"Outcome-Based" Education:
An Overview

Concerns that the education system cannot adequately prepare students for life and work in the 21st Century have prompted people across the country to explore new ways of designing education. In several states, educators and policy makers are attempting to change the way we measure the effectiveness of education from an emphasis on traditional inputs, such as course credits earned and hours spent in class, to results or outcomes.

The shift toward outcome-based education is analogous to the total quality movement in business and manufacturing. It reflects a belief that the best way for individuals and organizations to get where they're going is first to determine where they are and where they want to be--then plan backwards to determine they best way to get from here to there.

Proponents of the outcomes approach in education assume there are many ways to arrive at the same results: the important thing is that states, districts, schools students do, in fact, achieve them. Opponents worry about who will decide on outcomes and how students, school and districts will be held accountable for achieving them. Both sides raise fundamental questions about the structure and direction of the education system and the role of education in a democracy.

Why is there so much confusion about outcome-based education?

Debate about outcome-based education reveals widespread confusion about terminology and concepts. The term "outcomes," "standards" and "goals" frequently are used interchangeably, and individuals disagree about their meanings and applications. These terms also are used indiscriminately to refer to different types of results, including content outcomes students performance outcomes and school performance standards.

Content outcomes describes what students should know and be able to do in particular subject areas. Student performance outcomes describe how and at what level students must demonstrate such knowledge and skills. School performance standards define the quality of education schools must provide in order for students to meet content and/or performance outcomes.

Confusion arises when people often fail to distinguish between outcome-based education as a concept and programs such as the Outcome-Driven Developmental Model of the National Center for Outcome-Based Education.

Another source of confusion about outcomes arises from the variety of levels at which they can be developed and implemented. Connecticut's Common Core of Learning, for example, is a set of content and performance outcomes developed by a national curriculum organization, which have been adopted throughout the country by individual teachers, schools and districts.

Approximately 20 national groups, including the Bradley Commission, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Labor and the New Standards Project, are developing various types of outcomes that are content-specific or integrate several subject areas.

Some states and districts mandate outcomes, while others present them as guidelines. Some states require, for example, that schools "meet or exceed" a certain set of outcomes in order to maintain accreditation. Other states encourage districts and schools to develop and adopt their own outcomes, based on a particular model put forth by the state.

Common Arguments in Favor                   Common Arguments Against Outcome-Based

of Outcome-Based Education                  Education

*  Promotes high expectations and          *  Conflicts with admission requirements and 

   greater learning for all students.         practices of most colleges and universities, 

                                              which rely on credit hours and

                                              standardized test scores


*  Prepares students for life and work     *  Some outcomes focus too much on feelings, 

   in the 21st Century.                       values, attitudes and beliefs, and not enough 

                                              on the attainment of factual knowledge.


*  Fosters more authentic forms of                          

   assessment (i.e., students write to     *  Relies on subjective evaluation, rather than 

   show they know how to use English          objective tests and measurements.

   well, or complete math problems to

   demonstrate their ability to solve                        


*  Encourages decision making regarding    *  Undermines local control.

   curriculum, teaching methods, school 

   structure and management at each

   school or district level.

Finally, some people confuse outcomes-based education with Mastery Learning, an instructional model conceived by John Carroll in 1963 and developed by Benjamin Bloom. Both outcome-based education and Mastery Learning are based on the assumption that all students can master tasks and materials if given enough time.

Reference: Education Commission of the States. (1995, January). "Outcome-based" education: An overview. Denver, CO: Author.

Reprinted with permission of the ECS Clearinghouse; Phone: 303-299-3675, e-mail: clear@ecs.org

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