What Is OBE?

Outcome-Based Education has become a focal point for critics of educational reform all across the country. But why? In order to understand and evaluate their criticisms, it is necessary to understand what Outcome-Based Education is and the difference between the principle and the practice of OBE.

At its most basic, OBE is simply the establishment of expected goals or outcomes for different levels of elementary-secondary education, and a commitment to ensuring that every student achieves at least those minimum proficiencies before being allowed to graduate.

This is eminently sensible, and some of you might believe schools already do this. For the most part, they do not.

Outcome-Based Education is fast becoming reality in nearly every state. It succeeds in doing so for three primary reasons:

1) Reform is Necessary.For more than a decade poll after poll has shown the American public's dissatisfaction with the public education system. This was especially brought to the forefront by the famous A Nation at Risk report during the Reagan Administration. National and international test scores are down, yet average grades assigned to students are up. Violence, substance abuse, and parenthood among teens are all up, but literacy is down. Even if we accept that there are more students taking college entrance exams like the SAT than would have considered college decades ago skewing averages down the most able students aren't scoring as high as in the past. Yet expenditures for education have risen far faster than inflation for more than 30 years.

Outcome-Based Education offers a means of reform.

2) Parents & Taxpayers feel out of control out of the loop in decision-making for reform. It is clear that our public schools are not performing as well as most of us expect. Yet it is primarily the behavioral scientist architects and managers of this dysfunctional system, along with politicians and influential teachers' unions, who are in charge of creating a new and better system. Reform is imperative, but we have been reforming education this time for more than ten years. When the suggested reforms involve spending even less time on the foundation skills that too many students already are not receiving somebody isn't proposing the right reforms.

OBE offers the opportunity to set standards outside of the educational system.

3) There is no standard for measuring the success of students, teachers, or schools. There is a genuine need for setting standards that students must reach before they may receive a diploma. Although there is often a state or district mandate that students take so many years of a subject and earn this many hours or credits in order to graduate, there are few requirements regarding what specific skills make up each course. For example, what degree of skill should be expected of students who study a year of algebra? How much knowledge comprises a year of English? Presently, students from different schools, districts, and states can have very different answers to those questions. Furthermore, the failure of a student, classroom, school, or the entire school system, is the responsibility of the parents, taxpayers, society, drugs, poverty, or the entertainment industry . . . anything but the educational system itself. At least, this is the myth that the educational system perpetuates.

Outcome-Based Education offers a standard of measurement.

This sounds so simple and fundamental that it is not surprising that OBE quickly became popular . . . how could anyone be opposed to it? But . . . what OBE seems to be in theory is not necessarily what it has become in reality. Unfortunately, OBE still sounds so sensible . . . that only some kind of nut would oppose it. Critics, therefore, must be very clear that their opposition is not to the principle of OBE in fact that the principle of establishing expected outcomes is not only acceptable, but is absolutely necessary. The objection to OBE lies in what it has become in practice.

We wholeheartedly endorse the principle of OBE, and the practice of adopting Outcomes that set quantifiable standards in academic skills and subjects whose accomplishment by students can be verified through objective testing.

We roundly condemn what OBE has become in practice setting standards that are not academic in nature and cannot be verified through objective testing. Outcomes which are so soft and fuzzy that student understanding and proficiency cannot be verified are intolerable. How do you test a student's values and beliefs, and what, or whose values, set the standard? At best, these Outcomes distract from more important knowledge and skills. At worst, some of them intrude on the sanctity of vulnerable adolescent minds.

We do not have and desperately need schools based upon the first kind of Outcome; we cannot risk the future of our children, our nation, and our world on the second kind.

Critics must make clear their support for the principle of having expected learning outcomes, but their reservations or objections regarding the specific Outcomes that have so far been adopted.

What reforms are going to help our schools?

No single reform will suffice. Our educational system needs extensive revision. Here are some suggestions, however, for how to begin:

Note that funding is not among these suggestions. Money is not the answer, for spending on education (federal, state, local, public and private, elementary, secondary, and university) has grown faster than enrollment and inflation for more than three decades. Indeed, study after study concludes that leadership and high expectations are more important to successful education than mere dollars spent. It could even be that the very availability of so much money has caused some of the other problems. As teachers' satisfaction with their jobs declines, for example, they are more inclined to demand that their unions negotiate increased wages and benefits. As administrators spend more time on various union negotiations necessitating greater focus on budgetary concerns and on fulfilling state and federal paperwork requirements, they have less time to know and supervise their staff or to meet with students and parents and to understand and deal with their needs.

What OBE Is Not

Outcome-Based Education is not dangerous. It is not hateful, or immoral. OBE is not even unethical . . . in theory.

But like unnumerable previous ideas to reform or revolutionize education, OBE the theory has been twisted by educationists and legislators into something unrecognizable.

A parallel example lies with another much-criticized concept, Mastery Learning. (This should not be confused with Learning for Mastery, which is something else entirely.) Some of Benjamin Bloom's work might be open to criticism, but this is one concept that should be free of controversy.

Critics must separate their criticism of the content of instruction from the instructional methodology itself. Such teaching methods and tools whether OBE or Mastery Learning or Individualized Instruction are free of content. Many educators, legislators, media representatives, or simply other parents would be sympathetic to objections when they learn the specifics, but will dismiss critics of a sensible concept like OBE out of hand as being members of some lunatic fringe. However, if criticisms of content are presented carefully, many listeners including experts and policymakers would become immediately sympathetic . . . after all, only members of some lunatic fringe would invade the privacy of children and families in such a fashion as we see taking place in the name of reform today!


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