Outcome Based Education

Grand Design or Blueprint for Failure?

By David Levine

During inservices in October and November, all MPS teachers were introduced to Outcome Based Education (OBE), a program we were assured was “one of the most significant curriculum developments in the history of the Milwaukee Public Schools.” According to Acting Superintendent Hawthorne Faison, this new plan is “in line with basic research that looks for the essence of what can produce higher achievement” and will lead to “greater productivity for our students.” When fully in place, OBE will include:

  • objectives for courses and subjects at all grade levels
  • instructional materials and strategies which have been aligned with these objectives
  • an assessment program designed to measure student progress toward meeting these goals.

At first glance, OBE appears to be a logical and sensible way to manage instruction in a large school system with a highly mobile student population. It provides sequential goals and objectives, and mechanisms to ensure that students are tested upon what they have been taught. But underneath the pleasing symmetry of the OBE design, and beyond the reassurances we have all been getting that the new plan won’t hem in our creativity, we can begin to see the shape of an educational reform with profoundly disturbing implications. It may be four or five years before the full effect of this new approach is clear, but we can begin to assess its underlying philosophy and likely impact on teaching and learning. OBE is a plan built on the belief that it is dangerous to allow teachers to continue to decide what goals or methods of instruction and assessment are appropriate for their students. It is a giant step toward a standardized curriculum which centralizes control in the hands of central office administrators and supervisors and reduces teachers to semi-skilled technical workers.

As we are nudged and cajoled down the OBE road, oar educational managers undoubtedly will continue to pour a steady stream of reassurances and enticements into our ears. We’ve already been told that the new objectives are simply a “restatement of what you’ve been working with all along” and that we can continue to exercise our own “professional prerogative” and “person^ expertise” to decide how to teach. We will be promised “state of the art” computer technology designed to save us work by making and grading our tests for us. Every time a new part of the program is eased into place, it’s likely to be accompanied by an administrative choral hymn elaborating all the ways the whole package will raise test scores, lower our workload, and defend us from allowing our teaching to be text or test driven. We will be soothed and placated to distract us from a fundamental reality: this plan is the creature of a small group of educational technologists with a very particular notion of how the Milwaukee Public Schools should work.

Who Should Make Major Curricular Decisions?

Before February of 1987, when some teachers were asked to serve on the “filtering committees” set up to review the OBE objectives, very few people outside a couple of MPS departments realized that the decision to implement this major curricular reform had been made and that a substantial part of the planning and program design were almost complete.

The centralized nature of OBE is consistent with the centralized way in which it was decided that this was the management system MPS needed. Teachers were offered a fairly clear justification of how MPS officials made this decision during the October and November inservices. We were told, “The learner expectations are really the learning standards for the district…. In all organizations, it is the responsibility o f an organization’s policy makers to establish standards. Effective organizations invite the participation of those who must implement the standards to help develop them. And then it’s up to those whom an organization hires as staff to implement its standards.” (my emphasis DL)

While this method of decision-making might be appropriate for a corporation, it has negative consequences for a school system. Any major curricular change should not be made without the meaningful involvement of school board members and teachers. Presumably school board members are considered “policy makers,” yet they were barely kept informed on the development of OBE, and certainly not included in the decision to devote considerable resources to developing it. Teachers, of course, were not even aware of this new program until it had been in development for well over a year and its basic features had been decided upon.

There is no guarantee that involving school board members or teachers in a decision such as this will add a magical element of wisdom to the process. But it is reasonable to expect that the people trusted by the electorate to oversee the schools and the people expected to carry out its prime function might have some insights concerning a fundamental change such as this.

Of course, we have been given a “chance” this year to have our say about the “Learner Expectations” part of the OBE. The first part of our chance came when some of us were asked to serve on “filtering committees.” But by this time the basic nature of the program had been decided, and the only role allowed to teachers was to refine the objectives. Even this limit responsibility was difficult to carry out given the lack of release time and the two month deadline.

The second part of our chance came at the OBE orientation sessions. According to the Facilitator’s Discussion Guide, one of the purposes of these inservices was “To build among staff ownership of the OBE Curriculum.” Yet the format of these sessions did little to encourage a sense of ownership. Teachers were subjected to a condescending video and scripted lecture, followed by small group meetings in which they were allowed to ask questions (which were recorded for a future written response) but not to dialogue with discussion leaders. 

The OBE “Learner Expectations” 

According to Dr. Faison, the OBE curriculum responds to the question, “What must a student know in this subject, at this point in time, to be considered a competent individual?” Its answer is lists of “learner expectations” for all students, at all grade levels and in all subject areas. These lists are to constitute the curriculum for 80% of the instructional time and every teacher is obligated to teach every objective listed for their grade level or subject.

The quality of the “learner expectations” varies greatly by subject and grade level. Some of the course and subject lists are statements of reasonable goals cast in open enough terms to allow wide teacher discretion in their fulfillment. Creative and conscientious teachers would find them to be reasonable guidelines within which to plan their daily instruction. Other lists, especially located at the elementary and middle school levels, include many items of factual information. They are likely to mire instruction in memorization and discourage teachers from seriously exploring students’ interests or achieving the depth of inspection necessary to unleash the creative energy of children. While the quality of the lists vary, there are certain problems and dangers inherent to the total OBE endeavor. These can be examined by looking at a few of the lists from different grade levels.

In 5th grade, teachers are asked to teach students a total of 321 objectives. The 5th grade science curriculum includes 63 objectives, 48 of which involve the extensive acquisition of knowledge in seven topic areas. Many of these objectives are worthy, but if they are all taught their sheer weight would smother teachers and students. As Victor F. Weisskopf, emeritus professor of physics at M.I.T., points out, “Science is curiosity, discovering things, and asking why, why is it so?…. We must always begin by asking questions and not by giving answers…. Youngsters and adults cannot learn if information is pressed into their brains. You can only teach by creating interest, by creating an urge to know…. Avoid, as much as possible, frontal learning: teacher talking, students listening.”

Let’s say that a teachers wanted to use the inquiry approach suggested by Dr. Weisskopf. She might have her students choose a topic from the curriculum and explore it in depth through an individual or group project, and share what they have learned with the class. But such an approach would involve a prolonged detour from the instructional forced march delineated in the curriculum. The teacher would be unable to cover all the objectives and would thus be derelict in the fulfillment of her OBE duties.

The Usefulness of Grade Level Expectations

The OBE objectives are posed as “essential learner expectations” which have been deposited at precisely the correct grade level. Confronted by a list composed mainly by an “expert” and based on research, a classroom teacher might feel that her own judgements about what goals and activities are appropriate for her students deserve only a back seat. It is certainly valid for curriculum specialists to pose certain objectives and activities as essential at different grade levels. But it is dangerous to wrap these statements of opinion in an aura of scientific precision andJell classroom teachers that if they fail to teach any of them they are neglecting an “essential learning standard.”

This danger can be illustrated by taking a look at the middle school language arts objectives. In 6th grade, students are expected to “participate fully in the writing process, individually and in groups” and write “short narratives, dramatic scenes, poetry.” In 7th and 8th grades these two objectives are dropped, although in 7th grade students are expected to write a 3 to 5 paragraph composition. Sixth grade students must participate in panel discussions, an essential learning activity which has become non-essential by 7th grade, to be replaced by dramatic presentations and interviewing. Teachers will of course be free to teach non-essential activities in the 20% of instructional time left to their discretion, but we suspect that good teachers will be hard put to cram their favorite but “officially” non-essential activities into this time frame.

All of the activities mentioned above could be considered essential at any of the middle school grade levels. It is an arbitrary infringement on the judgement of the classroom teacher to insist that at her grade level one of these activities is essential while another one is a frill.

Perhaps a better approach would have been to identify clusters of goals and activities in Language Arts which are appropriate in grades 6 through, 9, and constitute a repertoire of approaches teachers are encouraged to try out with specific classes. Different classes of students tend to have their own specific chemistries., their own dynamics and strengths an(| weaknesses. Standards of learning will be strengthened rather than weakened when teachers are given maximum encouragement to decide what activities are essential for their students.

System-wide Objective and the Passionate Concerns of Teachers and Students

Teaching is a profession in which it is especially difficult to maintain a good balance between what should be mandated by a central authority and what should be left up to the individual professional. The MPS administration does have an obligation to ensure that students aren’t short-changed by lazy teachers and that each student has a reasonably comprehensive education. In their pursuit of these goals, the designers of the OBE have expressed an awareness of the tension between necessary standardization and the need for individual initiative. Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that their basic approach sacrifices too much classroom based initiative in the interest of uniform standards.

Some of the evidence for this conclusion comes from statements made by the designers of OBE. During the OBE inservices, teachers were told that after teaching the mandated curriculum, “The remaining 20% (of instructional time) is yours to use so that you can meet your own students’ interests, strengths, and needs.” Glenda Landon, the main architect of QBE, offered an interesting view on why it is inappropriate to let teachers decide what to teach. Somebody has to decide, now one way to do that is to let every teacher decide on a daily basis what gets taught and when. And that’s great for the teachers, right? Because then they can do what interests them, when it interests them, when they’re motivated. And it seems to me that the greatest sufferers in that model are the kids because what they’re doing is getting an education that is predicated on teacher interest, motivation, what have you…not on what they know, and what they need to learn next.”

These two statements set up a disturbing dichotomy between what teachers and students care about, and what is to be covered in the official curriculum. There is compelling evidence that schools are failing not because certain topics and skills are left out, but because teachers don’t spend enough time and energy teaching both what interests and. motivates students, and what speaks to the “interests, strengths, and needs” of their students. When a curriculum is prescribed in some detail by an educational architect, it tends to neglect the vital connections which can be made between the passionate concerns of teachers and students, and an important body of knowledge and abilities. This curriculum suffers from a lack of faith in the ability of students and teachers to generate classroom activity which both springs from concerns that are dear to them and embodies important skills and understandings. 

An example from the high school objectives shows how this dichotomy is built into the OBE approach. There are 25 objectives foV Urban Citizenship, a high school social studies course. Almost all of them could be the basis for fruitful inquiry. But if a teacher were to cover all of them, he would bC’drawn toward a survey approach likely to put both himself and his students to sleep. And if he were to cover the objectives in a way which really enabled his students to explain, describe, examine, identify, illustrate, analyze and evaluate specific objectives as stipulated, he would need well more than a year of instructional time. The approach sketched out by the OBE certainly does not discouraged teachers from investigating one of the listed topics in some depth, or from basing a significant part of instruction on an issue which reflects student concerns. But if a class investigated an issue seriously enough for it to be a meaningful experience, it would force the teacher to race through other objectives in a superficial manner.

For example, students might want to look at the issues of police brutality or slum housing in their community, certainly valid topics in an Urban Citizenship course. An effective unit on one of these issues might well include interviewing officials, taking polls, analyzing newspaper articles, library research, and substantial oral and written work. It could easily consume three weeks. Such a project could be designed to cover important aspects of some of the learner expectations. But we have to keep in mind that this is also the course in which students’ are expected, among other things, to:

  • explain the weaknesses of the Articles of the Confederation, and how this led to the Constitution;
  • describe how United States foreign policy has changed over the years to meet changing world conditions;
  • evaluate the accomplishments and shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s;
  • explain the Cold War, Korean conflict and subsequent involvement of the United States in Southeast Asia;
  • compare the social institutions (family, educational, economic, political, religious) found in representative world societies;
  • analyze the structure and function of the American family, and the key role this institution plays in developing individuals who can function in our society;
  • describe the structure and function of the American educational system;
  • explain past and present involvement of the United States on the international scene through alliances (OAS, NATO, etc.) and international organizations (United Nations, International Court of Justice, etc.).

It is hard to imagine how an inquiry approach to learning which is sensitive to student interests and allows enough depth of instruction to be meaningful could survive the pressure to cover all these topics.

The problem of responding to student and teacher interests is further complicate by the necessity of matching content and activities to the learning level of students. The OBE curriculum rests on the assumption that all children will come into a given grade level ready for the learner expectations they will encounter. But in reality, many students will arrive at new grade levels ill prepared to master all the listed goals.

Uneven development between students is especially pronounced in the early grade levels. Good teaching requires the capacity to maintain high expectations while being flexible enough to make significant curricular modifications to meet the needs of a given group of students. Such modifications may not be possible in the context of the mandated OBE objectives.

Outcome Based Education and Testing

The most dangerous part of OBE may be the changes it will bring in MPS testing practices. OBE is a proud member of the nation-wide “curriculum alignment” trend, whose proponents argue the virtues of making sure texts and tests reflect objectives. To make sure students are tested on what OBE teaches, the MPS Research Department is investigating how to create a test item bank which could hold hundreds of thousands of test items which could be made available to teachers at all MPS schools. All of these items would be correlated to specific OBE objectives.

No final decision has been made about how the testing component of OBE should work but two major approaches have been suggested.

One approach would encourage teachers to use the OBE item bank to construct tests for use in the context of daily instruction. Technology would be installed to enable teachers to get lists of questions for each objective they want to test, choose the questions they wanted to use, and be able to get scores back immediately by running the test bubble sheets through a scoring machine. 

The other approach, which could be used as either a complement to or replacement of the first one, would install a layer of system-wide objective referenced tests. As of last February, the City Wide Testing Advisory Committee was seriously considering a plan to install such tests in Reading and Math in Grades 1 and 4, and in Reading, Math, and Language at Grades 3 and 6. In addition, it has been suggested that objective referenced tests could be made available to high school teachers for use as finals.

The first approach described may be appealing to some teachers. Bubble sheet tests tailor made to fit particular objectives could be tremendously convenient. But will they help us teach better? Many teachers and researchers have pointed out that multiple choice formats for assessment can fragment and dull instruction by emphasizing rote learning and drawing energy away from holistic activities which are intrinsically meaningful to students.

The second approach is even more frightening. Between basals, norm-referenced tests, and competency tests we are already well on our way to being a test driven system. Another layer of formal tests, closely tied to the OBE “learner expectations” would pressure us further toward skewing our instruction away from higher level thinking activities toward a narrow range of skills and knowledge more likely to be measured by standardized, objective referenced tests.

The central office decision to create an elaborate computer based testing system accelerates an already strong tendency to see standardized testing as an effective way to promote better teaching. In MPS elementary schools, teachers must base their reading grades totally on reading levels determined by end of the book standardized tests, even when this conflicts with their professional judgement. Students in Project Rise schools are currently given norm-referenced tests in reading, math, and language arts at every grade level. By the Spring of 1988, all 4th and 5th graders at the fourteen P-5 schools will take norm-referenced tests in Reading, Math, Language, and Study Skills, as well as objective-referenced-tests in Social Studies and Science. As of 1989 all 3rd graders in the state will be required to take a DPI-developed-standardized reading test. Beginning this year, the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) will be used to test the Reading and Math skills of all 9th, 10th, and 11th graders in.MPS. But does more testing lead to better learning? Frank Smith, a nationally recognized authority on reading, writing, and children’s literacy, notes, “The short right answer has come to dominate education, but only because of the mania for teaching and testing by the most mechanical means possible – ‘objectively.’ The theory is that to tech and evaluate learning in any way except by numbers would be unscientific and unreliable, and to allow scores and grades to be allocated on the basis of personal judgement would be ‘subjective’ (a pejorative term) and biased. Ironically, the endeavor to remove the personal and possibly prejudicial from educational evaluation has resulted in the totally arbitrary and distorted procedure of teaching and testing only those things that can be clearly scored right or wrong, and counted. The cost of removing human error has been the removal of all humanity and the reduction of education to trivia.”

Where is MPS Headed?

It is ironic that at the same time the administration is touting site-based Management as a way to allow important decision making to occur at each school, it is implementing a curriculum which has such strong tendencies toward uniformity. Along with the predetermined objectives and assessment mechanism, teachers will also be provided with “Alignment Guides” which in some cases will recommend in what six week grading period certain objectives should be covered. Outcome based Education will set the goals of 80% of the curriculum and encourage approaches to instruction likely to yield high scores on centrally constructed, short answer test items. But effective site based management depends on giving principals and teachers at each school a great deal of responsibility in determining goals and methods of instruction and assessment. The standardization built into OBE discourages such school based initiative.

Given the fundamental drawbacks of the Outcome Based Education approach, we need to find a better way to improve MPS schools. While it is beyond the scope of this article to develop an alternative to OBE, I would like to suggest some possible guidelines for wrestling with the difficult problems it attempts to address:

  • Plans for big changes in curriculum and assessment should be developed in a democratic manner. A collaborative partnership between central office experts and teachers would yield better results than the top-down corporate approach used to develop OBE. 
  • Teachers and principals should be given the freedom and responsibility they will need to make site-based, management work. The full OBE program will rob schools of the chance to develop their own goals and methods of assessment. By tying instruction to a centralized testing system it will discourage creative teaching. True accountability is only possible when teachers are given the difficult job of thinking through and trying out their own ideas of what classroom learning should be about.
  • Educational standards Should not straitjacket instruction. Certainly all teachers need goals and expectations to guide their work. But such goals and expectations need to be flexible enough to allow them to fully respond to the strengths, weaknesses, and interests of their students.
  • Teachers should be urged to continue to rely on, and to improve, methods of assessment which rest on their professional judgement. Adding more standardized tests, whether they be norm-referenced or criterion-referenced, will not solve our educational problems. Mayher and Brause (1986) suggest that documenting progress in work which is inherently meaningful and important to students yields better benchmarks of achievement than tests. They note that samples of student writing, records of their reading activity, and carefully documented classroom observation can provide a multidimensional picture of student achievement without distorting instruction.

Outcome’ Based Education, here and across the country; promises to provide accountability, equity, and effectiveness in education. But these promises’, cannot be kept, because it is an approach based on mistrust of teachers, a mechanistic conception of learning, and a belief that the complex problems of education can be solved by plugging in the proper grand design. Rather than passively accepting this plan as a fait accompli, we should consider it a challenge to develop an alternate approach which will better serve the needs of our students.

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