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Education Reporter
Outcome Based Education

An open letter to the Honorable Tom Ridge, Governor of Pennsylvania, by education researcher Virginia Miller.

Dear Governor Ridge:
Virginia Miller
Virginia Miller

Recently, you sounded the death knell of O.B.E. by announcing the introduction of new academic standards and assessments for all Pennsylvania students. I respectively submit that the death of O.B.E. is greatly exaggerated. I will expound on a few of the reasons.

If, as you have stated, your education revolution has developed "objectively defined and objectively measured standards," why do we find throughout the Academic Standards for Mathematics such verbs as "apply," "demonstrate," "develop," "invent," "analyze," "describe," "discover," and "create"? These verbs clearly confirm that the standards are a document of educational processes, not content. Processes are not measurable knowledge or skills; therefore, they are neither objectively defined nor objectively measured. Just how is a student to be evaluated from year to year as to "analyzing," "applying," and "creating"?

The introduction to the Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening Standards clearly states that the language arts "are processes that students use to learn and make sense of their world [emphasis added]" and that the standards "define the skills and strategies employed by effective readers and writers [emphasis added]."

Because the standards explicitly state that they are processes and strategies, they cannot by definition be objectively measured, nor can they be rigorous as they are not objectively defined.

If, as you have stated, you are about to "lead our children away from the ill-defined, social engineering wilderness of O.B.E. and into a new education environment - an environment based on the fundamentals... "[emphasis added] then why do we not find fundamentals stressed in either the Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening Standards or the Mathematics Standards?

A case in point: the Introduction to the Mathematics Standards informs us that mathematics in Pennsylvania will be included in the studies of particular applications. "Although it is an interesting and enjoyable study for its own sake, mathematics is most appropriately used as a tool to help organize and understand information from other academic disciplines."

I disagree, as this is a false dichotomy. The study of mathematics for its own sake is worthy and appropriate. Successful math education should not be sidetracked into the studies of particular applications before students have been well grounded in the rudiments that will prepare them to succeed in areas in which mathematics is applied. But that is exactly what occurs in Pennsylvania's new Academic Standards for Mathematics.

For example, estimation is over emphasized throughout the standards. Though we often use estimation in our personal lives, it is not a highly regarded mathematical technique in professional settings. Introducing estimation in early elementary years will encourage habits detrimental to mathematics.

These standards do not address the matter of when children should master basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). Standard 2.2.3 does state that by the end of third grade students will "apply addition and subtraction situations using concrete objects," "demonstrate concept of multiplication as repeated addition and arrays," and even "explain addition and subtraction algorithms with regrouping." But will they know addition, subtraction, multiplication and division? The process of demonstration does not necessarily imply knowledge.

I ask you, will third graders know their multiplication tables for numbers between 1 and 10? Specific content standards would require this basic fundamental knowledge. Pennsylvania's new Mathematics Standards do not. Further, no- where is decimal place value, foundational to mathematical understanding, mentioned let alone required.

There is no standard that requires students to "know" anything in either the language arts or mathematics standards. Granted, several standards require students to "solve," but the vagueness of the standard still leaves questions as to the specific content addressed and just what content a student must know to solve the problem. Even in the upper grades, students are not required to know the Pythagorean Theorem, just to use it. [2.10.8.A and 2.10.11.B].

I am not advocating the assimilation of facts at the expense of concept building. I advocate a balance where a conceptual understanding of a discipline requires a requisite mastery of basic skills.

A careful study of both the Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Standards and the Mathematics Standards will reveal that neither will result in the mastery of basic skills as they both lack specific focus on essential content.

If, as you have stated, "The 53 'outcomes' are gone, excised completely from the state code," then why is the language of the 53 outcomes still present in the new academic standards?

As originally proposed, the Chapter 5 Regulations of July 24, 1993 set forth the following outcome for Citizenship. "All students demonstrate an understanding of the history and nature of prejudice ... " [emphasis added]. This language was removed after much public outcry. Yet we find the same language present in the new Chapter 4 regulations that are championed as the executioner of O.B.E. - "§4.12 Academic Standards (3) Social Studies (I) History: Study of the record of human experience including important events; interactions of culture, race and ideas; the nature of prejudice ... "[emphasis added].

§4.11. Purpose of public education of the new Chapter 4 regulations states that "public education provides opportunities for students to: ... (2) Develop integrity... (6) Collaborate with others... (7) Adapt to change." These mirror the Goals of Quality Education in the current Chapter 5 regulations - learning independently and collaboratively; adaptability to change; and ethical judgment.

Further, §4.31 Vocational-technical education (c) states, "Vocational-technical education programs shall consist of a series of planned academic and vocational-technical education courses that are articulated with one another so that knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors are taught in a systematic manner [emphasis added]."

Must the same battles be fought twice? Apparently so.

In truth, the new academic standards do not excise the 53 outcomes, they build upon and expand the outcomes previously set forth.

If, as you have stated, this new education environment is to be "based on the fundamentals and on parents' rights," why do the Chapter 4 regulations not take a strong stand for parental rights?

Schools are required to adopt policies to assure that parents have "access to information about curriculum, including academic standards to be achieved, instructional materials and assessment techniques." (§4.4 General policies. (d) (1) ). Why just information about the curriculum, and not the curriculum itself? Why just information about instructional materials, and not the materials themselves? At face value, this policy may appease some parents, but it can be used to effectively bar all parents from inspecting the actual materials to which a student may be exposed.

The new Chapter 4 regulations also grant: "If upon inspection of State assessments parents find the assessments in conflict with their religious beliefs, and wish their student be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents will not be denied upon written request to the school entity superintendent." (§4.4 General policies (d)(4) ). Aside from the obvious, that this "right" is restricted to religious beliefs and not broadened to include matters of conscience, it conflicts with the requirements for graduation.

§4.24. High school graduation requirements (a) states, "...To graduate, students shall demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics on State assessments administered in grade 11 or 12 or comparable local assessment ..."

If a student is exempted from the State assessment under §4.4 (d)(4), how does that student qualify for graduation? They cannot. The graduation requirement effectively negates the "right" to opt-out, undermines parental control and authority, and discriminates against the student due to religious convictions.

If, as you have stated, "No longer will the meddling and micro-managing of Harrisburg carry the day," then why do the new Chapter 4 regulations and standards undermine local control?

As stated previously, §4.24. High school graduation requirements (a) states, ". . . To graduate, students shall demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics on state assessments administered in grade 11 or 12 or comparable local assessment ... " [emphasis added].

Since §4.51 (b)(4) states, "Levels of proficiency shall be advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic [emphasis added]," the question must be asked - What level of proficiency must be attained for a student to graduate? The answer is, we don't know; the level is not specified.

§4.24. High school graduation requirements says proficiency, not proficient. If a student must be proficient in reading, writing and mathematics, then the language would state such - e.g., to graduate, students shall attain a score at the proficient level or better in reading, writing and mathematics on state assessments.

Without specifying any minimum level of proficiency required for graduation, the regulations ring hollow in their claim to raise expectations for all Pennsylvania students. Neither will they provide parents, through the State assessments, an accountability of school performance. The regulations do, however, ensure that all students will take the State assessments.

This being said, the purpose of the requirement of taking the state assessment as a condition of graduation is nothing more than ensuring that school districts align their curriculum to the standards. Local schools can do nothing less. As the State assessment is aligned with the state standards, local curricula content will be unduly influenced. State assessments become the tail that wags the curricular dog.

Despite your promise of "no mandated curriculum," the State academic standards and assessments will exert the necessary pressure to control curriculum from the State level.

These standards and regulations are wrong for our children and wrong for our schools. It will take great courage to admit such and great leadership to resist the pressures of modern education reform.

Pennsylvania will support leadership that respects and supports the rights of parents and that restores sound educational practices and principles to Pennsylvania's schools. May you have the courage to do so.

Sincerely yours,

Virginia Miller

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