Even Backers See Some Pitfalls
Even proponents of mastery learning admit it has problems.
Mastery-learning approaches to education are difficult to design and implement, they say, because teachers have to understand and believe in the concepts. When they don't, the approach can be mechanistic and fragmented.
Second, many mastery-learning programs have a "massive" management problem, according to Beau Fly Jones, one of the creators of a program first used in Chicago and adopted by a number of other districts.
"If you have a single instructional unit and you teach the kids and you test them, many kids are going to fail," she said. "In many programs, kids have to pass one unit to go on to the next. So you're trying to teach the kids who failed and the kids who passed two different units. You may by trying to teach as many as four or five units at the same time."
In Chicago, students who pass the tests work on enrichment activities while reteaching occurs. Then the entire class moves on to the next unit, even if some students fail the test a second time.
Third, mastery learning does take time. Even after mastery-learning programs have been functioning for a few years, the approach can take 20 percent more time than other in-structional strategies, said James H. Block, professor of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The difference, he said, is that it works.
There is also concern that pre-packaged mastery-learning programs, like Chicago's, may not work as well as those developed by districts to meet their own needs--particularly because they give teachers a smaller stake in the effort. But according to Leon Weisman, director of language arts for Brooklyn District 19 in New York, asking teachers to design curriculum is not realistic.
One of the largest unanswered questions is where mastery learning fits into the whole range of educational strategies--and whether it works equally well for all students.
In a recent review of the literature, "we could find no study over the last decade where students have done less well under mastery learning than under other conditions," said Thomas R. Guskey, professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky.
But Thomas H. Anderson, a researcher with the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, said, "There are some doubts that you can get difficult8speech readers to read well using a mastery-learning kind of setup." However, when a highly compartmentalized, skills-oriented mastery-learning approach is supplemented by instruction in comprehension, "you get miraculous gains," he said.
Some early research at the Center for the Study of Reading suggested that mastery learning worked best for low-achieving students and less well for advanced students.
More recent research by Rebecca Barr and Robert Dreeben found that in Chicago, mastery learning had no negative effects on advanced students but might have been harmful for average and below-average students, who spent too much time on mastery learning and not enough time doing contextual reading.
Mr. Block said that when mastery learning was first developed, its proponents hoped to bring 95 percent of students up to the mastery level of the top 10 to 15 percent of students. But over the years, he said, getting 85 percent of the students to mastery has proved a more accurate success rate--with children at both the top and bottom ends of the learning curve losing out.
"We've been spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out why we don't get through to these kids," he added.--lo