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