THE message from the United States business community to educators has been clear: Reform the education system because the current one is not adequately preparing students for work in the 21st century.
One of the most controversial reforms sweeping through the nation's schools is Outcome Based Education (OBE).
``Traditionally in classrooms in America the teacher has had all the knowledge and gives it to the students by way of a lecture ... and gives them a test, and it's really pretty meaningless five years later,'' says Jim Kieffer, associate superintendent at Glendale Union High School District in Glendale, Ariz., a district that has been using OBE for 20 years. ``OBE forces us to identify ... what's really important for this student to be able to do in terms of skills.''
In an OBE system, outcome statements are established and then the method for getting there is mapped out. Students are measured not by what they can recall on a test but on how they demonstrate what they've learned at the end of a class.
The system is based on the premise that all students can succeed if given enough time. An ideal OBE system does away with the bell curve, quotas, and comparative grading, according to William Spady, who, as director of the High Success Network in Eagle, Colo., helps states and school districts design OBE.
Outcome Based Education, which evolved out of the research of educators Benjamin Bloom and John Carroll in the 1960s, now exists at different levels in 25 states, according to the Education Commission of the States. Some states and districts mandate outcomes, while others present them as guidelines.
Although OBE has gained a foothold in school districts from Georgia to Oregon, a growing number of critics - from conservative Christian organizations to parents - are mounting strong campaigns against it. They argue that many outcomes focus too much on feelings, values, and attitudes; are often vague and rely on subjective evaluation rather than objective tests and measurements; hold bright students at the same level as the rest of a class; cost money to implement; and tighten state control of schools while undermining local control.
One of the most bitter battles has been in Pennsylvania, where the State Board of Education last April voted that students must meet 53 outcomes starting in the year 2000.
Anita Hoge, a parent who has helped lead a revolt against OBE in Pennsylvania, says parents have been concerned because many of the outcomes were fuzzy and centered on values and opinions. For instance, one of the proposed outcomes that was later deleted came under the title of ``self-worth'' and read: ``All students act through a desire to succeed rather than a fear of failure while recognizing that failure is a part of everyone's experience.''
These outcomes ``were very noble sounding ... but unmeasurable,'' Ms. Hoge says. How is such an outcome scored? Who decides what the standard will be? What if parent and state disagree on the standard or how it is measured in the classroom? she asks. Hoge and others also object to determining graduation requirements by outcomes.
``What we are talking about is [an attempt to make children conform to] complete political correctness and the state controlling the standard for `what is appropriate,' '' she says.
In response, the Pennsylvania legislature removed all references that required students to demonstrate particular attitudes or beliefs. Schools will still teach topics related to self-worth and tolerance, but students will only have to demonstrate academic outcomes.
But Hoge is not appeased because she says the state board of education has the authority to change the outcomes; she's also concerned because she says 25 states are mimicking nearly identical nonacademic outcomes.
THOUGH Hoge disagrees, Dr. Spady says much of the opposition has been orchestrated by conservative Christian groups. ``They've selectively chosen to pick on certain kinds of examples or certain things people have done and have completely blown the whole thing out of proportion,'' he says. ``The problem is a lot of things that aren't really outcome based are getting called outcome based because it has become popular terminology.''
OBE already has a track record, he adds. A number of individual school districts around the country using OBE models for more than a decade have seen improved test results.
``The outcomes people are raising some good issues - particularly the notion ... that we ought to see what is happening at the end of the process,'' says Dan Singal, a history professor at Hobart & William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y. ``What I worry about [with OBE] is that the content tends to get overlooked.... If you focus only on the outcomes ... much of what happens to [students] along the way is lost sight of.''