The last third of this century has seen a fundamental shift in the way we determine educational quality. Previously, the conventional wisdom judged quality in terms of inputs: intentions and efforts, institutions and services, resources and spending. In the past several years, however, there has been an increasing focus on outputs: goals and ends, products and results, with a focus on core academic subjects. The first question asked is less often "How much are we spending?" and more often "What are our children learning, and how well are they learning it?"
Free market education-policy analysts helped set the stage for this revolution in education, noting that student achievement had been declining while the input focus and resource-based strategies of the Great Society were in place and Americans spent increasing amounts of money on educating their children. The education establishment, however, showed little enthusiasm for this approach. A focus on outcomes enables parents, politicians, and the general public to determine whether their investment in public education is resulting in students learning more and achieving at higher levels. It enables taxpayers to hold educators accountable for these results and decree appropriate consequences for success or failure.
Nonetheless, the outcome-based approach began to win support in legislatures and among the nation's state governors, and beginning in the mid-1980s many states began to institute such programs. Now, however, many on the Right vehemently oppose outcome-based education. And most of the education establishment and many on the political Left have united in supporting the concept. Although it is not immediately clear why defining outcomes or results all students should master should meet with such and outcry, the issue has become a wildfire.
In this report, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Bruno Manno explains why there is such conflict over what seemed such a good idea at the start. When states began efforts to institute outcome-based education programs, they turned the crucial task of defining outcomes over to the very education establishment figures most threatened by the process. Having adopted in principle the focus on results, the educators present a list of outcomes that emphasize values, attitudes, and behavior and often reflect quasi-political or ideologically correct positions.
Dr. Manno shows how this process occurred in various states, then proposes a twofold policy strategy that provides a way out of the dilemma: establish high, uniform academic standards and a system of accountability with real consequences for success and failure; and create greater diversity in the kinds of schools we finance, how we pay for them, and the ways educators produce solid academic achievement, with parents free to choose the schools that best meet their needs.