Baltimore Schools Say 'Yes' to Mastery Learning
Despite Chicago's recent decision to drop its systemwide mastery-learning program, officials of the Baltimore City Public Schools have enthusiastically embraced the concept as "a tool rather than a program."
They will phase in, over the next few months, a mandatory mastery-learning approach in reading and mathematics for all of the city's 123 public elementary schools, according to James J. Sarnecki, the district's supervisor of elementary mathematics and sciences.
Some 120,000 booklets containing tests to measure student mastery of individual skills have already been distributed, he said.
The Random House publishing firm developed the tests specifically for the Baltimore City schools at a three-year cost of about $289,000, according to Judson C. Porter, the district's chief financial officer. They are designed to complement the system's pre-existing objectives in reading and mathematics.
Chicago abandoned its mandatory approach to mastery learning this past summer, after two committees formed by Superintendent of Schools Manford Byrd Jr.--one in reading and one in mathematics--leveled harsh criticism at the program.
In particular, the Chicago report found that program materials contained faulty instructions and grammatical errors, and that students were spending so much time on workbook exercises that they had almost no time left to read.
But Baltimore officials expressed little concern over Chicago's negative experience. They said that although their program shares a common theoretical base with Chicago's--the mastery-learning theories of the University of Chicago educator Benjamin S. Bloom--there are important differences.
Unlike Chicago's program, the Baltimore approach will include no specific "mastery learning" teaching materials, said Mr. Sarnecki. Teachers may use any school materials they consider appropriate. They will also be encouraged to use a variety of methods to help students learn, said Mr. Porter, and only objectives and tests will be standardized systemwide.
"We see mastery learning as a tool rather than a program," said Mr. Sarnecki. In Chicago, he added, "it was hard to tell where the program stopped and the tool began."
Baltimore also plans to experiment with computer scoring of mastery-learning tests in a pilot program in 12 elementary schools this year. The new method should reduce the paperwork burden on teachers and give them immediate feedback on student progress, Mr. Sarnecki said.
The mastery-learning program has the backing of the Baltimore Teachers Union, a 6,700-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The union's president, Irene B. Dandridge, said that good teachers have been using a mastery-learning approach to monitor their students' progress for years.
Ms. Dandridge noted, however, that union support is contingent on the school system's making a "concerted effort" to provide inservice training to teachers about the concept.--lo