February 1994: Now They Call it 21st Century Skills

Charles J. Sykes:

Dumbing Down Our Kids–What’s Really Wrong With Outcome Based Education
Charles J. Sykes, Wisconsin Interest, reprinted in Network News & Views 2/94, pp. 9-18
Joan Wittig is not an expert, nor is she an activist. She just didn’t understand why her children weren’t learning to write, spell, or read very well. She didn’t understand why they kept coming home with sloppy papers filled with spelling mistakes and bad grammar and why teachers never corrected them or demanded better work. Nor could she fathom why her child’s fourth-grade teacher would write, “I love your story, especially the spelling,” on a story jammed with misspelled words. (It began: “Once a pona time I visited a tropical rian forist.”)
While Wittig did not have a degree in education, she did have some college-level credits in education and a “background of training others to perform accurately and competently in my numerous job positions, beginning in my high school years.” That experience was enough for her to sense something was wrong. She was not easily brushed off by assurances that her children were being taught “whole language skills.” For two years, she agonized before transferring her children from New Berlin’s public schools to private schools.
After only a semester at the private schools, her children were writing and reading at a markedly higher level. Their papers were neatly written, grammatical, and their spelling was systematically corrected.
Earlier this year, she decided to take her story to her local school board.

Armed with copies of her children’s work (before and after their transfer to private schools), she questioned the district’s allegiance to “whole language”–a teaching philosophy, Wittig said, where children are “encouraged to write and spell any way they want and the teacher does not correct the spelling so that the child’s creativity is not stifled.”
“Is this to be considered teaching?” she asked. “Is effective learning taking place?”
She also wondered about the schools’ emphasis on “cooperative learning,” in which children learn in groups. “I sent my child to school to be taught by a teacher,” she said, “not by another student.”
A local newspaper story recounted the reaction to Wittig’s presentation: “Superintendent James Benfield said such criticism could make school employees feel they are doing something wrong. ‘We should not have employees criticized until we change the guidelines,’ he said, adding that he would be willing to consider a change.”
Change is unlikely. If Wittig left the skirmish puzzled, she is not alone.
A growing number of school districts seem eager to embrace the very techniques Joan Wittig was challenging. And what she saw as the dumbing down of her children’s schools is being hailed by state commissions, educational experts, and a growing number of school boards as the latest in educational “reforms.”
Many of those “reforms” are being instituted under the rubric of outcome based education (OBE), a term fraught with controversy, ambiguity, and misunderstanding.
The source of the confusion is readily understandable. Different people mean different things when they talk about outcome based education. Adding to the confusion, some districts apparently have adopted OBE techniques, but deny having done so when parents and/or reporters make inquiries.
Lost in the fog of jargon that surrounds OBE are radical differences over the role of schools in society. School administrators who are understandably reluctant to venture into such treacherous waters often downplay, deny, or evade the philosophical underpinnings of the reforms they advocate.
One thing, however, is clear. Outcome based education programs are spreading rapidly at both the state and local level, driven in large measure by efforts to establish national and state “goals” for improving education. That process is likely to accelerate with the Clinton administration’s decision to require states to adopt federally approved “goals” as a condition of receiving school aid. Those federal guidelines could very well look a good deal like the “outcomes” advocated by architects of OBE.
This will intensify the level of political controversy over OBE.
But the politics of OBE are anything but simple. OBE programs are bitterly opposed by some conservative parent groups, but have been widely embraced by moderate and conservative business leaders, including those who served on Governor Tommy G. Thompson’s Commission on Schools for the 21st Century (known as the Fish Commission after its chairman, Ody Fish). On the other hand, OBE is championed by the education establishment (and is de rigueur at schools of education), but it is opposed by one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers.
Much of the confusion over OBE centers on the notion of “outcomes.”
Ironically, “outcomes” were first raised to prominence by leaders of the conservative educational reform movement of the 1980s. Championed by Chester E. Finn, Jr., among others, such reformers argued that the obsession with inputs (dollars spent, books bought, staff hired) focused on the wrong end of the educational pipeline. They insisted that schools could be made more effective and accountable by shifting emphasis to outcomes (what children actually learned). Finn’s emphasis on outcomes was designed explicitly to make schools more accountable by creating specific and verifiable educational objectives in subjects like math, science, history, geography, and English. In retrospect, the intellectual debate over accountability was won by conservatives. Indeed, conservatives were so successful in advancing their case that the term “outcomes” has become a virtually irresistible sales tool for educational reform.
The irony is that, in practice, the educational philosophies collectively known as outcome based education have little, if anything, in common with these original goals. To the contrary, OBE, with its hostility to competition, traditional measures of progress, and academic disciplines in general, can more accurately be described as part of a counter-reformation, a reaction to those attempts to make schools more accountable and effective. The OBE being sold to schools across Wisconsin represents, in effect, a semantic hijacking.
“The conservative education reform of the 1980s wanted to focus on outcomes (i.e. knowledge gained) instead of inputs (i.e. dollars spent),” notes former Education Secretary William Bennett. “The aim was to ensure greater accountability. What the education establishment has done is to appropriate the term but change the intent.”
In other words, educationists have adopted the language of accountability to help them avoid being accountable.
Central to this semantic hijacking is OBE’s shift of outcomes from cognitive knowledge to goals centering on values, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings. As an example of a rigorous cognitive outcome (the sort the original reformers had in mind), Bennett cites the Advanced Placement Examinations, which give students credit for courses based on their knowledge and proficiency in a subject area, rather than on their accumulated “seat-time” in a classroom.
In contrast, OBE programs are less interested in whether students know the origins of the Civil War or the author of the Tempest than whether students have met such outcomes as “establishing priorities to balance multiple life roles” (a goal in Pennsylvania) or “positive self-concept” (a goal in Kentucky). Nothing that Joan Wittig found in her children’s classrooms was inconsistent with OBE philosophies or practices.
Consider the differences in approaches to educational reforms:

  • Where the reformers like Finn cited “outcomes,” they insisted on higher academic standards; OBE lowers them.
  • Where the original reformers aimed at accountability, OBE makes it difficult, if not impossible, to objectively measure and compare educational progress.
  • Instead of clearly stated, verifiable outcomes, OBE goals are often diffuse, fuzzy, and ill-defined, loaded with educationist jargon like “holistic learning,” “whole-child development,” and “interpersonal competencies.”
  • Where the original reformers saw their goal as excellence, OBE is characterized by a radical egalitarianism that tends to penalize high-achieving students.
  • Where original reformers emphasized schools that worked, OBE is experimental. Its advocates are unable to point to a single district where it has been successful.
  • And finally, where the original reformers saw an emphasis on outcomes as a way to return to educational basics, OBE has become, in Bennett’s words, “a Trojan Horse for social engineering, an elementary and secondary version of the kind of ‘politically correct’ thinking that has infected our colleges and universities.”

But while much of Outcome Based Education is genuinely radical, in general, it does not represent anything really very new. Rather, it is a continuation of the decades-old drift in educational circles away from subject content towards technique; from teaching knowledge to emphasizing nebulous “mental skills.”
It represents a continuation of the flight from academic rigor and accountability. Ultimately, OBE is less sinister than it is the embodiment of mediocrity as an educational goal.
The architects of OBE envision a world in which no one fails, or at least one in which no one fails in school. “For the most part,” declares Albert Mammary, “we believe competition in the classroom is destructive.” Mammary has been superintendent of New York’s Johnson City Central School District, K-12, where he developed an “Outcomes-Driven Developmental Model” (ODDM), which he describes as the “nation’s first comprehensive school improvement model.”
The model is built on slogans along the line of “Success for all students” and “Excellence for All.”
For Mammary, the first step to success begins with doing away with failure.
Outcome based schools “believe there should be no failure and that failure ought to be removed from our vocabulary and thoughts,” he wrote in 1991. “Failure, or fear of failure, will cause students to give up.
Former students may recall that, to the contrary, the fear of failure was an inducement to try harder, a spur that caused papers to be written and formulas memorized. But Mammary sees the threat of failure only as a barrier to enthusiastic learning.
“When students don’t have to worry about failure,” he insists, “they will be more apt to want to learn.”
Mammary apparently feels the same way about differentiation of any sort. He opposes curved grading, ability grouping, and tracking. Tests are also transformed. They are no longer trials of knowledge, but celebrations of success.
“Testing should be creative,” he insists, “aligned to learning outcomes, and only given when the students will do well.”
This is only the beginning of his redefinition of “success” and “excellence.”
Outcome based schools, he declares, “believe excellence is for every child and not just a few.” They achieve this not by dragging the top kids down, he writes, but by bringing expectations up for everyone. He does this, however, by insisting that everyone be a winner.
Mammary is explicit on this: “A no-cut philosophy is recommended. Everyone trying out for the football team should make it; every girl or boy that (sic) wants to be a cheerleader should make it; everyone who comes to the program for the gifted and talented should make it.”
There is a dreamy, utopian quality about all of this. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone were a prom queen; if everybody who dreamed of being a quarterback could be one; if every aspiring pianist could star in a concert. The world, unfortunately, doesn’t work that way.
But that is precisely the point. Dreams have such power to fix our imaginations precisely because everyone cannot achieve them. Boys aspire to be quarterbacks because of the level of accomplishment it represents. Not everyone can do it. If anyone could be quarterback, what is left to aspire to?
There is also a practical concern here. A football team that must play anyone who wishes to be quarterback will quickly become a team on which no one will want to play any position.
By abolishing failure (or at least the recognition and consequences of failure) and redefining excellence to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, we deprive success of meaning. In the ideal OBE world, everyone would feel like a success, without necessarily having to do much of anything to justify their self-esteem.
If Mammary appears to be a dreamer, there are practical applications of his philosophy. The most obvious is the hostility of OBE to traditional grades as measurements of achievement.
The emphasis on abolishing grades and traditional tests is central to the philosophy of OBE advocates. “Grading lies at the core of how our current system operates,” declares OBE guru William Spady, director of the High Success Program on Outcome-Based Education.
Spady, who has been influential in the establishment of OBE programs in Wisconsin, quotes conservative reformers such as Chester Finn in his writings, but he follows Mammary in calling for the leveling of distinctions based on ability, industry or achievement.
Grades are gatekeepers, separating good students from others. “This, in turn, reinforces the system of inter-student comparison and competition created by class ranks. Such a system, of course, gives a natural advantage to those with stronger academic backgrounds, higher aptitudes for given areas of learning, and more resources at home to support their learning.”
His objection appears to be based less on educational grounds than on his suspicion of inequality of any sort. Grades favor the smart and the studious. Spady wants to make up for the unfairness of it all.
Grades are oppressive, Spady writes. “Grades label students, control their opportunities, limit their choices, shape their identities, and define their rewards for learning and behaving in given ways.”
Grades pit students against one another, he complains, “implying that achievement and success are inherently comparative, competitive and relevant” (which, in fact, they are, both in school and life). Indeed, Spady sees the issue of grades in terms of class struggle. “The usual result: the rich get richer, the poor give up.”
Not necessarily. Occasionally, the student who gets Ds will work to become a student who gets Cs, and the C student will strive to become an A student. The A student may work harder so that he does not become a C student.
But Spady sees no link between grades and motivation to succeed or improve oneself. Instead, he focuses on the potential damage that poor grades might inflict on “young people struggling to define their identity and self-worth.” He assumes here that identity and self-worth are independent of achievement.
Like Mammary, Spady envisions a grading system with no failure, but also no bad grades at all. OBE, he explains, eliminates labeling and competitive grading and stresses “VALIDATING that a high level of performance is ultimately reached on those things that will directly impact on the student’s success in the future. In other words, all we’re really interested in is A-level performance, thank you, so we EXPECT it of all students, systematically teach for it, and validate it when it occurs.”
The OBE buzzword for its approved evaluation system is “authentic assessment.” Assessment is authentic, apparently, only when it becomes impossible to rank one student’s performance ahead of another’s.
In this new system, Spady suggests that teachers will be able to “throw away their pens at evaluation and reporting time and replace them with pencils that have large erasers.” Although he does not expand on the point, the abolition of “permanent records” has obvious advantages for educationists as well as students. The eraser takes both off the hook at the same time.
One form of accountability especially detested by the educational establishment creates measurements by which academic achievement can be readily compared among schools and among districts. Evaluations that are constantly in flux obviously cannot be compared this way. At most, schools could report progress toward their educational “goals,” which may be notoriously difficult to quantify. Those goals, however, will be a benchmark of sorts, and educationists can be expected to point to them as authentic measures of their success.
Indeed, success of some sort or another seems inevitable, since the goals often appear to be set to accommodate the lowest common denominator.
In its goal statement, Milwaukee’s suburban Whitnall district declared, “By 1996-97, all students will demonstrate 100% proficiency in the District’s performance outcomes.”
Whitnall school board member Ted Mueller quotes one astute resident remarking, “If we require all students to be able to stuff a basketball to be able to graduate from high school, the only way you’re going to be able to accomplish that is to lower the basketball hoop.”
Because material must be taught and re-taught until every student has mastered it, teachers in the OBE classroom necessarily have to narrow their ambitions. OBE advocates describe this as teaching less, but better. Fewer areas of math are covered, but they are covered more intensely. Even so, it is hard to avoid the “Robin Hood effect,” in which time and attention are shifted from high achieving students (who quickly master the material) to slower achieving students. This is, of course, exacerbated by OBE’s insistence on eliminating tracking or ability grouping.
Robert Slavin, director of the elementary school program at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools, notes that OBE (or “mastery learning”) “poses a dilemma, a choice between content coverage and mastery.”
“Because rapid coverage is likely to be of greatest benefit to high achievers, whereas high mastery is of greatest benefit to low achievers,” he concludes, programs such as OBE may be taught at the expense of the quicker students.
“If some students take much longer than others to learn a particular objective, then one of two things must happen,” Slavin writes. “Either corrective instruction must be given outside of regular classroom time, or students who achieve mastery early on will have to spend considerable amounts of time waiting for their classmates to catch up…” It is not even clear that such a system benefits slower learners. Slavin’s research found that “it may often be the case that even for low achievers, spending the time to master each objective may be less productive than covering more objectives.”
One of the most popular features of OBE is also one of the overt examples of the Robin Hood effect. In cooperative learning, students allegedly teach one another. In reality, it serves as a mechanism to keep students working at a uniform pace.
In her presentation to the New Berlin school board, Joan Wittig remarked on the bizarre consequences of such mandatory “cooperation.”
“Lazy, poor students rely on the good students to do all the work,” she told the board. “Good students are reinforced that they must do everything if it is to be done right.”
Another critic is high school senior Marisa Meisters, who wrote to a local newspaper:
As a senior at Arrowhead [High School], I have seen the results of OBE firsthand. The bottom line is that it does not work. The main goal of OBE is to teach students how to work in groups. The students in each group who understand the concept are supposed to teach the others in the group. Instead of moving on to more challenging concepts, the faster students have to wait for the entire group to understand the concept before they move on. Another OBE goal is to allow students to master subjects by retaking any test until the student can pass. The result is that the students do not study. Why should they when they can keep retaking the test? Eventually the student is bound to guess right.
But the genuinely radical vision of OBE’s architects is nothing so banal as “less taught but taught well.” Theorists like William Spady envision an educational system “grounded on future-driven outcomes that will directly impact the lives of students in the future, not on lesson and unit and course objectives. This means that content details will have to give way to the larger cognitive, technical, and interpersonal competencies needed in our complex, changing world.”
Exactly how “exit outcomes” will be divorced from “content details” is unclear. But it seems to mean that details of history (such as who won World War II) might be sacrificed in favor of material that will “directly impact” the lives of young people. Teaching “things,” or specific knowledge, is thus downgraded in the service of what Spady vaguely describes as “larger…competencies.” This appears to be educationese for saying that one does not need to know where England is as long as one has mastered “spatial” competencies; one need not know history as long as one has attained an interpersonally competent outcome.
Of course, Spady doesn’t expect this to come all at once. He acknowledges that schools will have to muddle through for the time being with the existing curriculum content, or what is left of it. Spady envisions a three-part process of transformation.
In the first stage, existing subject areas (science, math, history, English) “are taken as givens and are used to frame and define outcomes.” In its infancy, OBE will be content to define outcomes in terms of math abilities, knowledge of history, etc. These are the terms on which OBE is usually sold to parents and school boards. This is, however, only the beginning as far as Spady is concerned.
In the second stage, which Spady calls “Transitional OBE,” educrats create “a vehicle for separating curriculum content from intended outcomes and for placing primacy on the latter.”
In this stage, traditional curricular content is replaced by outcomes emphasizing Spady’s “higher order competencies and orientations.”

As if to emphasize how separate these competencies are from the traditional content of the curriculum, Spady stresses that “these broad competencies are almost always content neutral.” Indeed, he goes so far as to declare that the “content simply becomes a vehicle through which [higher order competencies] are developed and demonstrated.”
By Spady’s third and final stage–called “Transformational OBE”–the divorce between course content and the “exit outcomes” is complete and irreversible. Traditional curricular content has faded away altogether. In Transformational OBE, Spady writes, “curriculum content is no longer the grounding and defining element of outcomes.”
With content excluded, Spady turns up the flow of educationese to full-bore.
Now he writes, “outcomes are seen as culminating Exit role performances which include sometimes complex arrays of knowledge, competencies, and orientations and which require learning demonstrations in varying role contexts.”
Naturally this “dramatically redefines the role of subject content in determining and constraining what outcomes can be.” Actual knowledge–the ability to write a coherent letter, add a column of numbers, know the century in which the [U.S.] Civil War took place–should not be allowed to crimp the style of the higher order competencies.
Predictably (and also conveniently), these competencies cannot be measured by tests or other verifiable, comparative measures. Indeed, Spady describes the student of the future as a sort of performance art–a work in progress.
“The bottom line of Transformational OBE is that student learning is manifested through their ability to carry out performance roles in contexts that at least simulate life situations and challenges.”
Unfortunately, graduates will not be called on merely to perform in simulations of life. They will face the real thing, a reality unlikely to conform itself to Spady’s model.
Perhaps because of the transitional nature of OBE, fuzzy goals clogged with impenetrable jargon seem endemic to OBE.
Kentucky’s state educational goals include such “valued outcomes” as: “Listening,” which officials defined by saying “Students construct meaning from messages communicated in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes through listening.”
This was distinguished from “Observing,” which they defined by saying “Students construct meaning from messages communicated in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes through observing.”
Other goals included: “Interpersonal Relationships,” in which “Students observe, analyze, and interpret human behaviors to acquire a better understanding of self, others, and human relationships;” “Consumerism…Students demonstrate effective decision-making and evaluate consumer skills;” “Mental and Emotional Wellness…Students demonstrate positive strategies for achieving and maintaining mental and emotional wellness;” “Positive self-concept…Students demonstrate the ability to be adaptable and flexible through appropriate tasks or projects;” “Multicultural and World View…Students demonstrate an understanding of, appreciation of, and sensitivity to a multicultural and world view;” and “Ethical values…Students demonstrate the ability to make decisions based on ethical values.”
Obvious questions remain unanswered here: Whose ethical values will be used to establish the acceptable outcomes? Will any size fit? How will they be measured? How will schools determine whether a student has met its goals for “Interpersonal Skills” or “Consistent, Responsive and Caring Behavior,” or “Open Mind to Alternative Perspectives?”
And haven’t the schools gotten themselves into a lot of areas that are, frankly, none of their business?
Academic areas are not neglected, but they often bear only a passing resemblance to traditional fields of study.
Geography is transformed into “Relationship of Geography to Human Activity,” in which “Students recognize the geographic interaction between people and their surroundings in order to make decisions and take actions that reflect responsibility for the environment.” (Note that this does not actually include knowing something so mundane as what countries border the United States.)
Similarly, the “aesthetic” goal in which “Students appreciate creativity and the value of the arts and humanities” could conceivably by achieved without students having read a classic work of literature or seen a masterpiece of art.
The emphasis on “skills” tends to conceal the basic flaw of such curriculums that are devoid of “facts.” As E.D. Hirsch notes, “Yes, problem-solving skills are necessary, But they depend on a wealth of relevant knowledge.” Such knowledge plays little, if any, role in what passes for outcome based education these days.
Criticism of OBE’s abstract academic goals is not limited to conservatives. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has joined the chorus of OBE critics who question its academic priorities.
“OBE standards include academic outcomes,” he notes, “but they are very few and so vague that they would be satisfied by almost any level of achievement, from top-notch to minimal; in other words, they are no improvement over what we have now.”
Pennsylvania’s writing outcome, for example, called for “All students [to] write for a variety of purposes including to narrate, inform, and persuade, in all subject areas.” Remarked Shanker, “In an excellent school, this could mean a portfolio of short stories, several 1,000-word essays, and numerous shorter ones. In a poor school, it could mean three short paragraphs loaded with misspellings.
“Vaguely worded outcomes like this will not send a message to students, teachers and parents about what is required of youngsters. Nor will they help bridge the enormous gap between schools where students are expected to achieve…and schools where anything goes.”
As Shanker noted, Pennsylvania was something of a trailblazer in the area of establishing “goals” for outcome based educational programs. Officials there were so enthusiastic that they embraced 51 separate “learning outcomes,” of which the vast majority concerned values, feelings, or attitudes.
One “outcome” defined as a base goal in Pennsylvania was that “all students understand and appreciate their worth as unique and capable individuals and exhibit self-esteem.” It did not describe how self-esteem would be exhibited or measured.
Other learning outcomes included: “All students develop interpersonal communication, decision making, coping, and evaluation skills and apply them to personal, family and community living.” “All students relate in writing, speech or other media, the history and nature of various forms of prejudice to current problems facing communities and nations, including the United States.”
Once again, it was not clear how the schools would keep tabs on environmental decisions made in students’ private lives or how they would remediate environmentally incorrect behaviors.
The very number of “learning outcomes” is significant. As Shanker notes, the large number of outcomes “sounds demanding, but it’s the opposite.” That is because teachers are already spread thin and will therefore have to pick and choose among the dozens of mandated “outcomes.” It is not hard to predict what sort of choices they will make. Remarks Shanker, “it’s a lot easier to schmooze with kids about ‘life roles’ than to make sure they can do geometry theorems or read Macbeth. In an educational version of Gresham’s law, the fluffy will drive out the solid and worthwhile.”
Wisconsin, known for its good sense and immunity to the trendy and untested, has not escaped infection. OBE buzzwords have become commonplace in local district mission statements and planning documents. The City of Waukesha School District’s Strategic Planning report, for instance, declares that “The process of learning is as important as the content being taught” and that “learning to cooperate is as important as learning to compete.”
The movement towards outcome based education was given its greatest impetus, however, by a state commission charged with developing goals for the state’s schools. The Governor’s Commission on Schools for the 21st Century called for state law to be revised “to state the goals and expectations of Wisconsin pubic schools in language that is compatible with an outcome-based integration education model…” It also called on state officials to ensure “conformity with outcome-based educational objectives.”
The Fish Commission embraced an “integrated education model curriculum framework” that says that “every student will give evidence of the knowledge, skills, and understanding in each of the following areas.”
There followed a list of “outcomes” and “goals,” including: “Leisure Time; Cultural interdependence; Interpersonal skills; Adaptability; Equity; Accepting People; Positive self-image; Application of values and ethics; Risk taking and experimentation; Family relationships; Environmental Stewardship; Positive work attitudes and habits; Racial, ethnic, cultural diversity histories of U.S.; Team Work; Human Growth and Development; Respect all occupations; Shared decision making; Health & wellness.
While the list did include history, geography, computer literacy, and communications among other more traditional subjects, it is still remarkable for its lack of focus and its extraordinarily wide net. The commission did not explain how it would ascertain, measure, or correct students’ knowledge, skills, and understanding of family relationships, or why this should be considered a state-mandated educational goal.
In May 1993, I had the chance to moderate a debate on outcome based education. During the debate, I asked an official of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (and a proponent of OBE), “Have there been specific, controlled studies conducted to measure the performance of low, medium, and high capability students in Outcome Based Education versus traditional teaching curriculums.”
His answer: “Most of the outcome based programs that are in effect now have not been in effect for a long enough period of time for studies of the kind you’re talking about to take place.”
In other words: no.
The suspicions that OBE might be a stalking horse for politically correct social engineering are fueled by its penchant for setting “outcomes” that relate to social, cultural, and political issues. Comments by some of OBE’s most prominent architects tend to contribute to the misgivings of critics. William Spady, who has been paid $2,500 to make presentations to at least one suburban Milwaukee district, has made it clear that his vision of the future of education is dominated by social, cultural, and ideological preoccupations.
At times, his agenda is overtly political.
In 1987, Spady outlined his own assumptions regarding the future which needed to be taken into account when fashioning “exit outcomes.”
His first assumption stated, “Despite the historical trend toward intellectual enlightenment and cultural pluralism, there has been a major rise in religious and political orthodoxy, intolerance, and conservatism with which young people will have to deal.”
The implication is that OBE could somehow serve as an antidote to this ‘ominous’ resurgence of conservative thought.
His remaining assumptions strike a similarly ideological note. He describes the “re-pluralizing of society,” the “decline of the traditional nuclear family,” and the “gap between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ children.” He is alarmist about the future of the environment.
“Global climate and ecology,” he wrote, “are already shifting in a dangerous direction.”
This is not to suggest that all OBE programs have a hidden political agenda. But its authors do seem to have a far more expansive view of the role of schools than more traditional educators ever envisioned. Albert Mammary, for example, writes:
“We believe that if students don’t get love at home, they should get it in schools. If they don’t get caring at home, they should get it in schools. If they don’t belong and aren’t connected at home, they should get it in schools. If they don’t get food and clothing at home, they should also get that in schools.”
This would seem to suggest that schools not only become centers of social work and welfare, but also substitute families. Educators should not be surprised if this ambition is not greeted with enthusiasm from every corner of society.
Designers of OBE scoff at charges that the new curriculums involve social engineering, and they are right to the extent that many programs bear little resemblance to the grandiose visions set out by Messrs. Mammary and Spady.
But, given the vagueness of the jargon-laden “outcomes,” it is difficult for parents to know in advance what their students will learn and equally hard to measure success after the fact.
Such confusion provides ample opportunity for abuse. Political agendas can infiltrate curriculums as certain ideas and attitudes become part of the mandated “outcomes,” but this is not inevitable.
In most cases, the outcome is less likely to be indoctrination than a pervasive mediocrity. A recent National Geographic article describing the culture of Sweden quoted one ethnologist: “We’re taught very early not to stand out from the crowd…” The Swedish word lagom refers to this sense of “appropriateness,” or averageness, that dominates Swedish life. “Lagom is best,” Swedes are quoted as saying. “To be average is good in Sweden. To be different is bad.”
This could well be the slogan for Outcome Based Education.
In a world with no losers and no winners, the overall tone will be blandness and conformity, an outcome that would probably be met with considerable enthusiasm by the designers of Outcome Based Education. No one feels very good, but then no one’s self-esteem suffers much either.
What’s really wrong with OBE? Its product is likely to be unmotivated, uninspired children who feel good about themselves, but who are unprepared for failure, rejection, and disappointment–and equally unprepared for competition in the 1990s and beyond.