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Proponents of Mastery Learning Defend Method After Its Rejection by Chicago

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Despite the decision of the Chicago Board of Education this month to stop requiring the use of a mastery-learning program to teach reading in the public schools, proponents of the method say it is "stronger than ever."

They blame the school system's withdrawal from a mastery-learning approach on everything from poor program design to weak implementation to local politics.

The decision has elicited strong reactions across the country. Chicago was one of the largest school systems in the nation to re-quire a mastery-learning approach and one of the first to embrace the concept wholeheartedly.

In 1980, a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Education to highlight promising curriculum practices chose the Chicago Mastery Learning Reading program (cmlr) as one of 13 model programs. In 1981, the education reporter Robert Benjamin devoted a chapter of his book Making Schools Work to the Chicago program, predicting that mastery learning would become "the fastest growing education trend of the 1980's."

Today, mastery learning is "alive and well and probably healthier than it's ever been," according to one of the concept's earliest proponents, James H. Block, professor of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Some 50 million children around the globe are taught using a mastery-learning approach, according to the University of Chicago education theorist Benjamin S. Bloom, who is often cited as the father of mastery learning. Mr. Block said he did not know of any major urban school system in the United States that had not adopted some kind of mastery-learning program.

The Network of Outcome-Based Schools, created in the winter of 1980 to promote the mastery-learning concept, now has 1,700 dues-paying members. William G. Spady, executive director of the network and director of the Far West Laboratory for Educa-tional Research and Development, said that while no one knows how many schools are using mastery-learning concepts to teach students, the number is high.

At least six major mastery-learning reading programs exist besides the one developed by the Chicago schools.

Exactly what mastery learning is may vary from school to school, however, and supporters note that many schools have adopted the concept in name only.

At its most basic level, mastery learning presumes that all children can learn, given the right amount of time and instruction.

Under a mastery-learning approach, children are taught a specific skill or subject in small chunks; are tested or assessed to see if they have mastered that skill; are retaught the skill if they have not, using a different instructional method; and then are retested. It is a cycle that can be repeated until mastery is achieved.

The concept can be applied to any subject area or set of skills.

But effective implementation of mastery learning requires more than that, according to Mr. Spady.

In some cases, it means revamping the school curriculum, he explained. In many instances, it means changing the patterns of instructional delivery within a school and the amount and quality of contact between teachers and students. It might require changing student grouping patterns or the variety and use of tests. And it definitely requires, he said, fundamental changes in beliefs, expectations, and philosophies about schooling.

"Mastery learning is not a program," said Arthur J. Chambers,4principal of the Harry L. Johnson elementary school in Johnson City, N.Y., which has been applying mastery-learning concepts for 14 years. "It is a set of beliefs and a set of practices that make teaching better."

"Often, that was not understood," said Mr. Spady. "Mastery learning was simply interpreted as giving kids more time if they need it. All kinds of junk was passing for mastery learning because it was a popular label and people thrive on labels. The concept itself was getting a bad name."

Now he is concerned, he said, that experiences like Chicago's might lead people to "throw out the baby with the bathwater."

Where Chicago's mastery-learning effort went wrong is a complicated story.

Supporters of the concept claim the city's negative experiences are an "aberration," although not an unexpected one. Rather than representing fundamental problems with mastery learning, they claim, the city's difficulties are a perfect example of how theories can break down in practice.

According to Beau Fly Jones, who helped develop the cmlr program during her seven years with the Chicago Public Schools and who is now director for instructional improvement for the North Central Regional Education Laboratory, Chicago's mastery-learning program is unusual in that it is a "materials-based" program--meaning that it includes a package of workbooks, teachers' manuals, tests, and instructions for reteaching students based on a particular content.

The cmlr program was designed to fit an already mandated curriculum consisting of behavioral objectives and tests students had to pass in order to be promoted, said Thomas R. Guskey, professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky, who was director of research and development for the Chicago Public Schools until 1978.

"That program was called Continuous Progress for Mastery Learning," he said,"but Ben Bloom himself was quoted as saying that the program had little to do with continuous progress and absolutely nothing to do with mastery learning."

To provide teachers with materials correlated with those objectives, the cmlr program was devised. Initially, it was based on a list of approximately 273 discrete reading skills. Following complaints that the large number of skills to be mastered resulted in fragmented teaching, the list was reduced to 150 skills when the cmlr program was revised in 1980, the year before it was mandated citywide.

Both Mr. Bloom--who was not involved in the development of the cmlr program--and Thomas H. Anderson, a researcher with the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, have suggested that some of the resulting problems with the cmlr materials stemmed from the original list of 273 skills on which the program was based and not from mastery learning per se.

Other people--including those in school districts that have used the cmlr program successfully--say that the program itself is well-conceived and that Chicago's implementation is at fault.

One of Chicago's first "tactical errors," according to Mr. Block, was to mandate the program and "force the ideas on people who just were philosophically opposed to them." Chica-go, he said, "tried to go too big too fast."

Mr. Spady contends that there was never adequate inservice training for teachers and that the school system had instead hoped to create "teacher-proof" materials.

Both Ms. Jones and Mr. Guskey agreed that inservice training was limited and that a greater emphasis was placed on developing program materials.

But Ms. Jones pointed out that a school system the size of Chicago's was bound to have implementation problems. The fact that training was conducted by different people in different locations and in slightly different contexts meant that teachers and principals came away with varied interpretations of what mastery learning was about.

In addition, the board of education sent mixed messages of its own. Its guidelines told teachers that the cmlr program should not be used in isolation but should be a supplement to basal readers and other literature.

But the board also told teachers that so many of the city's students were so far below grade level in reading that they should try to cram two years of cmlr instruction into one to help students catch up, Ms. Jones said.

Promotion policies were based on students' mastery of the cmlr objectives, and teachers were evaluated based on their students' performance. Given those pressures, and a set of possibly conflicting goals, Ms. Jones said, the overreliance on cmlr materials was predictable.

Margaret M. Harrigan, chairman of the committee that recommended dropping the cmlr mandate in Chicago and newly appointed associate superintendent for instruction, said mastery learning overrode the rest of the reading program because "in the implementation there was so much emphasis placed upon it and such heavy monitoring of it that it did receive an undue emphasis."

According to some observers, the cmlr program also had political enemies from the start. "The materials became symbolic, from what I understand, of a whole reform effort in Chicago," said Mr. Spady. "And there were people who didn't want it. I think what you're looking at now, in the current administration, is part of a group that resisted that reform over the past five years. You're probably seeing some policy carried out now which is essentially saying, 'Let's get this out of our hair."'

That assessment is "definitely not true," according to Ms. Harrigan.

Some Chicago schools have used the cmlr program successfully, and the school board's decision will allow them to continue to use it as an optional supplement in the future. Mr. Bloom maintains that Chicago students in general mastered the skills but that they did not learn to read because the skills alone did not amount to a total reading program.

Other communities that have applied either mastery-learning concepts in general or the Chicago program in particular report glowing success stories.

Johnson City, N.Y., for example, a 2,800-student K-8 school district about 80 miles south of Syracuse, has applied mastery-learning concepts for 14 years. This summer, the National Diffusion Network selected the school system as a mastery-learning model.

Students in the predominantly working-class community score close to the national average on standardized tests when they begin school. But Johnson City officials say that by the end of the 8th grade, at least 75 percent of students read above grade level, and about 80 percent have math scores above grade level.

According to Mr. Chambers of the Johnson City schools, mastery learning in Johnson City is not a program but a set of practices mandated in every subject area in every grade. He said the district also invests much time and effort on inservice training for teachers, and on close monitoring of how the concepts are carried out in practice.

Red Bank, N.J., a pre-kindergarten through 8th-grade district of 1,000 students, is also pleased with its mastery-learning approach, according to Superintendent of Schools Joan D. Abrams.

About 65 percent of the district's children are minority, and it ranks in the bottom third of the state in terms of family income. In 1978-79, the year before mastery learning was introduced, 8th graders were on average a year and one month behind in reading. Today, 8th graders average 10.2 years of reading achievement on the Metropolitan Achievement Test, and in mathematics they are testing at the "post-high-school" level.

As in Johnson City, Red Bank's program is mandated in all subjects in all classes. However, teachers develop the mastery-learning materials themselves--again with substantial amounts of inservice training.

Other school systems, such as Brooklyn District 19 in New York and Kansas City, Mo., report successful experiences with the cmlr program.

Brooklyn District 19 uses it as one-fifth of a total language-arts program in grades K-8. In 1979-80, about 33.1 percent of the district's students--who are predominantly minority and poor--scored at or above grade level in reading on standardized tests. By April 1985, 47.8 percent of the students were at or above grade level.

More important, according to Leon Weisman, director of language arts for the district, is that in 1979-80, 14.7 percent of the district's students were two or more years behind in reading. That group has shrunk to 6.4 percent of the total enrollment.

But Mr. Weisman is reluctant to attribute the changes to the cmlr program alone, because it is only one portion of the district's curriculum.

His reluctance was echoed by administrators elsewhere, who said they had never used the cmlr program as a substitute for basal readers.

"It's a good solid skills program that is used in conjunction with the total language-arts program," said Mr. Weisman. "We like it because it gives definite skills at each grade level, and for us it seems to work. But is it the secret weapon? There is no secret weapon. The secret weapon is good teaching."

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