OBE, and other frauds of education

May 25, 1994|By Mona Charen

MANY years ago, during a lengthy stay in Israel, I encountered a lesson on the hazards of false self-esteem that has relevance for the fads currently poisoning American education.

I shared an apartment with a young lady who was studying music at the university. Her special interest was in singing.

I'm not sure how the music department ever permitted her to enroll as a voice major, since her attempts at song made fingernails on a blackboard sound melodic, but they did.

Further, she received the enthusiastic support and encouragement of a close group of friends. Each of these friends praised and coddled her -- perhaps thinking that they were boosting her self-esteem.

For an entire semester, she squeaked like a hyena to their happy applause.

And then came final exams. I returned to the apartment one evening to find my roommate prostrate on her bed, her face red and puffy from weeping. She had not only failed but had been told that she would not be able to enroll the following year as a voice major.

Clearly, the university bore some responsibility for the debacle. But so did the friends who encouraged her ambition with no reference to reality. They may have thought they were being kind. But if they had cruelly designed to hurt her, they couldn't have done better than by setting her up for a fall.

Self-esteem does not come in a jar. And it can't be obtained by kind words. If my friends tell me I'm the next Kathleen Battle, that doesn't make it true (alas). To be real, self-esteem must be based on something true. A child doesn't get a sense of accomplishment and pride by being told, "You can ride a bicycle." She gets it by riding the bike.

Yet our schools are now engaged, under a variety of names (Outcome Based Education is one), in a vain attempt to instill self-esteem in the abstract.

It's like the "think system" in "The Music Man" -- if you think about the Minuet in G, you will play it. With OBE, if we tell you that you're wonderful, you will be. The learning that results, not surprisingly, is lighter than air.

Outcome Based Education is only the latest name for the "dumbing down" of public-school curricula that has been ongoing for several decades. It is the latest way of asking less of students.

A very expensive way. In Littleton, Colo., the school board canceled a pilot OBE program but not before shelling out $1.3 million for start-up costs.

In Pennsylvania, six school districts project a cost of $16 million to implement an OBE program over five years.

OBE is group learning. Competition is shunned and cooperation encouraged. The kids who learn quickly are put to work tutoring those who take longer to learn. It is no wonder that the teachers unions are hot for this fad. Has anyone checked whether it violates the child labor laws?

OBE promises a school environment of high achievement and no damaging pressure. But many parents are shocked to discover, when OBE is introduced, that grades are often averaged. So if your child's group got a collective grade of C on a homework assignment, his individual grade of A would go unreported.

OBE and its related reforms like "mastery learning" are costly frauds. They discourage high achievers from pushing themselves and do no discernible good for the slower kids anyway. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University did a study on mastery learning and concluded that it has failed to increase student scores.

In Canada, similar programs are getting similar results. In British Columbia, the teachers association issued a report critical of their OBE (called Continuous Progress). "Continuous Progress," they wrote, "eliminates competition and devalues effort and achievement and removes incentives for strong performances."

Schools are not social experiments. They are supposed to prepare children for the real world of competition. There is no shared homework at IBM, and they don't hire poor singers at the opera.

But here's a little secret for the OBE crowd: The better a child is prepared to function in the real world with real skills, the better will be his self-esteem.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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