OLR Research Report

The Connecticut General Assembly


February 17, 1994 94-R-0290


FROM: D'Ann Mazzocca, Principal Analyst

RE: Outcome-Based Education

outcome based

You asked a series of specific questions about outcome-based education.

This report answers your questions in order. It is based largely on information from the Education Commission of the States (ECS), a nonpartisan education research and policy organization based in Denver, and the ERIC Digest, published by the Clearinghouse on Educational Management at the University of Oregon.

1. What is the definition of “Outcome Based Education”?

Outcome-based education (OBE) is education in which an emphasis is placed on a clearly articulated idea of what students are expected to know and be able to do, that is, what skills and knowledge they need to have, when they leave the school system. It is sometimes also called performance-based education and is an attempt to measure educational effectiveness based on results rather than on inputs such as time students spend in class. The student learning outcomes constitute the criteria by which curriculum is developed or redesigned, instructional materials are selected, teaching methods are adopted, and evaluation is conducted.

2. Where did it start? Was there an educator or a group of educators or other “experts” who proposed it originally?

The Education Commission of the States traces this concept back to the 1930s and a study involving 300 colleges and 30 high schools. The participating high schools redesigned their courses away from the conventional curriculum in order to promote their students' acquisition of higher-order thinking skills, and the colleges relaxed their conventional subject matter entrance requirements in exchange for detailed information about the skills and abilities of the participating high schools' graduates. The study revealed that graduates of the most experimental high schools were “strikingly more successful” than graduates of schools with the traditional college preparation courses.

A University of Kentucky report on OBE finds all its basic principles outlined in a 1949 book on curriculum and instruction in which Ralph W. Tyler argued that teaching and learning are inextricably linked, to the degree that it makes no sense to say that teaching takes place if there is no learning. He viewed student learning as the criterion of teaching effectiveness.

There is no single model for outcome-based education. Many national groups are developing content-specific outcomes, and individual school districts and some states have adopted some forms of OBE. But some people confuse the concept with one or another specific program that may have elements with which they disagree. They then object to the entire concept on that basis. An example of this confusion is identifying outcome-based education in general with an instructional model developed in the 1960s by Benjamin Bloom, who is thought to have coined the term OBE. Bloom's “Mastery Learning” process divides curriculum material into lots of small distinct units, and students' progress is measured by their mastery of these units. It is a specific teaching method. The outcomes concept does not promote a specific method. It says rather that educational practice should be focused on ensuring that students master the skills (that is, master “the outcomes”) the community decides are necessary for them to be effective adults.

3. Do other states use OBE? If so, what is their experience both politically (is it accepted by parents, teachers and students), and academically (is there measurable improvement in academic skills of students taught under OBE)?

ECS identifies 23 states that have developed or implemented some form of outcomes program. These include Connecticut based on our state board's adoption of the Common Core of Learning. The Common Core was issued as a set of guidelines, not mandates, for districts and schools to use as they choose. An ECS spokesman reports that several states (Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) have backed away from implementing OBE, based on public “uproar.” Objections frequently relate to the possibility of nonacademic goals that reflect someone else's politically correct values being taught in schools. Others include a fear of loss of local control over education and the (inaccurate) belief that OBE entails doing away with grades and Carnegie units.

Research conducted during the 1980s to identify the elements common to high-achieving schools listed a goal-oriented instruction program as the first common element. It also found that these schools direct resources toward achieving specific instructional goals, and their staffs work together to achieve learning objectives. The ERIC Digest cites Florida as a successful example of a state whose legislature helped school districts define outcomes and then waived statutes to give schools the flexibility to meet those goals on their own terms.

ECS points out that statistical proof of the benefit of statewide outcome-based education programs may be difficult to come by. These programs are relatively recent, and evidence of success will require establishing baseline data on students and schools and then monitoring the results over time. But even then, it may be difficult to attribute improvement solely to OBE. Many of the states, such as Kentucky, for example, are involved in several reform efforts simultaneously, making it difficult to establish which change caused which improvement.

Some schools and districts that have implemented OBE programs report positive results: The Johnson City Central School District in upstate New York saw its first graders' average reading scores increase after adopting OBE from slightly below the national norm to three or four months above grade level. The percentage of its third graders scoring above grade level on the Stanford assessment test increased from 37% to more than 75%. The Sparta School District in Illinois reported that students achieved significantly higher grades and test scores after four years of implementing an OBE program.

4. Is it an element of OBE that traditional letter grades A through F are not used? If so, what grading system, if any, is used?

The various OBE programs share an emphasis on changes to the entire educational system, observable and measurable student performance or student outcomes, and the assumption that all students can learn. There is no single grading system that is common to all programs, nor is it a necessary feature of OBE that traditional letter grades be abandoned. But it is true that some programs, such as William Spady's OBE model, involve expanded opportunity and support for students who need more time to master material. Students in these programs may be given grades of Incomplete until they succeed.

5. Is it an element of OBE that homogeneous grouping is prohibited?

OBE does not require the elimination of homogeneous grouping. In fact, under Spady's model, teachers use grouping, as well as coaching and team teaching, to give students extra help.

6. Under OBE in other jurisdictions, who generally sets the outcome standards to be achieved (i.e. teachers at the school or district level, local education agencies or state education agencies or commissioners)?

The outcomes students should be able to demonstrate can be set at the level of the school, the district, or the state. In fact, they can be and have been set at the national level. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards are outcomes developed by a national curriculum organization that have been adopted by individual teachers, schools, and districts.

The standards can be adopted as mandates or as guidelines. Connecticut's current Common Core was adopted for use as a guide by schools and districts. The Commission on Educational Excellence in Connecticut has recommended that the student performance standards be developed cooperatively at the state level by a broad-based group of educators, parents, business leaders, and other citizens. It also recommends that school districts set additional standards to supplement the state standards.

7. Are there expert reports, reviews or scientific studies of OBE that are either widely cited or accepted? If there are any available, please list them.


Briggs, A. David. “Alhambra High: A `High Success' School.” Educational Leadership 46, 2 (October 1988): 10-11. EJ 378 738.

Brown, Alan S. “Outcome-Based Education: A Success Story.” Educational Leadership 46, 2 (October 1988): 12. EJ 378 739.

Conley, David T. Roadmap to Restructuring: Policies, Practices, and the Emerging Visions of Schooling. Eugene, Oregon: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, University of Oregon, 1993. 430 pages.

Glatthorn, Allan A. “Outcome Based Education: Reform and the Curriculum Process.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 8, 4 (Summer 1993): 354-63.

McKernan, Jim. “Some Limitations of Outcome-Based Education.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 8, 4 (Summer 1993): 343-53.

McNeir, Gwennis. Outcomes-Based Education: Tool for Restructuring. Oregon School Study Council Bulletin. April 1993. Eugene: Oregon School Study Council. 29 pages.

Rothman, Robert. “Taking Account.” Education Week 12, 25 (March 17, 1993): 72-75.

Schlafly, Phyllis. “What's Wrong with Outcome-Based Education?” The Phyllis Schlafly Report 26, 10 (May 1993): 1-4.

Spady, William G. “Organizing for Results: The Basis of Authentic Restructuring and Reform.” Educational Leadership 46, 2 (October 1988): 4-8. EJ 378 736.

Streshley, William, and Mac Bernd. “School Reform: Real Improvement Takes Time.” Journal of School Leadership 2, 3 (July 1992): 320-29. EJ 447 130.

Vickery, Tom Rusk. “ODDM: A Workable Model for School Improvement.” Educational Leadership 47, 7 (April 1990): 67-70. EJ 405 195.