the district's moves into OBE territory.

In DeForest, teachers and district parents received threatening telephone calls, and Dana's car was vandalized; Dana said administrators were often kept on the phone for hours responding to OBE critics.

"Now, when people call and want to talk about OBE, we will try to only talk about what's been going on in this district," she said, "and not use district time to discuss national issues over which we have no control."

Ousted Verona School Board President Gregg Miller said he didn't realize the battle over OBE would dominate the election until the first candidate forum, when he said organized groups of OBE opponents brought scripted questions culled from national anti-OBE campaigns.

One major source of opposition ammunition, he said, was a video produced by anti-OBE activist Peg Luksik. Luksik visited DeForest High School in March 1994 to speak out against OBE reforms. After looking at the video, Miller said, "I'd be upset too if that's what was really going on in the district."

Dana said she believes a large amount of the opposition has nothing to do with OBE, but is part of a national campaign by the Christian right to destroy public education altogether. Dana has said that OBE opponents in districts in Wisconsin have been seen bringing binders from Citizens for Excellence in Education to meetings and using them to ask scripted questions about reforms. CEE is a national group dedicated to electing evangelical Christians to local school boards.

New Verona School Board member Carolyn Malm said she is not part of any national campaign she simply sees Verona going in the wrong direction with OBE." It's the manipulation of the beliefs and attitudes of students," Malm said." That's a huge power, and I don't trust anyone with that." Even after winning a seat on the board, Malm said there's very little she can do to stop the district's march toward OBE. "I'm knowledgeable enough about how big this wave is that I realize I'm just a grain of sand," she said.

Played Right into the Hands of the Critics

Verona Director of Instruction Linda Christensen said educators have to become much more politically savvy, and a lot better communicators, to overcome the public's real or imagined fears of OBE.

"Educators have done a terrible job of emphasizing the academic aspects of this system," she said. "We've played right into the hands of the critics." Christensen said her definition of OBE is the Spady transformational program, a system that she calls "much too formulaic" and "a morass of recordkeeping." Verona has adopted a set of "essential learner outcomes," but has rejected the large-scale changes Spady champions. So when people ask if Verona is an OBE district, she says no. But rather than deflect criticism, backing away from Spady's OBE just seems to draw more. "The critics say, 'At least with these other districts, they admit what they're doing,' " Christensen said.

The violent semantic battle over OBE, where advocates for one side are called religious zealots and the other side are called socialistic spies on the family, often makes otherwise well-meaning school officials skittish, Fortier said. He has heard accounts of fearful administrators denying OBE opponents a spot on school board meeting agendas.

"When someone asks about OBE, you have to find out what their definition is before you can even respond," Miller said of his election battles." Much of the inflammation came just from what we called things."

Both pro- and anti-OBE literature has lists of terms to watch for in policing the other side. Anti forces are told to watch out for educators talking about site-based management, inclusive education, mastery learning, year-round schooling or thematic teaching; pro forces are looking out for school board candidates who mention terms such as media elite, anti-Christian bigotry, Godless humanism, and educational choice.

All the charges and counter charges are hurting education, Fortier said. "We're missing the forest for the trees," he said.

The Future

For every definition of OBE, there is a prediction of how much it will change education in the long run. Not surprisingly, Mueller is skeptical. "I think it's a fad. In another five or 10 years, it will be labeled another failure in education and all the fingers will be pointing at the teachers," he said.

But for local district officials who have ventured into the murky waters of OBE, it's been worth the struggle. "I don't think the goals for our future have ever been more central to the community," Christensen said of Verona." The good news is that we have a better plan because of the scrutiny." I've been teaching for 33 years. I've seen a lot of things coming and going new math, things like that," said Leeds' Goerke. "To me, this is the best thing we've ever done for kids."

This document was adapted from an article written by Adam Blust which appeared in News & Views, March 1995.