Defining learning results that all students will master—what many call outcome-based education (OBE)—is an education issue over which many are doing fierce battle across America today. Those identified as "on the left" claim that opposition to OBE comes primarily from "ultraconservative" groups such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. For instance, Matthew Freeman, research director for People for the American Way, says, "The national organizations taking [OBE] on are almost exclusively religious-right organizations."
It is true that many of those identified as "on the right" do express pointed and passionate objections to outcome-based education. For example, Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, says, "OBE is converting the 3 R's to the 3 D's: Deliberately Dumbed Down." Peg Luksic, a nationally recognized leader of the OBE opposition, comments, "Bureaucrats really do believe that schools are the ones that should raise children. Our children are not and never will be creatures of the state. We will no longer sit quietly while the state forces its mandates on our schools and our children."
Opposition to OBE, however, does not come from the right only. Some educators are glad to shun a focus on outcomes and results. They prefer to keep the focus on inputs and resources.
From another perspective, the American Federation of Teachers union President Albert Shanker—hardly an ultraconservative—is just as pointed and passionate in objecting to OBE: "OBE's vaguely worded outcomes ... encourage business as usual ... and [do] nothing to raise student achievement." In saying this, Shanker appears to agree with many conservatives, such as former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who advocate a focus on student learning—academic outcomes—as the only route to accountability in education.
Ironically, it was conservative education-policy analysts who helped create the emphasis on outcomes. Some, therefore, are perplexed by the current state of affairs. Chester E. Finn, Jr., Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan administration, said, "The word 'outcomes' has become tainted. For several years, I was among those promoting the [focus on outcomes], never imagining the twist it would take. Mea culpa."
It is not immediately clear why defining outcomes or results all students should master should meet with such an outcry. Nonetheless, the issue has become a wildfire. It involves people from all political persuasions, and has dominated all sorts of forums and policy processes.
Is OBE a promising cure to what ails public education? Or is it another disease spread by education bureaucrats through an already ailing system known for succumbing to one fad after another? To answer those questions and provide a perspective on outcome-based education, this paper examines three issues and offers a policy strategy that charts a plausible way out of the conflagration.
First, I describe a radical and far-reaching shift in the way we judge educational policy: the shift from inputs to outcomes. This discussion includes a viewpoint on the meaning of education outcomes offered by one of the most important groups advancing U.S. education reform since the mid-1980s—the nation's state governors.
Second, I present a conflicting view that has evoked much of the general public's negative reaction to outcome-based education. It has deep roots in the educational philosophy called progressivism, especially the thought of John Dewey and the idea that schools should make a "new social order." Its most well-known popularizers today are William G. Spady and those who preach the gospel of "transformational OBE."
Third, I examine what has occurred in two states—Virginia and Minnesota—that have implemented outcomes approaches. Their experiences are similar 'to those of other states. More than anything, in these efforts we see well-intentioned elected public officials blindly handing responsibility for specifying outcomes to groups dominated by education views nearly antithetical to those the public officials thought they were mandating. The typical result is a list comprising mostly transformational outcomes that arise from the progressive idea that schools should make a "new social order." This discussion illustrates how "the devil is in the details" whenever reformers advocate an outcome-based approach to education.
Finally, I outline a twofold strategy for resolving differences between supporters and opponents of OBE and chart a plausible future course for outcome-based education.