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Mastery Learning and 'Total Quality'

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Academic researchers know a great deal about individual pieces of the educational puzzle; what they don't understand so well is how the pieces fit together.'' So explained Albert Mamary, the superintendent of schools in Johnson City, N.Y., to this visitor.

I had been led to Superintendent Mamary by my enthusiasm for the new "quality'' movement in education. Like many today, I had been intrigued by the Total Quality Management revolution started by W. Edwards Deming, and wanted to see whether it could help education as much as it has industry. While most of Mr. Deming's followers are unaware of Johnson City, the psychiatrist William Glasser, author of The Quality School, has commended that district's schools as the best working example of what he is writing about. So I went to see for myself.

I knew some of the basics of Mr. Deming's ideas. He says that instead of waiting until the end of a production line to inspect and then repair or throw out defective products, managers should look at each step in the manufacturing process. At each step, he says, they should identify causes of variation from quality, and work to eliminate them.

Edwards Deming built a whole philosophy of management around this basic idea. (It originally came from his own teacher, Walter Shewhart). First, "quality'' is defined by the customer. Second, the whole system is devoted to continuous effort at improvement in quality at every step in the process--from development of products through manufacturing and sales. Third, managers empower and reward the workers who report failures in quality, and suggest improvements. Managers recognize that workers are in a position to know the most about their work, and manage not through fear, but by helping to design and improve a system in which all workers can be productive and feel pride in their work.

The Japanese have based their world-beating manufactures on the Deming philosophy, and American companies such as Ford and Xerox have rescued their companies with the same methods. The question is, can the Deming philosophy also revolutionize education? As has been reported in this newspaper, many educators are now striving to apply this philosophy to their schools, while others are convinced that T.Q.M. will turn out to be just another "flavor of the month'' fad.

What I found in Johnson City, N.Y., was surprising. The schools have achieved impressive results in a relatively poor community, and the methods used are consistent with many of the guidelines of T.Q.M. However, the schools developed their system quite independently from Edwards Deming. Furthermore, their system has at its foundation a long tried and often discarded idea: mastery learning.

Mastery learning provides a basis for T.Q.M. in schools because of its focus on the individual steps that lead to the final "product'' of the educated student. In mastery learning, a skill or a body of knowledge is broken down into steps or units, and a standard of mastery or quality is set up for each unit.

Thus far, the ideas of mastery learning and T.Q.M. are quite parallel. But at this point we meet the distinctive problem faced by classroom teachers: Students differ greatly in their individual aptitudes and will take different amounts of time to achieve the mastery level. Classroom teachers are thus torn between the need to provide the varying times, on the one hand, and the need to teach a whole class of 30 students, on the other hand.

At Johnson City, Albert Mamary and his colleagues have developed multiple ways to resolve this dilemma and to provide the needed time for mastery. First of all, teachers break the subject matter down into two- or three-week units, with mastery standards defined for the end of the unit. Time is built in for those students who master the material quickly to do "enrichment'' studies while the slower students work to come up to the mastery level.

During the study of each unit, "formative'' tests are given to help students assess their own progress, and a "summative'' examination is given at the end of the unit. Students may repeat summative exams without penalty, but they first must show that they have put in additional study. If a student does not come up to mastery level he may pass on to the next unit, but he does not get credit for a unit until he comes up to mastery level. (Johnson City here departs from the traditional model of mastery learning, for the sake of unified instruction of the class.)

For the students who need help beyond classroom time to get up to the mastery level, Johnson City provides after-school tutoring (each teacher has a half-hour requirement), supplemental classes during all school vacations, and one-night-a-week tutoring for mathematics.

The results of this institutional focus on bringing all students up to mastery levels are impressive. One measure might be New York's regents' diploma, a special high school degree designating that students have both selected more-rigorous academic courses and passed statewide exams. Statewide, the average proportion of those receiving the regents' diploma is 33 percent. Though Johnson City is a poor area (40 percent of district students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches), its average is from 55 percent to 75 percent. Standardized-test scores are also consistently well above average.

The achievements at Johnson City--through 20 years of work in a whole district--make a convincing case that T.Q.M. can succeed in the schools only if it includes mastery learning at its base. Otherwise, T.Q.M. can easily become merely a new vocabulary, superficially applied.

But is mastery learning enough? No, says Albert Mamary; it is necessary but not sufficient. He notes three additional features needed to achieve a quality school system. The first he calls "alignment.'' By this he means that the philosophy of the school, the institutional structures, the teacher training, the design of instruction, the classroom discipline--indeed, all aspects of the school system--work together in a common purpose and spirit.

John Champlin, who at Johnson City started the "outcomes based'' approach, recognized this need for the whole system to work together. He took it as his task to specify, in conjunction with teachers and administrators, the "outcomes'' desired in each aspect of the school system. Then he began at Johnson City the process of seeing that the whole institution and its people are devoted to producing those desired outcomes. Mr. Champlin has disseminated the approach through the Network for Outcomes Based Education, which he founded, and now the National Center for Outcomes Based Education in Fountain Hill, Ariz.

The second and third key features of a quality school are the setting of standards for students to adhere to and the communication of high expectations. One example of such a standard of behavior is the insistence that students show evidence of study before retaking a summative test. Such standards of behavior are essential, but they should be set within a framework of caring teachers and should never "be used as a hammer.''

The communication of high expectations is, Mr. Mamary says, one of the most important and most difficult-to-achieve features of a quality school. It requires great attention to what messages are given to children by the practices and rules of the school. For example, in Johnson City, students get no credit for work unless they achieve a B level, indicating mastery. Giving credit for C and D grades gives, in Mr. Mamary's view, the harmful message that the school expects less than quality work from its students.

I came away from my visit to Johnson City convinced that mastery learning is essential to making T.Q.M. work in the schools. Without translating the notions of "quality'' into specific mastery goals in the classroom, T.Q.M. may simply degenerate into a new vocabulary for existing practices, and not transform education as it has in Johnson City. Beyond this fundamental message, I began to grasp why Albert Mamary was so focused on "putting together the pieces'' of the educational puzzle.

Mastery learning did indeed once have its fashion, and was dropped by many. A recent survey article by Johns Hopkins University's Robert Slavin, for example, is largely negative about the record of mastery learning, while conceding that it does help to focus teachers on which outcomes are desirable. But if the Johnson City, N.Y., superintendent is right, Mr. Slavin's and most academic researchers' methods of evaluation are seriously misleading. For Mr. Slavin tries to isolate the "mastery learning'' piece of the puzzle from other pieces, and evaluate it on its own.

In Albert Mamary's view as a hands-on administrator, asking "How good is this piece of the puzzle?'' is the wrong question and will give wrong answers. Mastery learning can be expected to fail unless it has the institutional supports and culture to sustain it. Teachers attempting to implement it will fail because the isolated teacher does not have the resources to give lagging students enough time and support.

The question should be rather "Which pieces together will make a beautiful picture?''--or, in other words, which practices and institutional supports will best help all children learn? Johnson City, N.Y., and the other schools in the "Quality Outcomes-Based'' educational group have shown that mastery learning and a focus on quality are two pieces that fit together to make a beautiful learning environment.

William Berkson is the director of the Institute for Personal Strategy in Reston, Va., which presents seminars for teenagers and their parents on decisionmaking skills. He is the author of Learning from Error (Open Court); his latest book, in progress, is Off Balance: American Values in Crisis.

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