Saturday, November 28, 2015

Remember Outcome Based Education?

Because of massive technological, economic and social changes, we are challenged to boost standards of student performance substantially, especially among those who in the past were least successful. The educational sector apparently will not have more money, so we cannot expect salaries to be more attractive or other resources more plentiful. The alternative, say thoughtful observers, is to restructure. 

That quote comes from Ron Brandt, the Executive Editor for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. In 1994. It comes from Brandt's introduction to the book Outcome Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers, by William Spady. More about him in a moment.

If you are a teacher of a Certain Age, you remember Outcome Based Education. OBE started popping up in the US in the early 90s. While one of its features was a certain vagueness (Brandt wrote in an ASCD overview that "OBE is more of a philosophy than a uniform set of practices"). But now that Competency Based Education is auditioning for Educational Thing Du Jour, pulling out the OBE notebook seems apropos.

OBE attracted my attention when it first appeared because it sounded suspiciously like Management By Objectives, a management technique developed by Peter Drucker. Watching old insights from MBO appear in OBE was first led to my theory that when management consultants have finally saturated the business market, they go through their materials, cross out the biz buzz words, and pencil in education jargon and voila!-- they are back in business.

But if OBE was transmogrified from the business world, so what? Was it any good?

The central philosophical shift was to move from time-based schooling to objective based. in other words, the traditional constant in school is time, and the variable is learning. We only have 180 days-- how much can we get done in those days? OBE said, "Let's list what learning objectives we want the students to achieve, and time will be the variable."

The self-proclaimed father of OBE is the above-mentioned Bill Spady, a sociologist who started pioneering OBE in the mid-eighties. He became the director of the International Center on Outcome-Based Restructuring, and continues to work in education today. If you really want to know all about Spady, a John Anthony Hader wrote his dissertation about Spady and his work.

Spady was notoriously unwilling to give exact instructions for setting up OBE, insisting that objectives had to be locally developed. But he did lay down some guiding principles, some of which are listed here by his colleague Brandt. 

* Clarity of focus. Your outcome has to be focused and specific.
* Design down, deliver up. Work backwards from your objective to design programs, but work toward the objective from wherever the students are.
* High expectations. Specifically (if we heard this once, we heard it a million times) believe that all students can learn all.
* Expanded opportunities. Provide students many chances and many ways to show they have achieved the objective.

Additionally, OBE acquired various corollaries, implications, and add-ons. If we were going to insist that all students can learn all, then we had better settle on objectives that all students can learn (let the dumbing down begin). For some reason, cooperative learning became closely tied to OBE in many regions. And the prospect of wreaking havoc with the school year-- headaches! If Chris can meet all objectives by Christmas, can Chris then go home? Or does Chris just start the next "grade"? And what if Chris is still not getting it in July-- does Chris's school year continue until the last objective is met? Logistically, how does that even work? And how do you write a teacher contract that says, "Depending on how well you do, you are hired for something between 100 and 300 days." Or do you just pay teachers for piecework ($100 per every student objective met)?

Objectives themselves were problematic. This was the dawn of TSWBAT (the student will be able to...) which meant that every single objective had to be paired with some observable student behavior. This has eternally been an educational challenge (did Chris learn to understand the Iliad, or did Chris figure out how to act like Chris understands). But OBE threw its weight on the side of observable behavior, encouraging teachers to require student performance rather than teacher inquiry to assess.

OBE caught on big time, until-- and I say this with both pride and shame-- Pennsylvania broke it.

Pennsylvania was poised to weave OBE into the warp and woof of state education regulation. Many of us went to professional development sessions to prepare us for the Big Shift. But instead, this time, shift never happened.

Some of it was not Pennsylvania's fault. The OBE fans had missed one of the implications of their own work, which was the the objectives would need to be clearly measurable. Instead, various versions of OBE were peppered with what we now call non-cognitive objectives. And not just non-cognitive, but politically charged as well. Here are some contributions to the genre:

All students understand and appreciate their worth as unique and capable individuals, and exhibit self-esteem.

All students apply the fundamentals of consumer behavior to managing available resources to provide for personal and family needs.

All students make environmentally sound decisions in their personal and civic lives.

OBE programs has a variety of objectives like these, and conservatives freaked. Rush Limbaugh, Bill Bennett, Pat Robertson and most especially Phyllis Schafly were sure that OBE was here to socially engineer your child into some bleeding heart gay-loving liberal twinkie.  

OBE was also vulnerable because there wasn't a lick of evidence or research to indicate that it actually worked. And because it was focused on locally-selected objectives that could be met in a variety of ways, there wasn't even any way to tell if it was working at all.

Opponents were also taken aback by the electronic portfolio. OBE demanded a portfolio system in which the many and varied objective-meeting projects of students could be gathered, but then some computer-enamored mook decided that an electronic portfolio, that could be stored in perpetuity and could follow the students anywhere-- that would be cool! Is any of this starting to sound vaguely familiar?

And because Spady and his brethren refused to give specific instructions, OBE looked like a thousand different things, some of which seemed directly contradictory. In Pennsylvania, the initial version of OBE state education regs included roughly 550 objectives. According to Hader's oral history, Spady told them they were about 540 off; the education department rapidly backpedaled while begging Spady to come write the objectives for them. Then Peg Luksik activiated her formidable army or conservatives to attack OBE, and the whole business started to collapse. Pennsylvania broke OBE, and it never quite recovered.

When I started to hear about Performance/Competency Based Education, I initially thought that it would be the reheated leftovers of OBE. I cringed, because I remember the training and the insistence that all students can learn everything and the crazy barrage of ever-shifting state directives. Pennsylvania's OBE initiative came at the end of my first decade in the classroom, and it marked the point at which I suddenly realized that the policy leaders and educational bureaucrats on the state level might not know what the hell they were talking about. But I also remembered OBE's complete and utter collapse and thought, "Well, this will die quickly."

But CBE turns out to be a different sort of OBE, an OBE with its holes plugged by sweet, sweet technology and its foundation shored up with Common Core college and career ready standards. Where OBE was all loosey goosey with whatever standards and objectives the locals wanted, CBE will help you get a list of standards/objectives already in place-- and some vendors will throw in the assessments and performance tasks and the software to measure them as well as recording the results as well as using those results to decide which pre-packaged lesson your student should do next.

Technology also aids in the variable-time logistics problem. Now, instead of puzzling over whether behind-on-objective Chris must stay in school through July, we can just get Chris to use internet connections to make the school day fourteen hours long. Of course, we still have the puzzle of what to do if Chris completes an entire grade level's worth of objectives over the weekend.

Technology also ups the ante on that electronic portfolio, the data backpack that will follow your student throughout life. Of course, in some schools that currently means that a teacher's primary function is endless data entry. But since the performance tasks are on the computer, the teacher will be spending far less time teaching anyway.

Most of all, technology underlines the classic problem with OBE-- the notion that education is just learning to perform a series of designated tasks, like a team on the Amazing Race. Education is just working your way down a checklist, and once everything on the list is checked off-- congratulations! You're an educated person! That's all it there is to it! Of course, that also takes us back to the problem that killed OBE the last time-- exactly who gets to decide which tasks go on that checklist?

As I've said, I have my doubts about CBE's chance to take over the education world. Its resemblance to OBE doesn't improve my estimation of its odds. 


  1. The idea that little Johnny is going to be captivated by endless adaptive computer based instruction, from software definitely no better than what is around now, is most likely to produce a new generation of hackers, hell bent on sabotaging the system. And where is the combined mathematical and computing talents to create all this stuff? I foresee some serious chaos ahead, before the inevitable meltdown. I just hope that the corporate guys get their fingers really burned.

  2. Several years ago my daughters' schools implemented a CBE system, and I fell down a Rabbit Hole. Thanks to this blog, I understand why I felt bewildered and disoriented. The independent and dependent variables--time and learning--had been switched. No wonder Reality looked so different...and made so little sense.

  3. Thanks for this. OBE arrived when I was between high school and graduate school, so I didn't experience it directly, although both my parents taught through it in central PA. When I started teaching in Rhode Island, we seemed to be transitioning seamlessly (if abruptly) from the collapse of OBE directly into the standards era, and I was never clear on what the difference was or was supposed to be. I'm not sure it isn't just an outcomes > standards > competencies re-branding.

  4. Where might I read the onjectives of this education. If it is just recycled politically correct flotsam its no bettr at all. We home schooled using the time honored Trivium method and we are proud that our daughter can think and objectively assess memes for herself. Of course this sets her at odds with the sea of politically correct clones turned out by the public school system. But ecen they seem torrcognize well crafted logical rhetoric when it is presented instead of the constant propeganda we are constantly subjected to in main stream media.