Down, But not Out: OBE Remains Embattled

By David Levine

Outcome Based Education (OBE), the ambitious “curriculum and instruction management system” which MPS officials hope to implement, has temporarily been put on hold. After listening to testimony on OBE at a December 16th meeting of the Instruction and Community Relations Committee, School Board member Tom Pajewski said, “I happen to believe that the implementation of this program was a complete disaster, and someone or something has to be held accountable for it… Given MPS’s record for implementation of programs … I am totally in favor of holding this program until the next superintendent is appointed.”

While the MPS administration is eager to move forward on OBE, the concerns raised by teachers about the nature of the program and by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) about the way it is being implemented, prompted the School Board’s Instruction and Community Relations Committee to approve a recommendation at its January 13th meeting that “all action on OBE be held up, with the Acting Superintendent taking charge of all communications.” After further consultation with administrators and teachers. Dr. Faison plans to bring OBE back to the Board for further action by late spring.

At the December 16th hearing MTEA staff member Bob Anderson noted that “the procedure used by MPS in development of the curriculum did not include an opportunity for teachers to provide meaningful input.” Bob Peterson, a fifth grade MPS teacher and associate editor of Rethinking Schools said that OBE rested on two implicit assumptions, “that students are empty containers and need to have knowledge poured into them,” and “that teachers are really technicians and not professionals.” He urged the School Board to adopt, in the place of OBE, “a curriculum that encourages staff to look at learning as an interactive process which starts with and validates the experience that children bring to school.” School Board member Mary Bills thought that OBE rested on a “coverage mentality” which might rush children through the curriculum and asked, “Are we misconstruing uniformity for equity?” Lois Quinh, a former project coordinator of the Employment and Training Institute at UWM, argued that OBE could jeopardize the planned MPS transition to site-based management. “The move toward site-based management is very important We should not undercut the success of that effort by mandating a curriculum systemwide…If you give support to your site-based management and support to the teachers in the different (site-based management) schools, you may find that those teachers, allowed to develop their own curriculum and measurements for it, will show you ways that will work with many other children in the system as well.”

Some speakers responded to these criticisms by defending the plan. Fermin Burgos, principal at Kosciuszko Middle School, said ‘The purpose of the plan is to answer the question ‘What should students in the Milwaukee Public Schools be learning’… I think parents have a right to know what we are teaching their children, teachers have a right to know what they are expected to teach, and administrators have a right to know the content of the curriculum they are responsible and accountable for implementing.” Assistant Superintendent Bill Larkin acknowledged a need to proceed a little bit more slowly, but defended the quality of the OBE process thus far and express confidence that Outcome Based Education could “increase the achievement of all students in this school system and reduce the achievement gap (between black and white students).” While noting that she had many questions. School Director Doris Stacy said to reject OBE would be “foolhardy.”

In response to a request from Pajewski, the school administration has produced a summary of OBE expenditures. According to these figures, the costs associated with the development of the OBE curriculum (including printing, salary, and inservice expenses) total $929,376. If OBE proceeds, the further work of teachers and central office staff in the planning process is likely to involve considerable additional expense. The Outcome Based Education plan is propelled by a momentum which will be difficult to counter. Thousands of hours and close to one million dollars have been expended in its development. MPS officials are bolstered by the knowledge that many educational commentators around the country support the Outcome Based Education approach and many school systems have adopted it. While determined to safeguard the rights of teachers to decide when and how to teach and test the OBE objectives, and to be meaningfully involved in planning its implementation, the MTEA has not challenged the pedagogical validity of the model. Union officials have taken the position that state law mandating the development of a testable sequential curriculum in every school district makes the implementation of something like OBE inevitable. Given the school administration’s strong commitment to OBE, the temporary postponement of its implementation is an encouraging sign that some teachers and school directors want to take a more careful look. The questions and criticisms raised thus far have highlighted these dangers:

  1. The sheer number of teaching objectives are likely to weigh down classroom teachers, pushing us to cover many topics in a shallow manner. Large scale class projects and innovative teaching will be discouraged as we strain to race through the curriculum.
  2. The specificity of the objectives, especially at the elementary level, will encourage teachers to fixate on literal recollection and neglect critical thinking.
  3. Part of the planned development of OBE is the creation of computer banks filled with thousands of test items which teachers will be able to use to construct their own tests. Encouraging teachers to use more standardized, multiple choice tests is likely to draw energy away from creative instruction.

These dangers are woven deeply into the OBE fabric. They will not be washed out by fine-tuning the OBE document or by pious reminders that outcome based education is a popular nation-wide trend. We should be thankful for the temporary lull in the storm, but ready to deepen the debate when OBE winds begin to blow again this spring.

David Levine is a Milwaukee Public School teacher of English at Shalom High School.