When the Bush administration first embraced it five years ago, the idea seemed like good conservative education theory and the most promising device around to improve academic standards in American schools. The "it" was "outcome-based education," and OBE was going to help make Bush the "education president." At its core was a fundamental shift in education policy from a focus on inputs--hours spent in class, years of schooling completed, courses taken, dollars spent--to the definition and measurement of academic outcomes. OBE fit perfectly with the increasingly fashionable idea of school decentralization. The state would promulgate guidelines and develop assessments for what students should know and do; the local school would determine how to reach those goals.
The standards and assessments, moreover, were to be "criterion referenced," meaning they would be based on what students had to know in the real world (thus presumably closing the gap with the Germans and the Japanese), not normed, as they had always been, according to what the average student was doing. Chester E. Finn, the most innovative educational thinker in the Reagan and Bush administrations, pushed hard for OBE, and it became part of Bush's America 2000 education proposals. The idea also became a cornerstone of Bill Clinton's education program, now enshrined in Goals 2000--the Educate America Act--which Clinton signed last spring.
But a funny thing happened to OBE on the way from Checker Finn's embrace to its implementation in the classroom, and thereby hangs a revealing tale about why it's so hard to reform American schools. Mention outcome-based education now to the religious conservatives at Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE) or the National Association of Christian Educators, with which CEE is affiliated, or to the conservative members of Focus on the Family or Concerned Women for America or Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, and they're likely to become apoplectic. Depending on the version, they insist, OBE is either nonsensical mumbo jumbo or part of something very sinister: undermining children's religious faith, promoting "politically correct issues such as environmentalism, gun control and homosexuality" in the words of Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead, and thus representing "one of the most frightening assaults on individual freedom we've ever faced." OBE, says former Education Secretary Bill Bennett (who happens to be one of Checker Finn's heroes), has become a tool for the education establishment to advance its own social agenda: "a Trojan horse for social engineering."
In the past couple of years, pitched battles have been fought over OBE and related programs from one end of the country to the other: in Pennsylvania and Virginia, Washington and California, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and a great many local communities in between. In some instances, those fights have been over shadows: a story in a new state curriculum guide that seems to some group to question the primacy of heterosexual marriage as the foundation of social life, or that suggests to someone that maybe the writer is trying to foist vegetarianism and animal rights on the tender minds of fourth graders.
But to dwell on these phantoms of the new school wars would distort a far more complex story. This is not only a controversy between an ever-reasonable education establishment and the know-nothing right, as the annual textbook censorship reports of the liberal People for the American Way seem to suggest; nor is it just a fight against attempts by the forces of political correctness to capture the hearts and minds of our children, as conservatives like Thomas Sowell or Dinesh D'Souza would have it. At bottom it reflects genuine social, intellectual, and ideological controversies about how children should be taught, what they should learn, and what, ultimately, schools should be in a democratic society. Unless the progressive education establishment begins to appreciate the sources of resistance to reform, it will invite the kind of paralyzing backlash we have seen in many areas of our national life.
Lost in the Translation
The OBE fights have raised important educational and ideological issues. If OBE was a welcome answer to conservative impatience with the constant emphasis on school inputs (which usually meant demands for more money), few people noticed that it also dovetailed nicely with a major liberal agenda: to get rid of objective testing and rote learning in favor of so-called performance-based assessment--more open-ended essay questions, more problem solving, more analysis, more emphasis on "higher-order" reasoning, perhaps even more creativity. At the very pinnacle of OBE guru William Spady's "Demonstration Mountain" was something called the "transformational zone," where assignments transcend the bounds of specific academic disciplines and require "real world . . . complex role performances," sometimes called "authentic assessment." For all its jargon, Spady's pinnacle seemed to be precisely what a lot of employers were looking for: applicants with social skills, the ability to work cooperatively, tolerance of people of other races, and skills suited to solve practical problems. In many states, the Business Roundtable was a major booster of OBE-type reforms.
But OBE also lends itself to monumental mushiness, and when state departments of education produced their new OBE guidelines for local districts, they often included such outcomes as "positive self-image," "environmental stewardship," "openness to change," "appreciation of diversity in others [and] appreciation of the global community," "interpersonal competencies," "a willingness to question things," and "holistic learning." Those criteria not only brought the Christian right into the battle, sometimes with barrages of misinformation; they also made a great many other parents nervous. Were students going to be tested on this stuff? Were school curricula going to be based on it? OBE, Finn said recently, "was hijacked."
Spady, who is a full-time private consultant on OBE to school systems and state education departments, says those outcomes aren't integral to OBE. As Spady sees it, things got "mistranslated" on the way down: "Values, attitudes, and psychological states like self concept and tolerance are not outcomes and cannot be measured." The important thing, in his view, was to free local districts from the time requirements and curricular boxes that are staples of all education codes: so many years of English and math; so many hours in class. The purpose, he says, is not to impose new mandates but to free schools from the old ones. But he also speaks of stressing "broad attitudinal, affective, motivational and relational qualities."
Whatever his intent, affective OBE set off fights in scores of places. In Pennsylvania and Virginia OBE became a major political issue that, in the words of CEE, was nothing less than "a battle between secular humanists and persons who believe in Judeo-Christian values." OBE, CEE charged, might eventually include gay and lesbian studies; the initiative would lead to the collection of data on the personal moral beliefs and values of individual students, and then to the development of means of altering those beliefs. In the end, OBE was withdrawn or blocked in Virginia, Ohio, and Oklahoma, at least temporarily stopped in Connecticut, and, after a school board was recalled, repealed in Littleton, Colorado, where it had been in place for more than two years. While it survived in Pennsylvania, it did so only after the state agreed to downplay the affective goals and to guarantee that students would not be assessed on them. Yet OBE remains the theoretical cornerstone of the Clinton education reform program and, depending on the definition, versions of OBE are in place in a growing number of states. Among them, according to the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States, are Kentucky, which has overhauled its entire education system, Oregon, Utah, and all overseas U.S. military dependents' schools. Meanwhile, in places like Florida, the battle goes on.
From Dewey to Pumsy
The struggles over OBE resonate with echoes of curriculum fights past--fights about the inclusion of the United Nations and one-worldism in the social studies curricula of the 1950s and 1960s, fights in the teaching of reading between phonics and look-say, fights over the "open school" and between child-centered and discipline-centered learning--fights, most commonly, between traditionalists and Deweyan progressives. The religious right continues to resist the inclusion of Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men in high school English courses and is still battling furiously to give what it calls scientific creationism equal time with evolution (and, if some of them had their druthers, more than equal time). Liberals are still complaining about Huck Finn and prayers at school graduation exercises.
But the new ideological controversies are loaded with a great deal of additional freight, much of it derived from the national uncertainties about multiculturalism and from escalating mandates that schools educate all students from that great diversity at least through the twelfth grade, which has never been done anywhere. Those mandates pile yet more demands on the already excessive burdens of the schools--AIDS education, sex education, tolerance for ethnic diversity (and often for diversity in sexual preference as well), environmentalism, animal rights, inclusion of even the severely handicapped in regular classes, classes for 14-year-old mothers, and programs to enhance self-esteem. In New York, the chancellor orders the schools to "include references to lesbians and gays in all curricular areas" and requires that they be treated as "real people to be respected and appreciated." In Southampton, New York, school officials cancel a student production of Peter Pan after some local Indians complain that the song "Ugg-a-Wugg" is offensive. In Flushing, the same fate befalls an elementary school production of Annie Get Your Gun after somebody complains that the word "gun" might encourage violence. In Lake County, Florida the local board, reacting to the miasma of "multiculti" relativism, orders that American culture be presented as "superior to other foreign or other historic cultures." In a Texas district, Santa's name comes off the classroom wall because it's an anagram of Satan.
And then there's Pumsy, a blue dragon in an elementary school series of self-esteem books who is a little short of self-confidence because she doesn't breathe enough fire and who finally gets it together through the power of positive thinking: "I am me," goes a Pumsy anti-drug mantra, "and I'm okay." (Shades of the Reader's Digest of the Eisenhower era). For the 210,000 member CEE, the trouble with Pumsy is that she becomes too self-reliant, thereby undermining the authority of parents, teachers, and organized religion. CEE has waged war on Pumsy all over the country; in 1993 People for the American Way listed Pumsy as one of the leading targets of attempts by the religious right to censor school curricula. But you surely don't have to be a religious fundamentalist to wonder whether trying to generate self-esteem ahead of (or apart from) genuine achievement isn't getting things backward. A few years ago, "Doonesbury" did in the cult of self-esteem better than all the forces of CEE.
A great many of those new cultural imperatives, and particularly those focused on equity and diversity, have now become part of the civic religion of the public schools. It thus shouldn't be surprising that conservative ideas like OBE lose (or gain) a great deal in translation as they move toward the classroom. The problem is compounded by the proclivity of the schools for "whole-hoggism": No curriculum change is ever gradual.
Thus, when it's decided that concentration on the basics--the refrain of the late 1970s and 1980s--leaves kids unable to solve real problems or to develop what the trade calls "higher-order skills," the tendency is not just to modify the curriculum but to substitute a new one. And so "whole language" reading programs are instituted to emphasize the comprehension of literature, not just the decoding of words and sentences. But instead of retaining things like phonics, the new syllabus in California now tells teachers they should never teach phonics except in the context of a "whole language" framework. That, the critics charge, probably with some justification, has helped to drive California's fourth-grade reading scores down to forty-eighth in the nation, just above Mississippi's. But don't worry, say the state guidelines, if the kids can't spell the words or remember the multiplication tables; the mechanics should always be subordinate. "Early memorization of number facts is seen as a hindrance rather than a help in developing mathematical understanding," the guidelines say. The important thing is that the student gets the general idea. Similarly, the influential National Council of Teachers of Mathematics calls for "a shift toward mathematical reasoning . . . toward conjecturing, inventing and problem solving--away from an emphasis on mechanistic answer-finding."
That may sometimes be a perfectly sensible proposition. But when it hardens into all-purpose doctrine, it has no more validity than what the progressives call drill-and-kill. And, of course, it drives a lot of traditionalists nuts.
California's CLAS Struggle
And so we come to what may be the most revealing of the contemporary ideological curriculum battles, the fight last spring over CLAS, the California Learning Assessment System, a so-called performance-based test. In 1991, when Republican Governor Pete Wilson enthusiastically signed the bill authorizing its development, CLAS, like OBE, was expected to become a major instrument for driving the public schools toward higher academic standards. It was also supposed to be a model for the Clinton school reform program. CLAS tests were to be given in grades four, eight, and ten in reading, writing, and math, and in grades five and ten in history, social science, and natural science, and would require a lot more than fill-in-the-bubble answers to multiple-choice questions. The tests would demand analysis, problem solving, and comprehension based on global criteria. Since each test was to provide individual scores for each student, as well as average scores for each school and district, it would also send a persuasive message to the many complacent parents who thought, contrary to most international comparisons, that the A's and B's their kids were getting in school really meant they were doing well.
But last June, after a series of increasingly embarrassing disclosures, Wilson killed CLAS's funding. Several months later he killed a bill extending and reforming CLAS. By then complaints about the test had come not just from the religious right but from the teachers unions, the state school boards, and a wide range of others who had once been strong backers of the test. These groups now objected that the questions intruded into the personal lives and beliefs of students; that in shifting to open-ended questions the basics were all but ignored; that the reading samples offended religious sensibilities and, in some cases, contained racial stereotypes to boot; and, worst of all, that CLAS didn't measure the things it purported to measure.
Some of the early attacks on the test, which was first given in 1993, were just plain silly: that an Alice Walker story about a Christian (black) woman who marries a Muslim fosters religious relativism; that a child's musings in an Annie Dillard story about a snowball fight were too violent; that another Alice Walker essay on the life of a horse was "anti-meat-eating." In some cases, the complaints parodied themselves. CEE, which was one of the leaders of the fight from the start, complained that on an arithmetic item in which fourth graders were asked how they would divide five apples among four people, the preferred answer was one apple apiece, with the fifth going to the neediest. Nobody could ever produce evidence for such an item, but since state officials, for legitimate security reasons, never disclosed all the test questions, no one could ever prove that the item didn't exist. Still, it seemed reasonable that when some districts asked to be exempted from the test--a number were hit with parent lawsuits filed by the Rutherford Institute, which now regards itself as the civil liberties union of the religious right--the state Education Department argued that they ought not give in to a bunch of religious nuts.
At that point, however, a host of other problems began to emerge. While the department, in its first trial of the test, wisely decided not to give individual scores and to confine its reports to school and district averages, the Los Angeles Times learned that in several hundred schools, those averages were based on the test results of a handful of students and in some cases on no more than one. But that disclosure paled next to news about the test items themselves, particularly on the reading portions. Those items, instead of first asking specific questions about the reading passages, asked students in the fourth grade to note down their "thoughts and feelings about this story." Tenth graders were asked to tell their "first response (ideas, questions, or opinions)." Thereafter they were invited to tell "what it means to you . . . how it relates to your own life, or whatever else you think is important." There were also cartoon-type balloons (or empty heads) to fill in with words or pictures describing what the characters were thinking.
Defenders of the test, echoing the conventional (and depressing) classroom wisdom, argued that, far from being intrusive, such questions reflected standard classroom practice; there was no way to engage kids in the reading unless it was directly related to their own lives. Moreover, they said, in another bow to current fashion, different children learned and expressed themselves best in different ways--hence the empty heads and the invitation to students to draw pictures.
But if the questions were not intrusive invitations to discuss personal and family problems, they were at least self-referential. They demanded not answers and analysis that would show how well the student had read and understood the text but "your first response" (in the tenth grade) or "your thoughts and feelings" (in the fourth). If this was a test of anything, it was a test of writing, not of reading. It seemed to foster the idea that no literary text had content, much less merit, that could be objectively understood and analyzed; it existed only as a mirror of the reader's own experience. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that a lot of people, including Wilson's own secretary of education and child development, were asking why there weren't at least some objective, short-answer questions on the test.
Yet if the reading test suggested the embrace of the prevailing education establishment ideology, the solitary sample of the fifth grade science test that the Department of Education provided fairly shouted it. The item, titled "Don't send it to the landfill!," was devoted to the proper disposal of household waste. Given a bagful of "trash," the students were told to think about the properties of such items as tin, paper, and glass, sort them, and then discuss the best methods of disposal. Finally, they were told, "The landfills in our state are running out of space! Write a letter to Governor Wilson telling him how we can reduce the amount of trash we send to our landfills." (All exclamation points in the original.) "This isn't science [but] propaganda," Los Angeles Daily News columnist Linda Seebach wrote. Just as important, in many respects the test was factually wrong and economically misleading.
What made the prospects for CLAS's performance-based future particularly dim was the fact that the independent statistical validation that Wilson ordered (from a group of psychometricians headed by Lee Cronbach of Stanford) cast grave doubts on the possibility that the test could be made reliable for the individual scores that the test was supposed to provide. It was hard for anyone to develop much confidence that a score of 4 in Bakersfield was the same as a score of 4 in Eureka, much less in what the standards were for either. American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker, who has vigorously pushed for higher school standards, has predicted that it will take 20 years to develop reliable performance-based tests, and there was nothing in CLAS to suggest he's wrong. But that did not prevent FairTest, the Cambridge-based organization that opposes objective testing with something approaching religious fervor, from immediately concluding that it was the Christian right that had done CLAS in.
It's striking how quickly our struggles about curriculum ideas escalate into quasi-religious controversies over social or moral absolutes. The right sees a conspiracy by the federal government and its secular humanist legions to strip parents of control over their children and inculcate them with relativistic values, witchcraft, and satanism. The left looks at every parent who walks into a principal's office complaining about a book or a school assignment as a tool of religious fanatics. A generation ago people who challenged the absolute primacy of phonics were attacked in school board fights as socialists; now FairTest regards anyone too devoted to the SAT as, at the very least, an unconscious racist or sexist.
In the face of such heat, and in the absence of vigorous centrist forces speaking for parents, it's not surprising that politicians and school bureaucrats tend to capitulate easily--formerly (and in some places still) they gave in to the official demands of Rotarians, America firsters, and the organized right; in recent years they more often bowed to the trendier demands of multicultural correctness. Until a generation ago, most textbooks were carefully calibrated not to offend southern segregationists and militant anticommunists, and were only condescendingly conscious of American groups other than WASP males. That in itself was an improvement from the first decades of the century, when textbooks were laced with stereotypes about Jews, Italians, Chinese, and blacks (to quote The Great School Legend, Colin Greer's classic study) as "mean, criminal, immoral, drunken, sly, lazy and stupid in varying degrees." Nowadays, by contrast, they tend to be closely tailored to make certain that all races and both genders are proportionately represented, even where the authors have to scratch to find examples--Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony, yes, but Sarah Winnemuca? Those described as people of color are unfailingly cast in a positive light. In California, one state office does nothing but make certain that the pictures in textbooks offend none of the current shibboleths, from ethnic balance in all occupations and activities, to proper diets and proportional representation of persons with various handicaps. Where anthropomorphized animals are shown, even they must be balanced by gender.
Probably the best indicators are the textbooks, which have to withstand scrutiny from scores of special interest groups and which have undergone a stunning transformation. As Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, points out, in latter-day revisions of venerable textbooks like Lewis Todd and Merle Curti's Rise of the American Nation:
Liberal crusades and activism receive uncritical accolades. Two photographs of protestors in wheelchairs and a third captioned, "A woman with visual impairment demonstrating for civil rights," reflect the force of pressure groups on the shape of schoolroom history. So do profiles of Native Americans Russell Means and Wilma Mankiller. The 1974 Bilingual Education Act receives prominent attention as a multicultural initiative. The 1946 Employment Act shrinks to two sentences. The saga of the postwar computer industry vanishes; the computer is presented instead as a machine that helps "make the workplace safe for people with disabilities." Recent American letters are represented by Gish Jen, Sandra Cisneros, and Jessica Hagedorn.
There is no shortage of horror stories; Richard Bernstein has a string of them in his recent book, Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future. There is the well-rehearsed story of the battle over the Rainbow Curriculum ("Fostering Positive Attitudes Toward Sexuality," including homosexuality) in Queens and the "ice people" versus "sun people" racism of City University Professor Leonard Jeffries. Then there's the bitter battle over the attempt to eliminate a popular advanced placement European history course at Brookline High School in Massachusetts, apparently because it ran counter to the multicultural orthodoxy of both the faculty and the national professional organizations. Bernstein cites a series of official reports, all with the same message: that, to quote a New York commission, all young people are being miseducated because of "a systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives."
Such stories all leave the same question: Are they aberrations or illustrations? And while the answer is complicated--there are not likely to be many PC-infested business or engineering schools--the elementary and secondary schools, particularly outside the rural South, seem to be showing a pronounced tilt toward the mushy and the therapeutic. That's true whether one looks at the prevailing rhetoric and literature of the National Education Association, the state education departments, the teacher colleges, or the textbooks.
The tilt toward the therapeutic shouldn't be surprising in an age when schools are supposed to succeed with almost everybody (or at least when it's so hard to toss anybody out). But neither should it be surprising that conservative parents and organizations have become increasingly militant and tend to see ominous child-snatching conspiracies even where none exist: fears that, in the name of tolerance, the system is promoting homosexuality; fears that in the face of the (legitimate) prohibition of school prayer, schools are peddling all sorts of New Age mumbo jumbo and sanctioning every sort of sexual promiscuity; fears that the move away from objective tests and traditional rote-and-drill basic education is really a dumbing down instituted for the benefit of those groups--guess who?--that always score below average on the bubble tests. With the passage of Clinton's Goals 2000, says James Dobson, who heads Focus on the Family, "the National Education Association, which supports every anti-family cause from homosexual activism to abortion and condom-mania, has finally achieved the prize it has pursued for decades: control of the nation's children."
But if the right's rhetorical excess isn't new, neither is the wider historical ignorance. When exactly was the presumptive golden age? The editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal and the ideologues who are convinced, with Thomas Sowell, that American education these days is mostly deception, decline, and dogma, conveniently forget that the wonderful standards of the past applied to only a small fraction of the students. The majority were stuffed with rote learning, much of it fatuous. They dropped out after the sixth grade, and went to work laying streetcar tracks or shoveling coal in steel mills. Even after World War II, the schools kept things under control: On the one hand, they ignored diversity (and, of course, maintained segregation) and, on the other, they kept the curriculum, textbooks, and syllabus as bland (and "basic") as possible. The multiculturalists did not invent anti-intellectualism in American education. But they are making their contributions.
We have always been ambivalent about what we want of schools: to teach values, but whose values? To socialize children but according to whose norms? To pursue equality, but equality only of opportunity or also of result? The stakes seem to keep getting higher. The more the schools embrace hot-button social agendas that they are ill-suited to perform--tolerance of gays, self-esteem, environmental correctness--the more likely it is that the resulting fights will threaten not only reform but the schools themselves. We have banned prayer in the schools as too divisive, but we have yet to understand that a lot of other things currently fashionable among educationists carry similar hazards.
For people like Checker Finn, Bill Clinton, or former California school superintendent Bill Honig, who was the real father of CLAS, the goal of educational reform is to turn out literate, numerate students who can think clearly, know something about the world, and have a commitment to America's civic values and standards. Their aim has been to reassert the primacy of the academic, as opposed to the social, agenda of the schools but to assert it in standards higher--and, because they invite thought and the expression of opinion, riskier--than the "basics" that the right wing embraces. However, if those goals and the tests that accompany them also include the wider social and affective agenda of the education establishment, there can be nothing but controversy and gridlock, and possibly worse.