Outcome-Based Education: Remaking Society One Child at a Time

Published April 1, 1998

Marguerite Anna McKenna “Peg” Luksik is well known to her neighbors in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where she’s actively involved in community service work, including Mom’s House, a comprehensive service network she founded for single parents and their children.

Luksik is also known throughout Pennsylvania. In 1990, she ran in the Republican gubernatorial primary. In 1994, she garnered 14 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial election, a modern Pennsylvania record for an independent candidate.

Luksik’s name is most well known to a national audience for her persistence in investigating Outcome-Based Education and publicizing her findings to parents across the country in her 1995 book, Outcome Based Education: The State’s Assault on Our Children’s Values, which she co-authored with Pamela Hobbs Hoffecker.

A former teacher with degrees in special education and elementary education, Luksik is married and has six students of her own, ranging in age from 3½ to 15. She serves as chairman of the National Parents Commission, aimed at giving parents a voice in the public policy arena, a group she founded in 1993.

Luksik recently spoke with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes about OBE.

Clowes: Many parents agree that there should be a renewed focus on academics in our public schools. So why should they be concerned about outcome-based education?

Luksik: Parents want a renewed focus on academic outcomes, but outcome-based education doesn’t do that.

For example, to graduate from a school here in Pennsylvania, students have to meet the following outcomes: They have to be “high academic achievers,” “self-directed, life-long learners,” “responsible, involved citizens,” “collaborative, high-quality contributors to the economic and cultural life of the community,” “adaptive users of advanced technologies,” “concerned stewards of a global environment,” “healthy, continuously-developing individuals,” “caring, supportive, family and community members,” “problem-solvers,” “perceptive thinkers,” and “innovative producers.” Those are not academic outcomes.

Clowes: How are such outcomes measured?

Luksik: That’s a very good question–in fact, one of the three questions parents should ask about OBE.

The first question is, “What is the standard, and how much is enough?” For example, if a student is expected to be a concerned steward of the global environment, how concerned is concerned enough to graduate?

The second question to ask is, “How is the standard measured?” How does one measure “concern”? How does one measure whether a student is a “healthy, continuously-developing individual”? Is there a paper-and-pencil test, or is it by teacher observation?

The third question parents need to ask is, “How is a failure to meet the standard remediated?” What curriculum or program of activity will be used for students who don’t meet the state-mandated outcome?

Clowes: That third question is important because we’re talking about outcomes that are graduation requirements, right?

Luksik: Right. And here’s where OBE gets really difficult.

Many of the outcomes in OBE programs are functions of a student’s personality. Is it the business of the state to change a child’s personality so that the child can graduate? If the state’s standards don’t agree with the parents’ standards, who prevails: the family or the state? Unfortunately, the unequivocal and unanimous answer has been the state.

In Pennsylvania, for example, a Unitarian family sued on this point and lost. Their child’s school district interpreted the good citizenship outcome as “mandatory volunteerism.” The family’s minister wrote a letter saying, “In the Unitarian religion, values cannot be imposed from without, they grow from within. The imposition of a community service requirement is in violation of our religious beliefs and, therefore, we want to be excused.” But the school district wouldn’t excuse the boy from the requirement, and he was denied graduation.

Academically, he was an honors student who had been accepted at Johns Hopkins University. He had to get a G.E.D. because the school wouldn’t let him graduate. Ironically, the boy did do volunteer work, but tracking it was in violation of his religion. The state said, “Too bad.”

A similar thing happened in North Carolina. It was the same learner outcome: good citizenship, community service. The child was an Eagle Scout, but the school district said that wasn’t good enough to meet the community service requirement. He was denied graduation and went to court. He lost, too. The court determined that the right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children was not a fundamental right.

Clowes: Isn’t that contrary to the 1925 Pierce decision of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Luksik: Yes, but the North Carolina court’s ruling stands because the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

The whole concept of outcome-based education fundamentally restructures education. Instead of the state mandating to the school, the state mandates to the individual child. The state mandates what you know, what you are able to do, and what you will be like. The state mandates what kind of a person you must be in order to graduate.

Clowes: So OBE has nothing to do with academics?

Luksik: Very little. It fails as an academic delivery system for a number of reasons. For one, if you set one outcome and one standard for every child, you have to lower that standard, because everybody is not an Einstein. If you take a child with an IQ of 130 and a child with an IQ of 80, the only way for them to reach the same knowledge to the same degree is to set the standard low enough for the child with the IQ of 80 to reach it.

Clowes: If OBE doesn’t produce better academics, where is the push coming from?

Luksik: The push for OBE comes from three groups. The first group, by far the largest, is driven by the school bureaucracies. Their need is to “do something,” and adopting OBE shows that they are responding to the outcry about a crisis in education.

The second group is the social engineers who want to remake society. They see OBE as a wonderful opportunity to decide what our country and our culture should be like. For example, Bill Spady [one of the leading proponents of OBE] said: “We need to look at the kind of citizen we want to produce and then create a curriculum that will produce that kind of person.”

The third group, which is the smallest but probably the most powerful, is the business interests that see OBE as an opportunity to make education just an arm of business.

Clowes: So part of OBE has to do with creating a workforce?

Luksik: If you look at the contracts governing the flow of federal dollars to the states, you see that there’s billions of dollars changing hands in the School-to-Work program. What those contracts say is that the fundamental goal is to create a predictable flow of workers. That’s a very different definition of education from the one we’re accustomed to.

The contracts also say that no money will be given to programs that are not designed to meet the labor market needs of the region that the school is in. They say that if we want all the students to have jobs, then students will be guided toward those careers for which a job has been identified.

The child’s career is identified in eighth and ninth grade, and then the curriculum gets focused to that career–before the child is in even in high school. How many ninth-graders do you know who know what they want to be when they grow up? Most college freshmen don’t know that. But in ninth grade, they start teaching you the skills you need to do your job.

Clowes: Doesn’t OBE overlap with the idea of putting character education into schools, where youngsters are taught values?

Luksik: Not at all. What you’re seeing is how words get co-opted. Parents use words to mean one thing, and then government agencies co-opt the words to mean something totally different.

When parents talk about character education, they’re talking about using good literature to establish role models and give their children things to strive for. Parents expect schools to enforce codes of conduct, not inculcate an attitude. There’s a difference between saying, “You can’t hit the kid sitting next to you” and saying “You have to like the kid sitting next to you.” Parents want to enforce no hitting, but the proponents of OBE are saying, “Well, we’re actually going to test whether or not you like the person sitting next to you, and if not, why not and how do you show it?” Two very different things, happening under the same rhetorical umbrella.

Clowes: Like the difference between being made to read The Book of Virtuesversus being made to show you have the virtues?

Luksik: Right. I was in a debate once and my opponent said, “Mrs. Luksik, these are values we all agree with. After all, don’t you want students to learn that democracy is better than totalitarianism?” I said “No–I want schools to teach it, but once I mandate that a child believe it, that’s totalitarianism.”

In traditional education, we mandate that schools teach codes of conduct, that George Washington was a hero, about heroic qualities, and about what we should imitate and emulate. But there are people who don’t think George Washington is a hero. I’m not one of them, but in this country, you are free to have your thoughts.

OBE changes that, because OBE requires students to have a particular attitude. And for educators to measure that attitude, students have to demonstrate it–they actually have to show that they have this attitude.

Clowes: What can be done to avoid this kind of value-imposition?

Luksik: There are two things, and they have to be done simultaneously.

The first is to remove the federal government from any role in education. I think the Founding Fathers were very wise when they did not give the federal government any constitutional role in education. Today we’re seeing the results of the breakdown of that wisdom.

It’s not just a matter of repealing Goals 2000 and School-to-Work. It’s a matter of saying the federal government has no role in education, of stopping the flow of federal dollars into education programs.

The second thing that needs to be done is to return as much control as possible to the local level, so that the state does not micro-manage education, either. The state has a role in education, but it should be a very limited oversight role. If children can read and write and count, the state should not be involved.

To get parents more completely involved in their children’s educations, you also need to give them three things. Parents need right of access to all information, so that they see everything their children see. Secret tests are anathema in a free society, but right now we have state assessments that parents are not allowed to see.

Second, parents must the right of consent. If a school district is going to be involved in any kind of a program that is controversial, it’s got to be an elective.

And finally, parents have to have the right to choose–so that they can select the schools that best meet their needs and their child’s needs. There’s a whole bunch of things that go into deciding what’s a good experience for a child, and only a parent really knows those things.