OBE – Bane or Blessing?

If you want to start a lively debate, one sure way to do so is to make a statement about Outcomes-Based Education, “OBE” for short. During the last few years the clash of opinions on this issue has been heard loud and long in many of our Christian school communities. In some of those communities, “community” itself has been threatened. Tensions and feelings have run at fever pitch, with the opponents calling as their witnesses Rush Limbaugh, Phyllis Schafly, James Dobson and a host of others. Epithets have been hurled and name-calling sometimes has reached the level of practiced art. A favorite phrase used to generate a lot of heat [but little light] was the expression of “dumbing down,” with the clear accusation that OBE would lower the academic level of our school programs.



Although I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Dr. James Dobson and the Focus on the Family organization, I find it difficult to sympathize with them on this issue. They intuitively recognize that there is something fundamentally amiss with OBE, but their critique misses the mark badly and only serves to reinforce the efforts of those opposed to them.

In a recent feature article in their CITIZEN (Vol.9, No.8, Aug. 21, 1995) Jeff Hooten makes the correct observation that “OBE emphasizes ‘outcomes’—skills that all students must demonstrate—instead of traditional facts, figures and required courses” (p.2). He then goes on to suggest what he sees as a critical, evaluative question: “Is the outcome one that defines something we would expect a young person to do academically? Does it have something to do with arithmetic, science, English, history, geography or fine arts?” Presumably, if the answer is “yes,” the program is safe and worthy of support. He then goes on to insist that we ask the “opposite question” of OBE advocates and programs: “Does it have something to do with values, attitudes or social outcomes that require certain behavior?” Presumably, if the answer is “yes,” the program is only worthy of condemnation!

The Focus article then goes on to conclude: “Outcomes that talk about attitudes, values and feelings are wandering from the primary responsibility of the school, which is to make sure that kids know how to read, to write, to calculate” {p.4}. Regrettably, the Focus on the Family organization has simply opted for traditional, subject-centered educational philosophy and demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of what Christian schools ought to be doing. James Dobson may be an excellent Christian psychologist, but he is not a very good educational philosopher.

To divorce attitudes, values and feelings from the process of schooling and to focus only on academic, subject-centered activities is to adopt an historic model of secular, public, humanistic education which has been as morally and spiritually bankrupt as is the current OBE model.

During the spring of 1994 this tension-filled debate settled into the school communities of the Grand Rapids School Association. Many other Christian school communities also debated the issue, but none were as personally well-known to me as the two cited above. The administrators in both those societies underwent a great deal of criticism and had to defend their school’s position in the face of large public gatherings. In the words of David Koetje, Superintendent of the Grand Rapids Schools, “OBE got us into a bundle of trouble. We were in the middle of the heat!”

In response to this kind of intense debate, the CSI Convention Committee asked Superintendent Koetje if he would lead a sectional on this subject at the 1995 Conference on Christian Education. Mr. Koetje did an admirable and courageous, if not always correct, job of leading a large number of conferees on this important subject. He began by wisely asserting that “OBE has been the source of mass confusion in the world of education, both secular and Christian. Thinking about ‘outcomes,’” he asserted, “has created terrible tension.”

Anyone who has attended any of my courses, or has read my writings on educational philosophy will quickly discern that I have placed a premium on outcomes, even though I have studiously avoided calling them that. The term, for some unexplained reasons, has created confusion and prevented clarity. For that reason, I have always argued for “goals, objectives, aims, ends, or purposes.”

To insist that we have a clear statement of what we are trying to accomplish, or what it is that we are trying to teach the children entrusted to our care, is to make perfectly good and logical sense. We need to know clearly and precisely what it is we are hoping to achieve before we devise plans or methodologies for achieving that. To use an analogy from travel, we need to know where it is we want to go before we can decide on the mode of transportation for getting there. If I merely want to walk to the corner store, there is no point in hiring an airplane, or contracting for a cruise liner.

So too in education. If we determine that we must teach our children to drive a car, there is little point in building a swimming pool as a means to that end. If we want to teach them to discern between truth and falsehood, there is not much point in boring them with flashcards. If we want to teach them to obey authority, there is not much point in letting them choose their own ciricculum. The objective or goal always determines, or ought to determine, the methodolgy to be employed. On the “basis” of one’s chosen outcomes the educator must select the methods to be employed and the means by which to measure the degree of success in reaching the outcomes. Teaching methodologies and testing mechanisms must always follow after, and never precede, the selection of objectives or goals.

If we want to be studiously fair to the proponents of OBE, to engage them in dialogue without offending them in any way, we might want to grant them their point. We could then point with a real measure of agreement to what Ralph W. Tyler preached in Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (1949) and what Benjamin Bloom argued during the 1960’s. We could also express a degree of consent with the “competency-based education” movement of the 1970’s.

To “express a measure of agreement,” though, is not he same as “buying into.” I can find some points of agreement with the OBE movement, but I cannot, and will not, “buy into” it. Adopting that system, or jumping on their bandwagon, or buying into OBE will create serious problems for our Christian schools. No administrator and no teacher and no board member should adopt OBE as their program, or even try to modify its philosophy. Let me explain why.

The primary argument against OBE is that it is thoroughly humanistic and is not in the least way Christian. Allow me to illustrate from the list of EXIT OUTCOMES cited in the “Strategic Plan” of the Grand Rapids Christian School Association (working draft, Jan ‘94). Since this was distributed to all the conferees at the CSI convention, this has become public information and was defended by those who brought it. There list of EXIT OUTCOMES, given here in abbreviated form, is stated as follows:

We know we have accomplished our mission when students are:

1. collaborative workers who demonstrate interpersonal skills and work toward common goals;

2. community contributors, who contribute their time, energies, and talents to improving the welfare of others and the quality of life in their diverse communities;

3. discerning problem solvers, (who) carefully identify and analyze problems; demonstrate creative thinking in the problem solving process; (and) examine solutions in light of God’s word (sic);

4. effective communicators who are able to use and evaluate information and media;

5. complex thinkers who identify, access, integrate, and use available resources and information to reason, make decisions, and solve complex problems in a variety of contexts;

6. quality producers who create intellectual, artistic, and practical products, use tools and technology effectively and demonstrate personal management skills.

Initial reactions to this list in most quarters would probably be quite favorable, even though the jargon is a bit thick for all those who are not in the inner circle of planners. Given explanation, one would be apt to express some guarded agreement with these “Exit Outcomes,” asserting that such qualities ought to characterize those who graduate from our schools.

But more careful analysis should raise some fundamental questions: “Is there anything distinctively Christian about this list?” Is this a list that would set a Christian school apart from the public school down the street, or from the private secular academy run for the elite? Only in # 3 above is there even a hint of Biblical values, when there is the appendage, “examine solutions in the light of God’s word” (sic). Given the paucity of Biblical directives and the ambiguity of even this qualifier, it is not unfair to criticize this list as being very little different from what one could expect from the state’s bureaucratic policy pushers.

But there is another even more pressing question that must be raised: “From what source, or by what means, did you derive this list? Where did these ‘Exit Outcomes’ come from?” When I asked Superintendent Koetje this question at the CSI convention, he replied that they had conducted a survey of teachers, parents, board members and students, questioning them as to what they thought that students should accomplish while in their school system. From a vast array of responses, they did some “number crunching” and came out with a list of most often expressed outcomes. Assuming that they conducted the process fairly and designed the questionnaires with clarity, we could applaud them for being democratic. By common consent, they may have put the tension behind them.

In the process however, a more fundamental, a most essential question has not been asked. Given the assumption that these are Christian kids who come from Christian homes, whose parents and teachers still believe those marvelous words of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, has anyone consulted the One to whom those kids belong? Has anyone asked the Creator of the universe, and the Redeemer of the elect, what He would like His children to learn? Has anyone consulted the God of the Bible to see if He has articulated there some goals or objectives or outcomes or standards for the Christian life? Is the Word of God still a sufficient guide for all of faith and life? Or has it been superceded by human opinion? Does God limit education to academic, subject-centered outcomes? Is God a traditionalist? Would God agree with Focus on the Family, or with Outcomes-Based Education?

The answer, I trust, is obvious. Yes, God is the source of all knowledge, so that is important, but “if I have the gift of…all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). If we do not “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5), all the knowledge and skills in the world will not keep us from the wrath of a holy and righteous God. If we do not design all of our programs in such a way that they strengthen the faith of our kids in their Creator and in His Holy Word, we have missed the mark. If we do not strive to teach them basic beliefs that will forever affect their behavior, we are no better than fools groping in the darkness.

But there is one other fundamental flaw in OBE that must be noted. OBE claims to be Outcome Based Education, with the clear implication that the entire educational program is Based on outcomes or objectives. To make such a claim is either utmost naivete about educational foundations or an act of flagrant deception. The proponents are claiming that the outcomes or goals are the foundation, or the basis, for the entire educational program, with nothing undergirding them. To make such a claim is to ignore the entire matter of anthropology, more simply articulated as statements and inferences about the nature of the child to be educated. In order to artirulate some outcome or goal to be achieved, there must first be some existing condition or quality needing to be modified, refined, or corrected. To assert, for example, that a child must learn to read is to imply that in his existing state he does not yet know how to read. To assert, as God does, that a child must learn to honor his father and his mother is to imply that in his natural condition he does not willingly do so. To assert, as God does, that children must learn to obey authority is to imply that, by natural inclination, they are disobedient. There is always a presupposed condition or quality of the education which precedes the attempt to bring about any desired outcome. The aBE movement flagrantly ignores this most important dimension of educational philosophy. The aBE movement never consciously or openly asks the question: What is the nature of the student that requires change and sanctification in his life? They never ask, “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?” as does the Psalmist (Ps. 8:4).

Christian education should never ignore the matter of values, attitudes, emotions, or behavior, for all of them are essential to the “blameless and holy” life (I Thess. 3:13) required of all God’s children. Christian education also should never be tricked into claiming that the schooling process is based on outcomes, for that is a foundation that is as deceptive as the devil and as shaky as sand. We must be reminded by the constitution of CSI and by countless of our forefathers that all education is based on the Bible. God is the only Author(ity) who can speak with finality about the selection of outcomes or goals for the kids He has entrusted to our care. His Word must be the basis of all of our thinking about the entire realm of education. If we no longer use that Word as our foundation, any programs we try to design will soon crack and come tumbling down.

We know of Christian schools that have developed careful and complete Christian goals and objectives for each subject area of the curriculum. Parents would benefit from seeing these; and in cases where schools do not have them, parents should encourage the schools to develop them. –The Editors

Rev. Norman De Jong is pastor of Covenant Church (OPC) in Palos Heights, IL.