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Chicago Scuttles Mastery-Reading Plan After $7.5-Million, 5-Year Commitment

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The Chicago Board of Education last week unanimously agreed to stop requiring a controversial reading program that has cost the city approximately $7.5 million in the last five years.

The program was based on the "mastery learning" concept developed by the education theorist Benjamin S. Bloom. Chicago was one of the first districts in the country to endorse the concept enthusiastically, and the mastery-learning materials developed in Chicago schools have been adopted by schools nationwide in recent years.

The school board's vote came after a school-district committee established to review the program reported that it diverted time and money from better teaching methods.

The Chicago Mastery Learning Reading program (cmlr) had the strong support of former Superintendent of Schools Ruth B. Love, who left her job in March after the board refused to renew her contract. The program has been required in grades K-8 in all Chicago public schools since 1981.

Schools in more than 1,000 other districts throughout the country now use the program developed by the Chicago school system.

In 1980, the Chicago Board of Education signed a 20-year contract with a Massachusetts publishing firm giving the company the right to produce and sell cmlr materials as a commercial product.

The city's shift away from the cmlr program is forcing the board to consider revising a number of other school policies, including those for grade promotion. In recent years, promotion has been based primarily on whether a student accomplishes a certain proportion of the mastery-learning skills for his or her grade.

An initial proposal to revise the promotion policy met with sharp criticism at a public hearing last week.

Opponents said the draft policy--which would rely in part on standardized-test scores--would result in tens of thousands of elementary-school children repeating a grade and would increase their chances of dropping out of school.

The proposed policy is being revised and additional public hearings will take place in the next few weeks.

Mastery learning presumes that all students can learn given the right amount of time and instruction. It emphasizes students' mastery of small units of study in sequence and detailed testing on the material taught.

If a student does not master a given unit, the teacher must present it once more using a different instructional strategy. The student is then tested again. The process continues indefinitely until the student meets a particular objective and can move on.

Mr. Bloom, who is distinguished service professor emeritus at the University of Chicago School of Education, said last week that he was not consulted in developing Chicago's program or in reviewing the cmlr materials.

The Chicago board's vote to discard the cmlr program--as well as a similar program in mathematics--follows more than six months of mounting criticism.

In February, a report by Designs for Change, a local education-research and advocacy organization, said 75 percent of Chicago's 9th graders were reading below grade level. The report blamed the school system's over-reliance on the cmlr program as contributing to the low test scores and recommended that an independent panel be established to review the program.

Early proponents of the cmlr program had hailed it as a way to reduce climbing illiteracy rates and as a particularly effective program for teaching low-income children. But today, opponents claim that the program dampens children's enthusiasm and ability to read by presenting reading as a set of fragmented tasks.

"Mastery learning is not merely a series of work skills," said Mr. Bloom. "It has to involve reading. Unless a kid reads a great deal, he's not going to learn reading very well, no matter how many separate skills he has."

Chicago's new superintendent, Manford Byrd Jr., in April created a reading committee comprising teachers, principals, union and community representatives, and parents to determine whether the cmlr program should be eliminated.

The committee's report, presented to the board of education in July, charged that the program's materials contained grammatical errors, illogical instructions, reading passages too short for comprehension, disjointed units that provided little use of the skills learned in actual reading, and test items that did not reflect what students were taught.

The committee also found that the program placed an "overwhelming" record-keeping burden on teachers and principals.

Although the school system's guidelines stated that the program was not intended to make up ael5lschool's entire reading curriculum, the committee noted that the sheer amount of time the program required had compelled many teachers to limit their choice of materials to cmlr.

The primary criticism, according to George Munoz, president of the Chicago Board of Education, "was that it was too much of a crutch for the teaching staff to rely on these mechanical teaching techniques. And, more importantly, administrators put too much emphasis on the mechanics of reading and not enough on reading itself. The object became mastering mastery learning and not mastering reading or math."

The committee recommended that the district use the cmlr program as a supplement only to more traditional reading programs. It also advocated revising the program materials and finding a new publisher by the 1986-87 school year if the district wants to retain an optional program.

"Ironically, it is the low achievers who have been most detrimentally affected" by the cmlr program, said Sharon Weitzman, a member of the review committee and research coordinator for Designs for Change. "In some classrooms, low achievers are required to spend double the time on cmlr materials--leaving them virtually no time to engage in the reading or discussion of stories that experts agree is essential to the learning process. The result is that low achievers fall even further behind their average or above-average counterparts."

The decision to drop the cmlr program will end a 20-year contract between the Chicago school board and the program's publisher, Mastery Education Corp. of Watertown, Mass.

The contract gave the publishing company exclusive rights to publish, market, and sell the workbooks and teachers' manuals produced through Chicago's mastery-learning program and required that the company pay royalties to the Chicago Board of Education for any materials sold to other districts.

Early this month, school-board lawyers and the publishing firm said the contract does not obligate the Chicago school system to buy the materials or to continue to revise them for a nationwide market. The board is free, however, to update and print revised editions of the materials for its own use.

The Chicago public schools have paid some $7.5 million to the publishing firm since 1980 for use of the materials. The board has received $439,000 in royalties from sales of the program since 1981, according to Brent Farmer, president of the publishing firm.

Even before the board vote, Mr. Byrd issued guidelines that mastery-learning reading would no longer be required, though it can still be used as a supplement. In a letter dated July 23 to members of the board's curriculum committee, Mr. Byrd stated that each elementa-ry school must have a reading program built on basal or traditional reading materials.

He also issued guidelines that a similar, optional program for mathematics should be used as a supplement only. Although the mathematics program was intended to be a comprehensive curriculum, it is not being used in many schools and has been primarily limited to grades K-3.

Mr. Munoz acknowledged that this will be a difficult transition year as Chicago's schools move from mastery learning to other teaching methods.

The school system had already purchased cmlr materials for this fall but is trying to use existing resources and available funds to bring other materials into the classroom. In addition, the system is increasing the amount of time required in the curriculum for reading and mathematics instruction and is setting aside a specific block of time for actual reading, as opposed to skills development.

Most other school districts have used the mastery-learning program only in selected schools and have continued to devote most of their time to traditional teaching methods, according to Donald W. Robb, vice president of the Mastery Education Corp.

He said the program was never intended to be a "total" reading program. Chicago's problems with it, he argued, stem from poor implementation.

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