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Mastery Learning: A Useful Tool, Not a Panacea

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Chicago--Mastery learning has proved its worth as a method of teaching reading, especially to students whose proficiency is below average, but educators who use the sometimes-controversial method should not regard it as a "quick fix" for poor basic-skills test scores.

That was the view shared by the speakers at a special session on mastery learning in reading at the annual convention of the International Reading Association (ira) held here this month.

Mastery learning has been hailed as the answer to rising illiteracy rates by some educators and criticized heavily by others, the speakers suggested. But it is, in fact, neither plague nor panacea, but a method of instruction--with potential for good and ill--based on the premise that all students can achieve excellence, according to James H. Block, a professor of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara and one of the developers of the approach.

Instructional Method Stressed

The education theorist Benjamin S. Bloom, who conceived of the strategy in the late 1960's, argued that, given enough time and the right instructional method, all students can learn what they are asked to learn.

To date, however, the method is probably used in fewer than 10 percent of all reading programs, according to Joan S. Hyman, professor of education at the University of San Francisco. In recent years, she said, some urban districts--Chicago, Baltimore, and Denver, for example--have introduced mastery learning into the curriculum to varying degrees, but particularly in their reading programs.

Because the method requires a great deal of planning, record-keeping, and training for the teachers using it, few if any large districts have adopted it across-the-board. "I don't believe that in any large district there is a comprehensive, fully implemented mastery-learning program," said William G. Spady, associate executive director for the American Association of School Administrators. But he noted that many large districts are successfully using mastery learning in some schools and classrooms.

In districts where it has been used, students' reading skills have improved dramatically, according to S. Alan Cohen, professor of education at the University of San Francisco. "There's no question about the efficacy of mastery learning, but there are many questions and problems that must be addressed," Mr. Cohen said.

Other speakers agreed that mastery learning has the potential for misuse. It can be "trivialized, distorted, and abandoned," said Mr. Spady.

And increased use of minimum-compe-tency testing, coupled with the "back-to-basics" movement, makes it more likely that some educators may abuse mastery learning by trying to use it as a rapid way to raise test scores, Mr. Spady said. That temptation is great, other speakers noted, since the method is used most often to teach the "basic skills'' of reading and arithmetic.

Expectations Established

In the mastery-learning format, teachers must establish specifically what they expect students to learn; teach explicitly to those goals with the expectation that all students will master the material if they are given enough time, and if the material is presented in the right way; and test students in detail on this material only, Mr. Spady said.

If students do not master the material, then the teacher must present it again using a different "instructional strategy" and then retest the student. The "reteaching" in a different way is very important to the suc-cess of mastery learning, several speakers emphasized.

But educators who are interested in using the method in their districts should be prepared to plan far ahead and possibly to make some adjustments to match the method to the needs of their students and teachers, Mr. Spady said.

"Mastery learning demands a tremendous amount of management skill," he said. School administrators who are interested in adopting mastery learning should recognize that, because students' progress is gauged by their successful completion--mastery--of a task, the method is at odds with the basic structure of most schools, which measure progress by grades completed or some other "program-assignment structure."

Other possible pitfalls, Mr. Spady said, are that the method will be tried and abandoned because staff members find it hard to reorganize their routines around it. It can also be "distorted," he said, pointing to curricula and instructional methods that "call themselves mastery learning but provide inadequate correction and re-explanation."

In addition, he said, mastery learning can be "trivialized" if the objectives around which a program is built are too low. "What you test is what you get. If your goals are too low, you'll get trivial outcomes."

Moreover, other speakers noted, administrators seeking to establish a mastery-learning program usually have to make some adjustments to take into account the special characteristics of the district. In Chicago, for example, where Ruth B. Love, superintendent of schools, last year established a mandatory program in mastery learning in reading, the program developers had to consider several special factors, according to Beau Fly Jones, curriculum specialist for the Chicago Public Schools.

Limited Resources

Because Chicago is a very large school system with limited resources, she said, planners could give teachers only a limited amount of in-service training. The planners also assumed that not all teachers would be equally skilled in using mastery learning or equally motivated to do so.

Also, as is true of many urban districts, the student population is very mobile; some schools have a 100-percent turnover in the course of one school year, Ms. Jones said.

Consequently, although the reading units progress from the easier to the more complex, each unit begins with "prerequisite skills instruction" for those students whose frequent moves may have caused them to miss some of the material, Ms. Jones said.

Chicago's program--which is produced and sold also as a commercial product--has four compotents, Ms. Jones said. "Teach, test, reteach, using a different instructional strategy, and retest," she said. The program relies heavily on group instruction, which is augmented by individual instruction, especially during the "reteaching" phase, she said.

So far, Ms. Jones said, students and teachers are responding well to mastery learning, and earlier experiments with the method in Chicago have shown that students' reading skills improve considerably.

In Johnson City, N.Y., students and teachers have been using mastery learning successfully for 11 years, according to Albert Mamary, assistant superintendent for instruction, who spoke at the ira session. Officials in the 2,900-student district began using mastery learning when their analysis of students' grades suggested that 70 percent of the pupils were not learning what they were supposed to be learning.

The experiment began with six teachers; now, 11 years later, it is used in all grades, and most students are reading above their grade level, Mr. Mamary said.

Reading achievement--as well as discipline--also improved greatly at a high school in San Jose, Calif., where school officials introduced mastery learning with the help of researchers from the University of San Francisco. After six months of mastery-learning instruction, 50 percent of the students who were reading at least two years below their grade level had gained between one and five years, Ms. Hyman said.

Simple Process

The process by which the advances were achieved, Ms. Hyman said, was simple: teachers identified those areas in reading in which the students could succeed and began with them. "If they didn't make it, they got another chance," she said.

The psychological element--success breeds success--is fundamental to mastery learning, several speakers noted. In Johnson City, for example, the staff "considers strongly the feelings of the students," Mr. Mamary said. "When they feel good, they learn more."

Other speakers mentioned the high degree of satisfaction students felt when they knew what they were supposed to do and did it.

"The big fear that people have is that if students know where they're going, it violates some canon of education," Mr. Spady said.

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