The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by Educational Leadership, March, 1994. [OBE represents an almost textbook case of the education fad, although put on the skids a little sooner than others by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly and other conservatives. Bill Spady, a leading OBE proponent, should feel justifiably aggrieved at its early, politically motivated demise.]

The Possible Outcomes of Outcome-Based Education
by Barry McGhan

The OBE Bandwagon rolled into my school district last fall. We've received our training via a series of day and half-day lectures over a period of several months. I can't help but wonder if OBE will become just another fad to toy with and then drop. That would be a shame because there is much to appreciate in the ideas of outcome-based education.

The essence of OBE lies in its shift away from typical school practices where performance is based primarily on covering varying sets of requirements ("A" work, "B" work, "C" work, etc.) in a fixed period of time (e.g., one semester). OBE proponents call instead for students to cover a common set of requirements in varying periods of time. Such a change means that students would no longer receive "seat-time" credit because they attended a class and completed some minor portion of the course requirements. Instead, they would have to demonstrate that they have mastered a complete set of specific requirements. This change could result in

  • the elimination of permanent failure--since students who have not yet achieved the standard will still have the opportunity to do so.

  • the elimination of compromised standards--since students would be expected to achieve the identified outcome before moving on

Our OBE Wagoneers have astutely extended this basic concept by also calling for students to show that they have mastered outcomes of significance--complex, multi-faceted expressions of students' learning. This change could result in

  • the reduction of rote learning, absorption of miscellaneous facts, and slavish adherence to procedural knowledge

  • an increase in students' ability to appreciate and deal with realistic problems and situations like those that will engage them later in life
  • the elimination of tracking--since this form of OBE expects all students to achieve the same outcomes, although perhaps at different times

I've been a fan of some of these ideas since the early 70's, when I joined a handful of teachers who developed an alternative high school for dropouts in our urban district. We eventually produced a workable system of performance contracts and flexible scheduling which still exists. At this same time I was undergoing a reeducation at the hands of Wilbur Brookover and other professors at Michigan State University. There, I gained new insights into the role of teacher expectations, the positive and negative effects of various school climates, the structural aspects of school organizations, and the societal functions of schools.

Based on these experiences I have some concerns arising from my district's current OBE training program.

For example, our training has been offered in a non-OBE (i.e., time-based traditional lecture) format. Why aren't our trainers "walking their talk?" The message seems to be that some situations are not appropriate for OBE strategies.

The version of OBE being promoted in our district also requires us to reorganize the entire curriculum around exit outcomes. Exit outcomes are described as those things we want our students to "be like, do, and know." Most exit outcomes express very general characteristics like those you would find in a typical job reference letter: "displays ingenuity," "a self starter," "dependable," and "works well with others." So, exit outcomes are likely to be similar from one district or school to the next.

Why does our district have to reinvent the wheel? The OBE trainers say that this process develops local ownership. Their approach, however, uses a group consensus model which may provide little ownership for any given individual. It seems that we would still have ownership if we chose someone else's exit outcomes and adapted them. Compare fixing your supper from scratch versus selecting it from a cafeteria menu--whichever method is used, you still have to eat it.

Even if we develop our own exit outcomes, the degree of consensus that needs to be achieved remains unidentified. Is it 30%? 60%? 90%? What proportion of the internal and external stakeholders have to subscribe to an outcome before it gets added to the list?

A critical realization to have about outcome-based education is that choosing it over a traditional time-based approach means that--given the individual differences that exist within populations--students will progress through a given set of outcomes at different rates(1). This means that schools must learn how to handle scheduling problems that result from students starting and ending outcome sets at different times.

 My experience suggests that simply chopping the curriculum up into discrete performance chunks--to be consumed by students at different rates--is difficult. To expect teachers and administrators to simultaneously carry on normal business, reshape the curriculum, and change the delivery system, is asking too much.

Why not make the transition to flexible scheduling within a traditional curriculum first? Teachers will realize two major benefits from performance contracts and flexible scheduling. First, they will gain a lot more control over their interactions with students. Students will have to do worthwhile things to get credit--they just can't hang around and get a grade at the end of the semester. Second, individual students' progress will be much more visible and thus rewarding to teachers, than it is in a group setting. Having been won over by the beneficial aspects of this first step, teachers can move on to change other features of traditional schooling. For example, they could then take a serious look at weaving together subject areas that have been traditionally distinct--always difficult, especially for secondary teachers who have no training in multidisciplinary approaches. Or, they might tackle the idea that significant culminating outcomes exist which all students can demonstrate(2).

There are a host of other implications for an individualized system that, if left unexamined, may present serious roadblocks.

For example, a beneficial consequence of individualization is that it eliminates the group arena that defines students' failures. But, individualization also reduces opportunities to perform successfully in public. There's just no audience for common activities there. We need to remember that it's possible to have too much individualization, and plan for group activities that can take place within a generally individualized structure.

Another consequence of increased individualization is that some students will finish earlier than others. Will the proportion of under-17 year old high school grads increase? The implications of such early departure, for the world of work, for higher education, and its probable impact on the size of the teacher workforce need to be considered. Also, how will parents react to the lost child-care function that schools now provide for all children for at least 13 years?

And what about the students who are approaching their early twenties and are still not close to finishing? They have to be encouraged to keep trying. Most of all, we need to have faith that they can still demonstrate competence on all the outcomes.

OBE proponents speak favorably about different age levels learning together side by side. In the early years of our alternative school we were housed with an adult high school program. As a result, we had many difficulties with older male students harassing younger female students. We need to be prepared to deal with a greater degree of cross-age problems of this kind.

If, as OBE proponents say, the boundaries of time and space for what we now call "school" become less distinct, this will result in increased demands on parents' time and resources. School activities will become more like after-school activities. Who will manage all the getting around that needs to take place in order for "significant culminating outcomes" to be demonstrated? What additional liabilities might schools encounter as a result?

The amount of focus students can bring to indirectly-supervised study must also be considered. Think of the many "all-but-dissertation" doctoral candidates out there. Are K-12 students going to learn to be mature enough to meet their responsibilities for completing tasks?

Another aspect to providing individualized instruction at high levels of performance for all or almost all students has to do with schools' societal role. In general, schools transmit culture--broadly defined--from older to younger generations. In this society that means, among other things, that schools tend to reproduce social stratification and provide a "gatekeeper" function over employment opportunities. If schools start providing good solid instruction to children from the lower classes, then middle and upper class parents will become concerned. They will worry about the future opportunities for their children in a world that suddenly has a much more level playing field. What pressures will the wealthier segments of the population bring to bear against OBE practices?

OBE proponents tend to oppose national curriculum proposals and related standardized testing, and they have some valid points about the pallid nature of some of those tests. But, the tests--if not valuable themselves--have a level of objectivity that we ought to value. We need to assure ourselves that the "culminating demonstrations" we ask our students to perform are worthwhile, and common to all. As a teacher, I need to believe not only that my judgements are objective, but that other teachers' are too. In short, who will judge the judges?

Now, you might think that these concerns are sufficient to turn away from OBE toward another reform strategy.

But this is not so.

For all the difficult problems facing OBE, none of them seem intractable if we try to be smart about its implementation, and if we open a genuine debate about the benefits and pitfalls. More than most other proposals we have seen in recent years, OBE promises to lead us out of the discontent we have over our schools. This insight came following a brief conversation with the founder of the company providing our training.

During a break in his presentation, I asked why it seemed that Asian educators could be so successful with time-based systems while we cannot. He said, "First, they have societies that uniformly value and support teachers and schools. And secondly, they value effort over ability more than we do." I had read The Learning Gap by Stevenson and Stigler--which makes the same observations--just a few months before, so his answer seemed knowledgeable.

Reflecting on this comment produced the following insight. Time-based educational systems work well in some countries because those societies

  • are characterized by pervasive expectations that schools will work

  • provide support which allow schools to work.

In contrast, the U.S. is characterized by a lack of systematic support for education. What's worse, U.S. culture also has a number of negative aspects which impede education.

The reason that outcome-based schools can overcome the lack of support and negative societal factors that so strongly influence traditional time-based performance is that an OBE school can extend its hand to all children and say,

"You got problems in your life? Ok, we'll hang on to what you've done so far. We'll keep tabs on you, and we'll help when we can. When your problems recede, we'll pick up where we left off. "(3)

In other words, the interruptions in schooling that occur in the lives of too many of our students can be treated as bad dreams to be forgotten, rather than as a growing burden of missed work that is rarely remediated.

That's the doable part of OBE. We can probably make the changes needed to bring that scenario about in those schools with a strong need to counteract society's failings. The weakest element of the OBE concepts promoted by our trainers has to do with the other major difference between Asian and American systems, namely the perceived value of effort vs. ability.

It seems clear that a necessary condition for this particular form of OBE to succeed is that we truly believe that all children can achieve a common set of outcomes if given sufficient time and support. Our OBE trainers make this point too, but it is treated perfunctorily--as if it's a foregone conclusion that all of their trainees believe it.

Why is this important? Well, suppose you don't believe it. Then your first thought is that one common set of outcomes makes no sense. Or, if a common set of outcomes remains a goal, then those judged to be less able will be excused from making more significant demonstrations. After all, we will say, "What can you expect from those kinds of students?"

In a country like the U.S.--that honors ability over effort--it will be difficult for educators to give more than lip service to the idea that all children can learn. If the belief that all can learn (given adequate effort) is a necessary condition for this form of OBE to succeed, where does that leave us?

The history of education reform is strewn with the wrecks of promising proposals whose implementation strategy didn't account for the current milieu, or for the inevitable complications that come with change. Outcome-based education is as much at risk of failure as any other significant reform. Let's engage each other in a meaningful dialogue about OBE and all its manifestations, rather than try to sell one viewpoint. Change comes through overcoming obstacles, not by avoiding them. Let's tell the OBE Wagoneers to turn down the music and let the debate begin.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, down that road "...the one less traveled..." we may produce strategies which bring lasting and significant change. It can make all the difference.


(1) The source of individual differences is not an issue here. The fact is, whether differences result from heredity, environment, or the interaction of the two, they exist and will have an impact.
(2) This is a stage my former alternative school still has not achieved. However, they certainly are ready for it.
(3) Our version of OBE contains the additional message "And by the way, we'll try to make the things we want you to learn interesting and useful too."


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