Results-based education stirs debate Focus on outcomes is latest school trend

October 24, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

For some, it's the best way to keep students from coasting through school without learning the skills they need to flourish in a complex society.

For others, it smacks of a national government agenda to shape the way children think and make them question values taught at home.

But one thing is certain. The latest trend in American schools -- known as outcomes-based education -- is a subject Maryland parents will be hearing a lot about in the next few years.

The concept is the underpinning of a tough new series of "performance-based" tests the state school board is considering a requirement for a high school diploma, beginning with the freshman class of 1996.

And that means schools across the state may be switching to some form of this method to be sure their students can pass the new tests.

The idea behind outcomes-based education is simple: Decide what students must know and don't allow any child to graduate until he demonstrates he has learned the material, even if that means giving him second and third chances. Don't focus on the grade. Focus on the outcome.

"All we have now is input education," said Len Duffy, a Towson father who heads a committee on outcomes for Baltimore County schools. "We have seat time. If a student isn't obnoxious and attends school, he gets a diploma."

Opponents see something entirely different in the outcomes approach, partly because in setting goals educators often use jargon about what children will be like when they graduate. That raises fears that schools will teach values that might conflict with what students learn at home.

"Outcomes-based . . . schools will become assembly lines that produce thoroughly indoctrinated, politically correct labor units or nonpersons," said William Bowen of Westminster, one of the leaders in a Carroll County activist group opposing the county's decision to adopt outcomes.

The subject is so sensitive that the state board carefully avoided calling its new tests "outcomes-based." The board emphasizes that the testing program has nothing to do with values or lifestyles, but focuses solely on making sure students can demonstrate skills before they graduate.

Pervasive approach

If the outcomes approach sounds familiar, that is because it is what many teachers have always used. But now, school districts want the approach to be pervasive, applying to every teacher, every student.

William Spady, a Colorado consultant known as the country's outcomes guru for his work in helping school systems establish programs and conducting seminars on the topic, said the concept is based on these principles:

* School systems should have a clear set of goals for students, established with the cooperation of educators and parents. Everything teachers do should then be adjusted to meet those goals.

* Teachers must not be allowed to assume that some students will fail. The expectation should be that all children can and must learn essential skills.

* Students who have trouble should get more than one chance to learn something, and teachers should use a variety of approaches. This concept, known as "mastery learning," is one of the pillars of outcomes. Often it involves having children work in groups to draw on one another's strengths.

When a school district embraces outcomes, officials and parents generally begin with the big picture -- coming up with five to 10 "exit out comes" that serve as a guiding philosophy for the more specific goals in each course or grade level.

In Carroll County, for example, the "exit outcomes" state that graduates will be "able communicators, perceptive problem solvers, lifelong learners, involved citizens, innovative producers, collaborative workers and individuals with a positive self-concept."

With that in mind, committees of Carroll teachers and parents have established "outcomes" for each course and grade level. They have agreed, for example, that first-graders will recognize letters, words and sentences. They will be able to read and write.

The way it works in practice is evident in Stephanie Baker's fourth-grade class at Charles Carroll Elementary in Union Mills.

On this day, students must prove they understand what they were taught over the past four weeks about electricity. They must construct a simple electrical game. Either the contraption works, or it doesn't.

"You meet the criteria, it's acceptable," teacher Stephanie Baker said as she looked over a collection of projects ranging from the very simple to the very ambitious.

All of them had electrical circuits that worked, so students had met that "outcome."

Outcomes-based education has been in use for at least two decades -- long before anyone started calling it by that name -- and is now practiced in some form in school districts in at least a dozen states.

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