Outcome-Based Education, which has been around awhile under other names, has gradually become Big Education’s main answer to the chorus of cries for “reform” that followed the Department of Education’s publication of the A Nation at Risk report ten years ago. Its bland label is frightfully misleading. If this were a product in the grocery store, its manufacturer would be sued for deceptive advertising. A more accurate title would be Emotions-Based Education.

OBE is, unfortunately, a twin-trailer rig onto which has been loaded every crackpot nostrum undermining government education for the past 40 years: schooling as psychotherapy, self-esteem, multiculturalism, homogeneous grouping, no-fail classes, group learning, mandatory enrollment of tots barely out of diapers, and, the latest dulcet-sounding concept, global citizenship. (As though a World Citizen might bop into Pyongyang and demand a say in the regime’s nuclear policy.)

Conservatives can recall how the country reached this sorry pass in government schools and weep: Ronald Reagan campaigned vigorously on a plank of dismantling the education ministry that Jimmy Carter had put in place as a sop to the National Education Association. Yet despite winning a landslide, Reagan never went to the mat for terminating the Department of Education, So it was that through publication of A Nation at Risk, the DOE encouraged further centralization of power over schooling at the national level, a trend robbing communities of their most civilizing institution. Education czar William Bennett even published a model curriculum. Certainly his “James Madison School” was far better than the multicultural mush now being served up, but it encouraged the notion that Washington holds the keys to learning. (The first big federalizing push had come under Lyndon Baines Johnson with passage in 1965 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; school achievement began dropping in almost geometric proportion to the rise in federal spending and control.)

Mr. Reagan’s anointed successor, one-terms-man George Bush, shared few of his compunctions about nationalized education. And so Bush’s “America 2000” program, launched with much fanfare in cahoots with the nation’s governors, now supplies the banner under which education consultants and foundations promote national tests and standards on the OBE model. With Bill Clinton, the governor most responsible for selling this approach to Mr. Bush, and with major corporate figures like the Business Roundtable on board, OBE looks as hard to stop as a runaway 18-wheeler. This seems particularly so when one adds the weight of publishing and testing companies (ever eager to throw solid instruction overboard if the new slop is profitable) and well-endowed elite organizations like the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Now, some who have signed on to OBE may be beguiled by its appealing label. They may buy the argument (convincing if one looks no deeper) that schools should be judged by their “learner outcomes” instead of by such “inputs” as the numbers of books in the library or of teachers with master’s degrees. Outcomes in solid academics, yes; those are much to be desired. But educationists pushing OBE do not have in mind such outcomes as pupils mastering phonics before leaving primary grades or high school seniors understanding the Lockean underpinnings of the American Revolution before graduating. Indeed, such learning is derogated as being based on “lower-order thinking skills,” which require memorization and drill. OBE starts instead with “higher-order” thinking rooted in what is called the affective domain—emotions and feelings, the touchy-feely realm of the behavioral psychologists whose influence pervades schools of pedagogy and spreads to infect school systems across the land.

Ostensibly, state departments of education (some 30 of them so far) have set up independent studies to determine what outcomes are important for students in each state. In practice, however, the desired outcomes turn out to sound remarkably the same from state to state—a reflection of educators’ networking with such OBE gurus as Theodore Sizer of Brown University and William Spady of the High Success Network. The Education Commission of the States is one of the organizational go-betweens in the interlocking network.

Thus, in Pennsylvania state educrats want to replace graduation credits earned in such disciplines as English, history, science, and mathematics with 51 learned outcomes, such as:

All students relate in writing, speech, or other media the history and nature of various forms of prejudice to current problems facing communities and nations, including the United States.


All students develop skills to communicate and negotiate with others to solve interpersonal problems and conflicts.

All students develop interpersonal communication, decisionmaking, coping, and evaluation skills and apply them to personal, family, and community living.

All students make environmentally sound decisions in their personal and civic lives. (Who decides what’s sound?)

All students relate basic human development theories to caregiving and child-care strategies.

In Virginia, the state is similarly planning to ditch Carnegie units and grading structures in favor of 38 warm and fuzzy student outcomes specified within seven “life roles”: fulfilled individual, supportive person, lifelong learner, expressive contributor, quality worker, informed citizen, environmental steward.

An example of an outcome desired from a “supportive person” is: “Analyze conflict to discover methods of cooperative resolution.” “Informed citizens” are to “identify community problems and be able to negotiate solutions contributing to the public good” and “support and defend civil and human rights.” These are, understand, the new academic goals. A truly independent-thinking student can count on spending a lot of time in remedial work. One suggested activity had 8-year-olds sallying forth to work with the homeless. Beginning this fall, a suburban (mostly white) Richmond school system was to have fifth-graders studying the 20th century by focusing on just three persons; Cesar Chavez, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Colin Powell. (So goes the Maya Angelou Grand Diversity Parade: a Hispanic, a woman, and a black. White males like Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman are retired to the sidelines.)

Environmentalism is an OBE staple. Before pupils understand basic science, they are supposed to be able—working in noncompetitive groups—to produce the answers to complex ecological problems. They begin from the premise of global warming and the rapacious destruction of natural resources by corporate interests. Surely even the densest pupil will be able to deduce that collectivism is the approach being sought here.

Across the nation, from Connecticut to Washington State, the situation is much the same. Educrats are talking up “restructuring,” a “new paradigm,” a Common Core of Learning, and “transformation outcome-based education,” but the bottom line is that schools are de-emphasizing basic learning and individuality (the essence of Bill-of-Rights Americanism) in favor of group indoctrination in “correct” attitudes—attitudes toward alternative lifestyles (such as homosexual parenting), cultural diversity, and other components of the leftist Utopia. Gifted children are a particular irritant, because OBE treats all children as though they were equally endowed intellectually. The whole group is supposed to advance as one; faster learners must stay back to help teach slower ones. No one fails in an OBE school.

Another name for OBE is group-based Mastery Learning. According to a 1987 study at Johns Hopkins University (which found, predictably enough, adverse effects on basic skills): “All students who achieve the mastery criteria at any point are generally given an ‘A’ on the unit, regardless of how many times it took for them to reach the criterion score.” Take the same test as many times as you want, until you finally manage to pass it, and then receive an “A.” That’s grade inflation with a vengeance. One Colorado school, imbued with enthusiasm for OBE, broke down report cards into 95 categories, with students marked for such qualities as self-esteem, creative expression, problem-solving, and assorted learning attitudes and behavior. The report card was half again as long as the IRS’s 1040 tax form, and even more indecipherable.

“Whose children are these?” is a question many parents are now asking in light of this movement. Except for Manhattan sophisticates, they recently asked it loudly in New York City, bringing about a 4-3 school board vote to oust Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, champion of a “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum that sought to sensitize first-graders to homosexuality.

Nowhere, however, have parents mobilized more impressively than in Pennsylvania. Started six years ago, the 20,000-member Pennsylvania Parents Commission succeeded early this spring in stalling, if not derailing, the OBE express by winning overwhelmingly in the lower house of the state legislature. The state senate was not as friendly to the parents’ cause, and Harrisburg educrats remained determined to implement the program. But the parents had the option of litigation in reserve.

Peg Luksik, the commission’s founder, had this advice for parents alarmed by OBE in other states: take aim at state mandates and not at local educators. “Parents will only push so hard at the local level, because their kids are captive,” she explained. “They fear retaliation.” Parents need to remember that the burden of proof rests not with them but with educrats who want to force this radical change on education. Ms. Luksik advises parent-lobbyists to ask their foes, “You’re trying to mandate something. You should have to support it. Where is the research base? What happened when this was tried?”

Those are particularly deadly questions for OBE proponents. The truth is that they have no data to show that OBE works; what they seek is entirely experimental. Which makes it all the more mysterious why supposedly sound-thinking business people would hop on this bandwagon. There is, in fact, substantial evidence that OBE costs a bundle and produces negative outcomes—at least according to traditional measures of learning. A study by the Wharton School of Business calculated a $16.5 million added cost for OBE in just six Pennsylvania school districts. The Johns Hopkins study cited earlier noted that group mastery had a “Robin Hood effect” on time allocation—robbing time, that is, from smart students, who were forced to wait for slower classmates. Chicago became one of the first OBE outposts when Mastery Learning was mandated for all of its 500 elementary schools in the 1970’s. Children who were tested after ten years under this methodology scored miserably—at the 25th percentile—on a standardized reading test. Scores in several schools were at the 10th percentile, a mark that could have been obtained by guessing at every question. A group of black parents sued educrats for “malpractice,” charging that their children’s school had been turned into a “factory of failure.” Eventually the city school system, by then bankrupt, dropped OBE. In Arkansas, where school “reforms” were put in place by current national health-care czarina Hillary Clinton, achievement scores have also tumbled after four years of Mastery Learning.

The culminating outrage is the new performance-based testing that is coming on line as a companion to OBE. It is a truism that curriculum drives testing and testing drives curriculum. Since OBE curricula trade heavily in attitudes, testing must too. Essentially, because the curriculum is affective instead of academic, the testing is psychological.

How this works out in practice was discovered several years ago by Anita Hoge, a parent who lives in West Alexander, near Pittsburgh. Mrs. Hoge’s determined quest for candor by state and federal educrats as to the extent of attitudinal testing—the results being stored in Big Brotherish data banks—is chronicled in Educating for the New World Order (1991) by Beverly K. Eakman, a respected Washington writer.

Mrs. Hoge’s interest was piqued when her three children started bringing nightmares home from school. In particular, her usually happy ninth-grader, Garrett, Jr., had turned morose. Eventually she found that Garrett and his classmates were being subjected to “affective-ed” classes featuring lurid films about environmental pillage by developers, trips to a local cemetery, essay assignments in which students wrote their own obituaries, and exercises in values clarification. The latter featured a lifeboat dilemma, “Who Shall Populate the Planet?” (Only three can live; several others must die. Students select whom to save.) Through persistent inquiry, Mrs. Hoge found that these classes were intended to improve scores on something called the Educational Quality Assessment, administered by the state education department.

In some brilliant sleuthing, Anita Hoge traced the origins of such behavioral manipulation back to LBJ’s ESEA and the network of regional education laboratories it spawned. Her protests resulted in a four-year federal investigation that ended in 1989 with a finding that the EQA was federally aided psychological testing and curriculum shaping of a kind precluded by the 1978 Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch.

But only the words have changed. All the invasive probing and adjusting of students’ attitudes, all the psycho-behavioral testing, in Pennsylvania and across the country, will now be done under the guise of benign “learning outcomes.” If enough parents catch on, perhaps there will be a counterrevolution that will reclaim education for local communities. If apathy reigns, however, so will the totalitarians, because all of this data—keyed to students’ Social Security numbers—will go into a federal data bank, which will constitute a ripe source of information for those who wish to manipulate people on a grand scale.