The meaning now given to the term outcome-based education—as reinterpreted by education "reformers"—turns the process on its head and all but precludes real "results-oriented" accountability.
Today's educational fad—transformational OBE—has little in common with the content and performance outcomes in core academic areas espoused by those who gave the outcomes focus widespread national attention—particularly the nation's governors. Ironically, transformational OBE actually makes accountability impossible. Like many educational fads, it takes a sensible-sounding principle—focusing on outcomes—and hijacks its meaning so that its implementation will ensure that its original purpose cannot be achieved. This raises a second issue for education policy: what is the word "outcome" to define?
As we have seen in the previous discussion, the typical "transformational" outcomes are vaguely worded and show little concern for core academic content. They are largely in the affective domain. They describe mental processes such as attitudes, dispositions, and sentiments—behavioral and social outcomes rather than knowledge, skills, and other cognitive outcomes.
The transformational outcomes often deal with issues that may not be proper concerns of a school. The following examples from draft state OBE documents describe mandatory outcomes for all students. In Ohio a graduate is expected to be able to "function as a responsible family member... [and] maintain physical, emotional, and social well-being." In Pennsylvania "each student shall gain knowledge and have exposure to different cultures and lifestyles." And in Minnesota, the state expects schools to ensure that "the graduate demonstrates the knowledge, skills, and attitudes essential to... develop physical and emotional well-being." Unfortunately, such vague and inappropriate outcome statements are the rule rather than exceptions.
Furthermore, almost all OBE plans include long lists of outcomes, sometimes hundreds. The academic outcomes are few, and they are as vague as the nonacademic ones. They send no clear message about what knowledge, skills, and other understandings their designers expect children to master so that they can live, work, and compete successfully in the twenty-first century.
Having adopted, in principle, the idea and language of accountability—a focus on results—the education establishment presents governors, state legislatures, communities, and taxpayers with something else altogether. They propose outcomes—developed mostly by overreaching education "reformers"—that emphasize values, attitudes, and behavior and often mask quasi-political or ideologically correct positions. The outcomes are so vague as to make it impossible to measure whether students are achieving them in any useful and valid way.
This approach undermines efforts to track and compare educational progress or failure. In short, the meaning now given to the term outcome-based education—as reinterpreted by education "reformers"—turns the process on its head and all but precludes real "results-oriented" accountability.
Many educators have never been comfortable with a focus on outcomes that would enable parents, politicians, and the general public to judge whether children were learning more and achieving at higher levels. If such a focus were instituted, educators could be held accountable for these results and expect consequences to follow—positive or negative. Although politics made it impossible for educators to reject this orientation explicitly, they did continue their undercurrent of opposition. One important manifestation of this current is the effort to present an unclear and confusing definition of outcomes. In brief, education bureaucrats have used the language of accountability to avoid being held accountable.
How did this hijacking occur? Much of the problem occurs in the process and mechanisms used to generate the outcomes. Elected officials have given responsibility for specifying outcomes to panels or agencies dominated by people whose views on education do not agree with those held by the elected officials themselves. The results are predictable—outcomes antithetical to the kind public officials thought they were mandating; accountability hijacked.
The fundamental problem with the outcomes being proposed by Spady and many others is in their conception of the purpose and role of education. This conception has deep roots in educational progressivism—particularly the writings of John Dewey and his followers—and in the viewpoint that it is possible and justifiable for educators to use the schools to create a new social order. Political analyst Irving Kristol provides a succinct description of this "progressive" viewpoint:
[It] aims to develop the "creative potential" of "the whole person" . . . which must not be discouraged by grading, tracking, strict discipline, a dress code, or intellectual discrimination of any kind. Intellectual excellence may be acknowledged, but not rewarded. Social cooperation, a warm and friendly attitude toward one's fellows, a capacity for enthusiasm about anything—from turtles to rap music—are all signs, of equal worth, that a youngster is being prepared to be a good citizen in a democracy.
It is clear that those who oppose what is currently called OBE are expressing legitimate concerns. If OBE means a focus on values, attitudes, and social skills, there is good reason to question it. The education bureaucracy's attempt to hijack outcome-based education has created endless controversy and misunderstanding. Entrusting it with the process of specifying outcomes is a sure way to create a set of outcomes that trouble non-educators. This is evident in the surge of opposition that had its first large-scale manifestation in Pennsylvania and has spread to many states.
Thus there is fundamental confusion over the meaning of the word outcomes. Moreover, the process of defining what our children should know and be able to do is too important to be controlled by state and loca4 education bureaucrats. And it is far too vital and personal an issue to entrust to the tender mercies of an expanded federal bureaucracy. It must be under "civilian" control. Under such an approach, it is the responsibility of policymakers to ensure that we select the correct outcomes. It is the responsibility of parents, voters, and other taxpayers to ensure that the policymakers do not lose their way. And the clear and unequivocal focus must be on core academic outcomes.
Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, says it well: "Those pushing for reform should wake up and realize that, as presently conceived [i.e., vaguely worded, numerous, fuzzy outcomes], outcomes-based education will do...nothing to raise student achievement."