For many parents of Maryland's school-aged children the phrase "outcomes-based education" means nothing. In a few counties, however, this new educational theory, which is gaining in popularity across the country, has ignited a fierce battle over control of the schools and their curriculum.
In its simplest form, outcomes-based education revolves around clear statements of standards that students are required to meet to pass a course, move to the next grade and graduate. Reporter Anne Haddad of The Sun's bureau in Carroll County, where the debate over this has been very heated, found a parent who succinctly summarized the shortcomings of the current approach: "All we have now is 'input' education. If a student isn't obnoxious and attends school, he gets a diploma."
Without calling it outcomes-based education, the state Board of Education has oriented Maryland's 24 school systems to consider using outcomes to gauge the effectiveness of their teaching. By setting, and then increasing, the standards necessary for graduation and requiring statewide proficiency tests, the board has turned the focus in local school systems on having students master the academic material before they move up to the next grade. In the outcomes-based approach, the curriculum remains the same; what's new is the emphasis on learning the material.
For conservatives, particularly conservative Christians, outcomes-based education has become a lightning rod for their frustrations with the public schools. They contend educators are using this approach to promote hidden and "politically correct" agendas.
That's not to say there aren't appropriate questions about some of the fundamental assumptions of this approach. Some parents question whether passing tests, rather than producing well-educated students, will become the ultimate goal under this system. Also, whether adequate measures can be developed to measure achievement.
Like other educational theories, outcomes-based education will not solve all the problems of the public schools. But this approach has an internal consistency and rationale that may make a difference for the students who now coast through classes and find themselves unprepared for higher education or work. If outcomes-based education helps these students, it is worth trying.