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 simplest form, outcomes-based education revolves around clear statements of standards students are required to meet to pass a course, move to the next grade and graduate. Reporter Anne Haddad of The Evening Sun's bureau in Carroll County, where the debate over this has been 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 toward 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 on students' mastering the academic material before they move on to the next grade. In the outcomes-based approach, the curriculum remains the same; what's new is the emphasis on learning the material.
Inherent in this approach is the belief that not all students learn at the same pace. Gifted students might learn a math principle the first time it is presented, average students might have to see nTC it several times before they master the concept. Outcomes-based education encourages teachers and students to approach the material from different perspectives until the students "get it."
For conservatives, particularly conservative Christians, outcomes-based education has become a lightning rod for frustrations with public schools. They contend educators are using this approach to promote "politically correct" agendas. That's not to say there aren't appropriate questions about the fundamental assumptions of this approach. Some parents question whether passing tests, rather than producing well-educated students, will become the goal, or whether adequate measures can be developed to measure achievement.
Outcomes-based education cannot 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.