Origins of PBL, Part II: PBL is just Outcome-Based Learning (lite)

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Alright, I had to take a pause briefly from my research into Thomas Guskey to write about this absolutely fascinating article I just found that really explains to me so much about where Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL) came from.  

The article is a 1992 interview with William Spady, the founder of Outcome-Based Education (OBE), an educational philosophy I’d always known was some kind of direct predecessor to PBL, but which seemed to have been wiped clean from the American ed scene since sometime when I was still in elementary school. 

This article is truly a fascinating look into where PBL came from. In it, Spady really explains OBE, analyzes how it’s different than Mastery Learning (ML) and is put to some tough questions that inadvertently show you why OBE is going to be doomed in and forgotten in just a few years . . .  only to return many years later in the Northeast, as OBE-lite, under the name of Proficiency-Based Education.

So there it is:  PBL is just OBE-lite.  And almost no one knows what that movement even was.

That’s why this article is so fascinating. Let me take you through it.

Early in the interview, Spady defines “outcomes” as performances; they are not just content mastery, they are authentic demonstrations of cross-disciplinary knowledge.  Late in the article, he mentions Ted Sizer, and that’s really what Spady was going for — the types of end-of-semester presentations of learning that demonstrate the ability to solve real-world problems.  It made me think of the section in “Horace’s Compromise” where the group asks graduates to demonstrate that they can complete their taxes in order to demonstrate not only math content skills, but problem solving skills.

This is pretty classic 1980s-era progressive stuff — not just Sizer, but also people like Dennis Litkey; it’s John Dewey, really: the real end of school should be the ability to transfer knowledge to new, unfamiliar situations.  Except that Spady seems unwilling or unable to really grasp that tradition with both hands.  He’s just not willing to be explicit about that, and he’s also really, really no good at branding (as we’ll see shortly).

Just like with Guskey’s work leading into Standards-Based Grading in the 2000s, Spady too has a strong connection to Mastery Learning and to Benjamin Bloom, and it’s really fascinating for me to make that link.  Here’s what it is:  According to the article, Spady, while attending the University of Chicago, became friends with a man, Jim Block, who went on to study Mastery Learning under Bloom.  Spady, who was originally a sociologist interested in issues of equity in the wake of the Coleman Report, became intrigued with the notion of using Mastery Learning to improve educational outcomes:

“[W]hen Block told me about the fundamental changes associated with mastery learning—turning time into a variable instead of time being a constant, and having what I now would call a criterion base for standards instead of comparative standards—I found the ideas theoretically compelling, and I took them immediately to the educational system level —because to me the fundamental barriers to making the mastery learning idea work were at the organizational and institutional level.”

This of course is fascinating — here is a man who was never an educator who is about to embark on an influential career of trying to change the educational system.  Notice that there is no recognition on his part of the endemic issues of administration and management within a cultural institution.  He doesn’t exactly understand the issues that a teacher trying to adopt this system might face; we’re definitely talking about a technocratic approach to educational reform.  

As I said, the Sizer connections feel quite real, and here in the interview Spady comes out and makes it explicit:

“People like Ted Sizer have done monumentally important work this last decade in calling attention to these systemic barriers: Carnegie units as seat time credentialing, and courses considered to be whatever subject matter you can learn in nine months.”

Meanwhile, Spady draws roughly the same distinction between OBE and ML as Guskey does:  ML is more about instruction, while OBE coopts ML’s focus on success for all students, ML’s dismissal of time as a mere variable — while also moving educational objectives away from content and toward real-world outcomes.  

In Spady’s view, ML itself was destroyed in the public’s perception both by forced implementation (one related article I found noted its widespread use and then abandonment in Chicago public schools in 1982) and by a relentless focus on narrow academic subskills as measured by standardized tests.  Spady says:

“ . . .  the big struggle was between “real competency” and what people were calling “minimum competency”: taking a legitimate notion—people need to be competent—and translating that into rigid testing programs to see whether kids could put commas in the right place and add columns of numbers by a certain age.”

Spady even relates how he deliberately changed the name from Mastery Learning to Outcome-Based Learning in 1980 in order to rebrand a spoiled initiative:

“In January of 1980 we convened a meeting of 42 people to form the Network for Outcome-Based Schools. Most of the people who were there—Jim Block, John Champlin—had a strong background in mastery learning, since it was what OBE was called at the time. But I pleaded with the group not to use the name “mastery learning” in the network’s new name because the word “mastery” had already been destroyed through poor implementation. I argued that we had about five years before they destroyed the term “outcomes,” but at least we could get a start and pursue a clear vision of an idea.”

Spady was clearly influential enough with his new organization during the 1980s so that, by 1992, whole states — he cites Minnesota and Pennsylvania — have actually removed their Carnegie-based unit requirements and replaced them with outcome-based requirements.  I had no idea.  The whole system he describes — the states pulling the seat-time requirement, the states being tasked to come up with basic frameworks for student graduation outcomes, then leaving it up to individual districts to determine how to assess and teach these outcomes — it all sounds so very similar to the passing of Act 77 in Vermont in 2013.  I could not believe that there had been such a historical similarity twenty years before, and yet nobody in Vermont was discussing this or offering lessons from the previous problems with the earlier movement.  Amazing!

The interviewer in the article does a good job of asking Spady about the relevant issues.  And it is here that OBE’s major — and it turned out, fatal — obstacle becomes clear: the Standards Movement.

The interviewer asks Spady how his work interacts with the national effort, beginning with the 1989 Educational Summit of the US governors, to establish national standards — and the corresponding efforts on the part of professional organizations to establish content-area standards.  Spady calls this effort “very unfortunate” and says that these advocates are “stuck in an old paradigm of thinking about the purpose of education and the curriculum.”

It is here that you see the seeds of OBE’s ultimate, imminent defeat.  It’s just completely out of step with the times.  My initial sense is that Spady smartly rebranded from Mastery Learning, and then was able to ride the coattails of the Standards Movement with his calls for “outcomes” — and to catch some of the progressive wind from Sizer, et al — but by the 1990s, the Standards Movement is starting to look a lot more like back-to-basics, bar-raising, rigorous-content education (just the sort of thing that A Nation at Risk called for).  In fact, it’s a response to A Nation at Risk.  So Spady’s notion of a wider, more capacious sense of educational outcomes sounds a lot airier than the nation is really interested in.  

Plus, as I mentioned before, he’s not good at branding.  He calls OBE’s Sizer-style authentic demonstrations of learning “complex role performances.” What he should have done, of course, was put this all in business-friendly language, with talk about “21st Century skills” or — as we’d later say — the ability to compete in a global economy — and maybe tamp down the life-adjustment stuff.  But instead he writes about “the significant spheres of successful living” or “the quality of life experience” or preparing students for “life roles.” When he’s asked a softball question about whether math will still be required under OBE, he becomes obtuse, characterizing math as “an enabling outcome . . . a critical enabler to function effectively.” Great, that’ll make people feel better!

Don’t get the wrong idea.  On the big-picture stuff, Spady is really righteous and forward-thinking.  He is absolutely asking the right things: “Then the question is whether it’s best to teach [math] as a totally separate subject, 50 minutes a day, in its own separate classroom, or whether it should be learned in ways that link it to real-life problems, issues, and challenges so that it becomes the tool it was intended to be.”

And as for history: “Should we weave the evolution and historical development of ideas and institutions throughout everything we teach? Yes. Should kids take a separate course called history every year that starts at some ancient time and moves forward to the present? No. Should they thoroughly examine current problems, issues, and phenomena in depth and ask why, why, why, about their origins and relationships? Yes.” 

That’s it right there.  Talk like that and you’ll at least have a chance.  That sounds progressive and cutting edge, even thirty years later.

But then he descends into jargon again, describing “the complex role performance that the significant spheres of living require” and teachers’ work as creating “a matrix—actual demonstrations of the capability to address life-role changes”

“Like the role of a citizen?” the interview asks helpfully, trying to drag Spady back to the real world. 

“Exactly. The critical dimensions or kinds of performances that you want to see demonstrated become the columns of that matrix. The rows of the matrix are the significant issues and phenomena they will encounter within those life-roles. So the decisions you make as you fill in the rows and cells of that matrix are your curriculum design decisions: they involve the knowledge, competence, and orientations (our word for the affective and attitudinal dimensions of learning) that you deem critical for assuring success on the outcomes.”

Sounds riveting.  

The interviewer tries again later:

“How do you get ordinary sensible people to understand and support it?

“You do it by asking people to look at their own lives. As Lee Iaccoca said at the ASCD convention two years ago—when Mr. and Mrs. America get up in the morning and go out into the world, they don’t do social studies, they do life.”

Yes, there it is!  That’s the way to talk.

“Should subject matter test scores be the outcomes of an educational system for the 21st century, or are those the outcomes of the last century? If you define something else as your outcomes—like higher-order role capabilities—kids will learn a lot of that content anyway but have much more to show for their time in school.”

That’s it — that’s the way to make the argument, right there: frame it in terms of preparing students for the future, not the past.

Unfortunately, you can see how long in this article it took for Spady to get there; his PR skills are clearly up-and-down.  While his message — that the public needed to rethink and clarify the purposes of education — was a good one, he just didn’t do enough to appeal to the public’s need for “rigor” and “high standards” post-A Nation at Risk.  People didn’t want outcomes, they wanted standards.  They didn’t want Sizer-style transferable skills or portfolio demonstrations of learning.  They wanted subject area test scores, they wanted grades as rankings.  Spady’s murky answer about math “being a critical enabler” just wasn’t going to work in an era of national anxiety about the U.S. getting its butt kicked economically by the Japanese.  The math and science content people won the argument over the future; the skills needed would be the traditional math and science skills, not some airy ability to reason, calculate, and problem-solve.

Plus, you can see that Spady (nobly, I would argue) wants districts and states to think these outcomes through for themselves.  Like Mastery Learning, OBE is more of a system than a series of set principles . . .  and the country was clearly in the mood for set principles and standards (per the voluntary organizational standards being come up with by the NCTE, MCTM, et al).  And it was lurching toward trying to federalize and nationalize education — the language of equality on the left probably wasn’t super animated by Spady’s talk of localism.

You can see where this all went.  OBE was eventually killed off by conservative Right, who didn’t like the softness and the implied teaching of liberal values (that’s another post that I’ll explore later) and OBE was quickly “disappeared” and subsumed by the Standards Movement: content mastery, traditional curriculum, state standards, and accountability measures in the form of standardized testing.  Spady’s understanding of what had happened to Mastery Learning in the late 1970s — with the narrowing of content and the constant testing of skills — came true:

“Terms get distorted when policymakers get hold of them. It’s understandable; they’re trying to force accountability on a system whose subtleties they don’t recognize or appreciate because they think it’s fundamentally nonaccountable—and they’re right. So terms that sound right get used in all kinds of ways. The result today is that “outcomes” have been taken to mean test scores on tests of academic content.”

That’s just what happened.  The Standards Movement culminated in the 2002 passage of NCLB, which led to the creation of state content standards, the attempted nationalization of standards (the Common Core), and, most perniciously, the 2002 passage of NCLB, which ushered in the regime of reductive standardized testing and punitive sanctions.

Spady’s premonition that “outcomes” would come to be misdefined, came true, as well (again, more on that in a subsequent post) and it is striking how quickly this movement that was so nationally important between 1992-1994 so quickly disappeared in the United States (although a quick glance at the research makes it look as though it’s flourishing in other countries).  But here, it’s as though it was never discussed again.  

It was only in the wake of the worst of the Standards Movement — the Test and Punish period — once the rigor and the bar-raising had all played itself out, that we got to the post-NCLB period, which I would argue is what PBL represents.  It’s Spady’s original vision: states and districts forced to rethink the goals of education, to look beyond narrow content toward wider, marketplace- but also life-skill-friendly transferable skills (as we now call them) . . .  but it’s OBE-lite: PBL also includes the content skills, too.  

In this way, PBL has made itself more palatable: it keeps the content stuff, which has all been pretty fleshed out into place by this point (thanks to the last thirty years of the Standards Era), while also layering in the Spady goal setting, the OBE removal of systemic barriers (no Carnegie unit), the focus on criterion-referenced grading, the use of Mastery Learning as the instructional strategy (the words formative and summative now dominate our language), wrapped in the language of learning-for-the-future (“cradle-to-career education” in the words of Vermont’s former governor), and a new coat of glossy technology to facilitate the portfolios (e-portfolios!) and the standards-based-grading (which we’ll get to later with Guskey).

What it gets at for me is the idea of trends coming back over and over again in education, something I always took for granted as being redundant and even duplicitous, evidence of for-profit companies repacking failed initiatives, is simply an incorrect understanding of history.  Instead, the fact is that sometimes, as Spady says, good ideas only have a short shelf life before they become victims of their own success: subsumed by policymakers who want to set up counterproductive accountability measures, attacked by populists who distort the core tenets, and resented by educators who’ve had untested ideas pushed into their classrooms.  Does this mean that the ideas are bad ones?  Not at all?  It can mean that they’re poorly branded, poorly implemented, even poorly developed or conceived.  I’d argue there was a little of all of that with both Mastery in the mid-70s and OBE in the early 90s.  And sometimes it’s just not the right time.  Pennsylvania in the early 1990s, ten years after A Nation at Risk and three years after a national governors’ summit on standards and rigor?  Not a great time.  Lefty state like Vermont in the wake of the cruel test-and-punish era?  Much better.  

So it’s not a bad thing when trends come back.  All through that time between the end of OBE and the start of PBL, smart people were still thinking about these principles.  Ted Sizer was setting up his Coalition and his charter school in Massachusetts.  Dennis Litky created The Lab School.  Guys like John Hattie and Thomas Guskey were still studying Mastery Learning.  The whole country was learning about the importance of developing clear standards and translating them into daily lesson plans and sensible assessments.  And as the pace of technological change increased, employers began realizing that it was less important to know arcane subject area details than it was to be able to collaborate, reason, and problem solve.  The time, as they say, was coming back around.  

And that’s not a bad thing at all.

The only problem here is the amnesia with which PBL advocates approached their work.  Instead of sharing the OBE work of Spady and others from American school districts in the early 1990s (or even the ongoing, active efforts abroad) and using that work as a model from which to draw parallels, find useful frameworks for creating standards, report cards, and assessments, and even to learn from the mistakes before we make them ourselves, we educators on the ground were taught that this Proficiency-Based Education was an entirely new, untried phenomena that we’d have to design from the ground up.  We never heard of OBE.  Nobody talked about it.  A few teachers in my school were still doing Mastery Learning from god-knows-when, but no connection was made to those efforts.  The more I learn, the more useful information I realize was out there, back in the fairly recent past, but no one in Vermont was connecting our work to anything more historic than the odd reference to the outmoded traditions of the factory-based educational model (which of course needed changing . . .  with this brand-new invention).

Why is this?  

I can understand of course that it never looks good to be trying something that has already been tried before, and failed.  But we have to be honest about what’s going on.  It’s not as though there hadn’t been innovations since the time of OBE . . .  there really were.  Again, just read John Hattie’s classic 2009 book, “Visible Learning.” There HAS been a lot that has been improved.  But we needed models of a whole system that had been tried in real public school districts, not just new innovations in pedagogy being done in charter schools of university lab schools.    

In my view, this was a missed opportunity to learn.  But I’m glad I am now.

So there it is:  a lot of Proficiency-Based Learning comes from OBE.  

In fact, you could call PBL Outcome-Based Education-lite.