Why Fuss About 'Exit Outcomes'?

COMMENT

May 23, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Throughout the lengthy process to develop a set of graduation standards for Carroll County public school students, a determined minority has been able to distort and twist the whole discussion.

TC At its last meeting, the school board unanimously approved of the current draft of these so-called "Exit Outcomes," but the board first had to listen to harangues about imagined conspiracies to poison the minds of Carroll's children.

Instead of focusing on the question of what do we expect from our children after 12 years of elementary and secondary education, this small group -- primarily conservative fundamentalists -- harped away at the supposed "liberal agenda," "socialist values" and "social engineering" contained in the proposed "Exit Outcomes."

Are these people really opposed to critical thinking, tolerance, self-assurance and creativity? Maybe they object to having schools where different points of view are rationally discussed? Maybe they object to free inquiry?

Despite the best efforts to smear these qualities by assigning them labels such as "secular humanism" and "socialist values" (whatever those phrases mean), sensible people will recognize that these are qualities any human needs to be successful in any endeavor, from business to sports.

This is what kids should know when they finish high school: to be able to read, write, compute, communicate and think.

But mastering those skills is apparently not enough because Americans have convinced themselves that declining standards in education is at the root of all our economic and social problems. As a result, school systems across the country are looking at reforms designed to correct these deficiencies.

Even though Carroll students perform well on the standard tests and measurements, there is a feeling that these "Exit Outcomes" are needed to continue to produce high-achieving students.

These "outcomes" are nothing more than broad guidelines designed to focus attention on skills needed as people progress through life. None of the seven standards -- good communication skills, creative and imaginative thinking, cooperation, for example -- are revolutionary, by any measure.

Once these standards are adopted, the school system's curriculum and instruction will be changed, but the same basic material will be presented in the classes.

Students will still have to take algebra, biology and American history, but the thrust of the instruction may change. Instead of memorizing the major battles of the Civil War, for instance, the course may ask students to think about how the expansion of the United States west of the Mississippi helped to precipitate the split between the slave and non-slave states.

Opponents of an outcomes-driven curriculum would have us believe that high school students just need to learn the "basics." Reading, writing and arithmetic may have been the basics years ago, but they are no longer sufficient for a well-educated person. Merely mastering those mechanics is not enough. Computers and calculators can manipulate numbers faster than any of us can, but those machines can't -- at least not yet -- set up the problems or reach the conclusions humans can.

Much of education's new thrust is to teach children how to develop their critical faculties. "Exit Outcomes" is not some grand conspiracy to inculcate foreign values. It is just a fancy name for something that should have been happening all along in schools -- teaching kids how to think and acquire new knowledge.

"Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge," said John Henry Newman in 1854, when he was rector of the Catholic University in Dublin, Ireland. Although Cardinal Newman was addressing the goals of higher education in his book, "The Idea of A University," his comments are appropriate to high school graduates as well.

Schools are intended to train people's minds. If schools are working properly, students will delight in using their minds not just during school but at all times in their lives.

"A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom," Cardinal Newman said.

Instead of wasting precious time debating whether "Exit Outcomes" is part of some dark, grand conspiracy that will encourage deviant behavior, advance an undesirable social agenda or manipulate the schoolchildren's psyches, let's focus the discussion on the issues that really matter -- how do we best prepare our children to be self-sufficient adults.

Opponents of "Exit Outcomes" would have us believe there is only one way to get educated, and that is to focus on "the basics." They would have us believe that education is mastery of a finite body of knowledge. But knowledge is not static. It is constantly expanding. While not perfect, the proposed "Exit Outcomes" are designed to accommodate this ever-growing body of information.

The vocal opponents of "Exit Outcomes" have had their say, and their points apparently were not convincing.

The time has arrived to focus attention on the real issues of education and ignore the rantings from a small fringe who so far have dominated the debate.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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