The day after last year’s election that torpedoed our nation’s most advanced experiment in “Outcome Based Education” (OBE), a pleasant-faced teacher appeared on the evening news. “Shocked and depressed,” she said she was. “I’ve been teaching for over 15 years, giving the kids the best education possible. And to have them win like this. It’s a slap; it’s like saying I don’t know what I’m doing.” Earlier that day many students had returned home from school worried, because teachers had told them that the newly elected slate of three “Back to Basics” candidates, who now held the majority on the five-member school board, would remove calculators and computers from math classrooms, terminate physical education programs, and tear down designer playground equipment. Self-pity and demonization dominated the immediate reactions of Littleton’s “outcome-based” educators to the repudiation of their theories at the polls. Perhaps at the heart of this angst and panic was the knowledge that the election was less about OBE than about something far more significant; control.
Heralded in the national media for its forward-looking “reforms,” Littleton School District had been featured in several Education Week articles as the flagship of OBE, a pedagogical approach that purports to emphasize the acquisition and demonstration of skills over knowledge. Early on, there was little warning for Littleton’s enlightened educators that a challenge to their authority lurked in the wings. “We need professionals leading us on these things. I don’t feel parents are qualified to carry the ball.” This statement by Pat Markwell, Littleton PTA president, was typical of initial community reaction. “These things” refers to the total restructuring of public education in Littleton, an upper-middle-class suburb south of Denver possessed of 57,000 registered voters, three high schools, four middle schools, 15 grade schools, 17,000 students, 975 teachers, and a pocket revolution.
Bill Cisney, proprietor of a large fabric outlet in Denver; Carol Brzeczek, a bookkeeper and housewife; and John Fanchi, a professional engineer with a Ph.D. in physics, composed the “Back to Basics” slate. Each received about 15,000 votes. Their nearest competitor from the incumbent “Reform Coalition” received under 9,000. The “Basics” were outspent four to one and publicly opposed not only by the teachers’ union but, in an unprecedented open letter, by every principal in the district.
Their success can be attributed to any number of causes: the intellectual bankruptcy of OBE; the daunting commitment in time and energy of several Littleton parents, particularly Cisney and Brzeczek; newly instituted mail-in voting, which diluted the power of the teachers’ union at the polls; school board contests that, in Colorado, have been moved to a November cycle; and, into the stretch, the monumentally inept intervention of People for the American Way. Perhaps the most ironic of the many slurs hurled at the “Basics” slate was that they were uninformed reactionaries who did not know what OBE was all about. In fact, Cisney and Brzeczek had gained an intimate knowledge of OBE through endless volunteer hours spent trying to make it work, and their base of support consisted of parents they met along the way.
The mutiny began innocently enough in 1989, when Bill Cisney heeded the call of Littleton educators for community involvement in a new educational program that had been started a couple of years earlier. Cisney, a liberal arts graduate of Amherst College and parent of two children, was initially intrigued by OBE (aka “Restructuring”). He attended board meetings, gave assigned presentations, and later served on the Heritage High School writing committee.
In the early spring of 1992, after five years of meetings, “community forums,” and much public relations, the Littleton Board of Education announced that 13 long-awaited “outcomes” (extremely vague, often awkwardly phrased dictums such as: “ability to clearly communicate information and express ideas and opinions in writing” and “understanding of the American culture and the democratic system”) would now constitute the district’s raison d’etre. These “outcomes” were to serve as blueprints for high school graduation requirements and curriculum. The school board had left it to the individual high schools to adopt their own implementation schedules. Heritage High, which Cisney’s son now attended, earmarked the next crop of incoming freshmen (class of ’96) to be the first to graduate under the new pedagogical order.
The focus then shifted from “outcomes” to “assessments,” the supposedly more particular standards (65 of which were eventually drafted) that teachers and administrators would use to evaluate whether a flesh-and-blood student had attained an “outcome.” These were to be developed by school-level committees. Cisney and Brzeczek served on the writing and reading committees, respectively. Problems immediately surfaced. The specter of bias because of the highly subjective nature of the assessments was countered with a proposal for a faculty panel-review of student accomplishments. However, this then raised the problem of an evaluation system that would involve almost as many staff hours as teaching itself. But implementation of OBE, tar baby that it was, was the least of it.
What, in fact, was Heritage High to teach? To Cisney, Brzeczek, and other parents who were monitoring developments, it became increasingly clear that OBE would not so much enhance curriculum as obliterate it. James Ferguson, principal of Heritage High, was often quoted in the papers as saying that knowing about such cluttering “facts” as where Florida was located was secondary to possessing the skills “necessary to access” this “information.”
Responsibility for resolving the implementation problems at Heritage High fell to a “Central Committee,” composed of principal James Ferguson, a school counselor, and six teachers. The Central Committee was to meet over the summer, and, by the way, parents were not allowed to participate in these meetings—neither as participants nor as observers.
That Wednesday, Cisney and Brzeczek handed out leaflets to parents coming to register their children at Heritage. To those who expressed interest, Cisney provided a 15-page single-spaced report he had prepared that dissected, in explicit detail, just what “administrative” problems had been left up in the air and were now to be resolved in closed session. A week later the dissidents prevailed upon Heritage’s school accountability organization to demand of Ferguson that he include two parent members on the Central Committee and open it up to observers. Ferguson reluctantly acquiesced.
Two parents, Sam Drury and Dave Holland, both advocates of OBE and, in Drury’s case, publicly at odds with Cisney’s skepticism about the program, were selected to sit on the Central Committee, which reconvened in August. After being accused of lying by principal Ferguson, Cisney and his group of observers started taping and transcribing “alternate minutes” of the Central Committee meetings, which they sent to a growing list of parents.
The meetings dragged on through the fall. The pattern of parents seeking some structure by which learning and “outcomes” could be concretely measured and of educators opposing such structure culminated in the submission, by Drury, of “Fourteen Areas of Concern” to the committee. These concerns included unresolved issues of remediation (what if a child “flunked” one of the 65 “assessments”) and a delicately phrased question of final authority: “Who is it that determines when the proficiency standards will be implemented?”
The committee first responded with silence (noted in Cisney’s transcript) then took the list under consideration and scheduled discussion for December 10. Three days before that meeting, Ferguson and the teachers again tried to close the committee deliberations to parents, arguing that they were going to discuss “personnel matters” along with the 14 concerns. This time, Cisney et al. (eventually represented by downtown attorney Melvin Sabey, another parent), obtained a temporary restraining order. Despite advice from district counsel that the Central Committee was a public body for purposes of the Sunshine Law, the Littleton Board of Education chose to support Ferguson and challenge the parents’ right to observe. The board’s rationale for that decision was that the professionals needed both privacy and flexibility to restructure education in the district. In time this excuse would prove no more convincing to the public than it did to the court, which eventually found for plaintiff parents two months before the election.
In August, the “Back to Basics” slate was formed with Cisney, Brzeczek, and Fanchi committed to run. At every juncture Littleton educators marginalized the group. They were “radicals,” “defective products,” and “troublemakers” who did not speak for the great mass of docile parents. But amid all the name-calling in the context of OBE, another phenomenon, only indirectly related to high school issues, was at play. Reading problems in grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers, never vetted in the press, had been created by the district’s emphasis on “Whole Language” to the exclusion of phonics. This, combined with a pronounced lack of standards and assessments, propelled the parents of younger families to join the camp of older parents who backed the “Back to Basics” slate.
In early October, disturbing rumors coupled with insinuating fliers began circulating in Littleton. Cisney, Brzeczek, and Fanchi had been investigated and found to be “stealth” candidates of the “religious right.” The “Basics” slate, none of whom are particularly religious, had anticipated an attack like this and continued to slog away. What happened next, nobody expected. On October 4, Berny Morson, education reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, broke a story that related how “People for the American Way,” a liberal, self-proclaimed “watch dog” group, had evaluated the responses of the Basics candidates to a questionnaire and found their positions to be “in common” with the religious right. In follow-up articles Morson disclosed that People for the American Way’s newly established rent-free office in Boulder was sponsored by . . . the state teachers’ union.
Even before these disclosures, the Reform Coalition, a slate of incumbent educators that was formed to battle the “Back to Basics” movement, tried to distance itself from OBE. In a September 28 forum, incumbent Woody Davis declared that it was not, after all, “Outcome Based Education” but “Performance Evaluation” that the coalition stood for. He did not try to explain the difference. This came as a huge surprise to administrators who had been using the former term for the last five years. The assembled parents were visibly angered at the dodge.
Two weeks later the reformers tried to pirate the slogan “Basics Plus.” By this time the Morson stories had robbed them of their most devastating weapon: the religious right smear. Still, unable to articulate just what it was they stood for, they struggled on, attempting to affix negative labels to the “Basics” slate: “Backwards to Basics”; “Back to the 50’s.” And, of course, there was the campaign of whispers, which included the rumor that the slate would tear down playground equipment.
The Littleton experience gives much hope for those who await a consumer revolt in public education. There is, however, another less optimistic sign: that the more socially and financially powerful the population of a school district is, the more likely, one way or another, it will wrest control of its schools from “educational providers.” While this bodes well for the upper-middle class, it leaves less-powerful communities to the tender mercies of the education establishment. It may foreshadow public education Darwinism: the strong control their educators while the weak fall prey to pedagogical churning, their children always subject to the latest self-serving, curriculum-deconstructing fads.