What is Outcome-Based Education?

Outcome-based education, or 'OBE', is an educational system that fundamentally differs from the traditional approach to teaching in that it focuses on the final results (outcomes) of education rather than the inputs. It functions by assessing the desired results (e.g. being able to recite a poem by heart, or knowing the names of all the moons that orbit Jupiter) and essentially 'working backwards' to achieve these results.

Several states are attempting to implement the system, as they believe the current schooling system is not equipping students with the right skills and knowledge for today's world of work. Their thinking is easy to understand: establish where you want to be and you've got the best chance of getting there. Schools have a clear idea of what their students must know at the end of each semester, so are able to base their teaching on this.

Although the main principle is simple, outcome-based education raises many questions - who will decide what students should know; how will schools and districts be held responsible if a majority of students fail to achieve the decided outcomes? Some parents are confused about how students are all required to achieve the same standard of learning, when children have a wide range of abilities. The system claims to achieve 'success' - but read the small print and 'success' is in fact a below average standard of achievement.

The system does, however, help to provide structure to the educational system, which all too often falls into disarray. Teachers are often confused when complex set curriculums conflict with individual pupil interests'. An outcome-based approach could provide the clear sense of direction needed by schools to provide a consistent education for all.

It could also be adapted to cater for those students that need extra help (and, indeed, indentify them). Recently across the US, a developing theme has been encouraging students not only to ultimately get into college, but also to consider other routes such as application-based learning (i.e. learning a useful trade) that may suit some students better.

However, many outcomes in practice today lay too much emphasis on values and beliefs, rather than on the attainment of knowledge and skills. Having outcomes like these could affect students negatively as they may lose out on essential learning they would have got in an input-based system.

College admission is usually centred round standardized test scores and credit hours, a system that conflicts with outcome-based education. If it was to be put into more broad use, a radical change would be needed in the practices of colleges that operate this way.

The success of outcome-based education depends on the assumption that all students can achieve a given goal, given enough time and resources. But can America provide these resources, given the current economic outlook? Are all students able to accomplish the minimum requirements set? It remains to be seen whether a system that seeks results can be more effective than one that uses available educational resources in the most efficient way.