Recent experiences in Virginia reflect the political difficulties inherent in trying to implement outcome-based education when there are two completely different approaches available. In November 1992, with the approval of then-Governor L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, the Virginia Department of Education circulated draft copies of a plan called the World Class Education Initiative. It included a proposal for a Common Core of Learning, which described the outcomes students should master. Joseph A. Spagnolo, Superintendent of Public Instruction, called it "a statement of educational expectations for Virginia's public schools."[17]

Many times, well-intentioned elected officials blindly hand responsibility for specifying outcomes to groups dominated by education views antithetical to those the public officials thought they were mandating.

The Core proposal specified 38 student outcomes, categorized under seven "dimensions of living": Personal Well Being and Accomplishment; Interpersonal Relationships; Lifelong Learning; Cultural and Creative Endeavors; Work and Economic Well Being; Local and Global Civic Participation; and Environmental Stewardship.

Local school boards and parent groups rallied against the plan. The boards viewed it as an encroachment on their authority, and parents objected to its focus on vaguely defined values at the expense of academic achievement. The state released another draft of Common Core in February 1993. This version referred to its approach as "transformational outcome-based education" and included a slightly revised set of the seven life roles: Fulfilled Individual; Supportive Person; Lifelong Learner; Expressive Contributor; Quality Worker; Informed Citizen; and Environmental Steward.

In May 1993, after more revisions, the state Board of Education approved a draft of the Common Core proposal. It listed 33 specific outcomes students needed to master by the 10th grade. These were organized under six headings that mixed Spady's life roles with reference to both values and traditional content: Citizenship; The Natural World; Cultural and Creative Endeavors; Responsibility; Learning; Work. This "compromise" provoked more controversy.

In September 1993, Governor Wilder ordered the Virginia Board of Education to withdraw the plan. He said that the proposal "was introduced with the best of intentions... [but has] become tied to other fashionable approaches to curriculum reform. Make no mistake, I do not now, nor have I ever, endorsed changing Virginia's education standards to encompass values-based education. Knowledge and proficiency of basic skills must remain the basis for education in our Commonwealth."[18]

In several other states this general pattern has been repeated—the governor or state legislature appoints a commission to establish learning outcomes for the state's public schools; well-intentioned elected officials blindly hand responsibility for specifying outcomes to groups dominated by education views antithetical to those the public officials thought they were mandating; the commission develops a laundry list of outcomes, many embodying transformational OBE; a wide cross-section of the public raises an outcry; and the state government cancels the plan or at least the most offending parts of it. States as varied as Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington, Ohio, Iowa, and Wyoming have had such experiences.

For instance, in Minnesota, the effort to establish an outcome-based approach to student learning began in the 1970s. In 1972 the state Department of Education began development of "Some Essential Learner Outcomes" (SELOS) which specified the content students would be taught. Through the years, the Department's collection of outcomes grew and evolved as different subjects and grades were chosen for testing.

In 1983, in response to the State Legislature's request for a report on education (spurred by the national debate inspired by A Nation at Risk), Minnesota Commissioner of Education Ruth Randall set forth several radical proposals. There were two primary recommendations. First, Randall wanted to change the graduation rule, replacing traditional "seat time" graduation standards with "measurable learner outcomes." Second, she urged the Legislature to provide for the creation of state achievement tests for individual students, tests that could measure whether outcomes had been learned. Other recommendations included developing learner outcomes that promoted "higher level thinking skills," involving the department in creating model outcomes, and giving districts the option of developing more rigorous outcomes than those provided by the state Department of Education.

The Legislature was dissatisfied with Randall's report, and little action was taken. The business community then entered the discussion in a dramatic way. The Minnesota Business Partnership produced a report in 1984, the Minnesota Plan, which called for a major reorganization of K-12 education. The plan recommended that all students master "common core competencies" and that the state develop uniform achievement tests to measure whether students attained them. Education-policy makers, opinion shapers, newspaper editors, and the business community saw both these proposals as an endorsement of Randall's suggestions.

Having agreed to require outcomes, the various players—the Governor, the Legislature, the Education Department, the state Board of Education, the business community, a new Task Force on Education Organization, a new Office of Educational Leadership in the state Education Department, and many others—set out to decide what they would be. The Spady approach quickly assumed dominance. (Indeed, the Task Force had invited Spady to address its members in early 1989 when it was beginning to formulate its outcome system.) The state Board of Education's 1991 "Outcome-Based Graduation Rule" listed the following proposed Graduation Outcomes.

In order to lead productive, fulfilling lives in a complex and challenging society and to continue learning, the graduate demonstrates the knowledge, skills, and attitudes essential to

  • Communicate with words, numbers, visuals, symbols and sounds;

  • Think and solve problems to meet personal, social and academic needs;

  • Contribute as a citizen in local, state, national and global communities;

  • Understand diversity and the interdependence of people;

  • Work cooperatively in groups and independently;

  • Develop physical and emotional well-being;

  • Contribute to the economic well-being of society.[19]

This proposal evoked strong, organized opposition, particularly from grass-roots groups of parents concerned about exit outcomes describing values and attitudes. One exit outcome, for example, stated, "a Minnesota graduate performs as: A community contributor who appreciates and understands diversity." It was not immediately clear to the public just what this meant, how it would be taught in a public school, or how it would be measured by a teacher.

Linda McKeen, cofounder of the Parent Education Network (PEN), became "a somewhat reluctant lightning rod for parental concerns." The network's newsletter described an alternative education agenda including a return to academic achievement based on but not limited to the following:

  • a basic academic curriculum that can be described and measured objectively;

  • phonetic reading skills;

  • reading comprehension using broad selections of classical literature;

  • writing skills based on research and promoting proper grammatical usage;

  • basic arithmetic skills with an emphasis on mental and written computation, including memorization when appropriate;

  • geography, beginning with the U.S. history, including ancient, Western civilization, principles of the American constitution, and world history; and

  • economics, including advantages of the free market system over other systems.

The newsletter suggested that further options might include foreign languages, computer literacy, fine arts, and physical education and health habits.

This approach presented quite a contrast to the state Board's proposal, of course, and had much more in common with the orientation to academic outcomes proposed by the NGA. Other organizations, including Taxpayers for Excellent Academics in Minnesota (TEAM) and Citizens Alliance for Responsibility in Education (CARE), sprung up to oppose the state Board's proposal. These groups rejected any attempt to dismiss them as Christian fundamentalists. CARE leader Paul Larson, for example, noted that the five core members of his group included two conservative "Bible-believing Church members," a Catholic, an atheist, and a member of a Protestant mainline church.

This opposition, along with the state's inability to provide school personnel, community leaders, and parents with an adequate and appealing understanding of outcome-based education, reinforced public opinions that OBE was another confused educational fad imposed from the top. After three years in which all these groups haggled over the vague goals expressed in the state Board of Education's 1991 "Outcome-Based Graduation Rule," Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, a Republican, told the Board that he would support a move to delay OBE implementation if necessary to gain more widespread acceptance.

What news accounts called "Carlson's sermon to the Board" focused on three issues. First, he wanted them to drop "soft" content outcomes such as "Understands the integration of physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness." Second, he told them that "bright students shouldn't be held back." Third, he expressed his hope that school districts would retain the traditional A through F grading system rather than using a system where students do not fail.[20] (The newspaper accounts did not make it clear, however, whether he meant that he hoped the new plan would merely allow schools to use A-F or require them to.)

In mid-December 1993, the Minnesota Department of Education circulated another draft of the graduation rule, for Board and public discussion. The Profile of Learning described thirteen competencies for the Minnesota graduate, as follows:

  • Comprehends, interprets, and evaluates information received through reading, listening, and viewing;

  • Uses strategies to understand and apply information from technical reading, such as manuals and research documents;

  • Writes and speaks clearly for academic, technical, and personal purposes with a variety of audiences;

  • Analyzes patterns and functional relationships in order to solve problems and determine cause/effect relationships;

  • Applies data handling and measurement techniques to solve problems and justify conclusions;

  • Applies methods of inquiry needed to conduct research, draw conclusions, and communicate and apply findings;

  • Understands the past and continuous development of societies and cultures in human history;

  • Understands how principles of interaction and interdependence affect physical and social situations;

  • Applies informed decision-making processes to promote healthy lifestyles, social well-being, and stewardship of the environment;

  • Understands the processes and meaning of artistic expression;

  • Understands application of technological systems;

  • Understands the effective management of resources in a household, business, community, and government; and

  • Communicates using a language other than English.

Although students could graduate without fulfilling these competencies, students would receive a rating profile showing how well they achieved them. Districts would be required to select a student assessment system. A student would be able to graduate early by receiving the highest achievement levels in both the requirements and the profile of learning. The draft stated that a school would have "great flexibility" in the way it delivered the instructional program. And the Board reiterated that it would not prescribe any "scheduling pattern, instructional strategy, or curriculum."

After meeting to discuss the draft, the Board endorsed it. Thus the Minnesota program had moved from an initial interest in academically based outcomes to a more vague, affective type, to an uneasy mixture of the two. Sensing this confusion, Governor Carlson commented that the draft was a step in the right direction but still needed to be made more understandable: "We are turning the corner from the abstract to the semi-abstract [but] ... it's still not understandable at the local barbershop.... Are they where I am persuaded that I would want to send my daughter, Jessica, age 10, through the system? No." The Governor went on to say that if draft four met with major public objections, there would be further drafts. "This is a healthy debate," said the Governor. "But right now it's a muddled debate, it really is."[21]

Indeed, as one considers the travails over OBE in Minnesota and other states, there is no better word to describe the long debate than muddled. Clearly, for outcome-based education the "devil is in the details." Today, outcome-based education is a catch-all phrase describing a good idea gone wrong.