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To the Editor:

Your recent article "Mastery Learning: Useful Tool, Not a Panacea" (May 12) adequately reports what was said during the mastery learning workshop at the recent International Reading Association convention here in Chicago. Unfortunately, what was not said about the Chicago Mastery Learning Reading (cmlr) program is equally important, especially since many of your readers might be tempted to purchase the program on the basis of claims for success that have not been validated.

One week before the International Reading Association convention, Chicago Superintendent of Schools Ruth B. Love reluctantly released the first high-school reading tests for the city in eight years. The scores from the Houghton-Mifflin tap (Tests of Academic Progress) showed that Chicago's 11th graders are reading at the 25th percentile with 34 out of 64 high schools below the 20th percentile and only four above the 50th percentile. In no other school district in the country is "low'' that low.

The tap had not been given between 1975 and 1981. A comparison with the 1975 scores showed that 48 high schools had dropped; 16 improved. Virtually all of those showing improvement had previously been at the very bottom (near the 10th percentile, at "chance effect"). What had happened between 1975 and 1981 to cause such a drop?

Virtually all of the conventional explanations explain nothing. Although the student population in the Chicago public schools is now 60-percent black, nearly 50 percent of the system's 23,000 teachers are also, now, black, making a racist "Pygmalion Effect" implausible. Although the system has had serious financial problems these did not begin until 1979 and did not have a major effect until September, 1980. While cuts have eliminated more than 3,000 teaching positions since February, 1980, they could not account for so radical a drop, which obviously took many more years to develop. Finally, it must be said that at this point in history Chicago has the most experienced (in terms of years teaching) and best educated (in terms of degrees and higher degrees) teaching staff in its history.

What happened between the 1974-1975 school year and the 1981-1982 school year was a variant on mastery learning and the direct predecessor to the present Chicago Master Learning Reading program. At the beginning of the 1974-1975 school year, the Chicago Board of Education mandated a program called "Continuous Progress/Mastery Learning" as the reading curriculum in all of the system's more than 500 elementary schools. Continuous Progress was the way that more than 500,000 children learned "reading" in Chicago. Obviously, most didn't learn to read.

Continuous Progress originally selected more than 500 reading skills that were arranged sequentially for students from kindergarten through 8th grade. Students were required to pass criterion-referenced tests on 80 percent of the skills to show "mastery" and to graduate from elementary school. In order to pass each individual test, students had to score 80 percent or better. Additional record-keeping, all of the burden of which was placed on local school teachers and principals, increased paperwork by an estimated 300 percent.

By 1978, the protest from teachers about the paperwork had reached the point where the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union negotiated a reduction in the number of subskills (and, hence, criterion-referenced tests) from more than 500 to 283. That year may represent the first time in the history of reading science that the essential skills required for a child to "read" were determined at the collective-bargaining table, but since then 283 skills have been the standard.

During the same period, a number of teachers (and others, including parents) questioned the basic premise of the program itself: that reading equalled the mastery of discrete subskills. Leaders of this group included a number of high-school English teachers, who discovered that their entering 9th graders could not read, despite the fact that they had been promoted from 8th grade under a supposedly stringent promotion policy. The policy, you see, was based on the 80 percent "mastery" standard, not on grade-equivalent scores for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills--or any other nationally normed reading test.

By the 1979-1980 school year, therefore, Chicago's Continuous Progress/Mastery Learning reading program was under fire on two grounds: (1) The paperwork load had taken teacher time away from teaching, and hence, to use current jargon, decreased "time on task," at least time spent in reading between teacher and student. (2) "Successful" mastery of the curriculum did not mean that a student could actually read. The sum of the parts (the subskills supposedly mastered with each criterion-referenced test passed), it seems, did not equal the whole (reading). In February, 1981, one month before Ruth B. Love became general superintendent here in Chicago, a group of parents filed a lawsuit demanding that that program be withdrawn from the schools as "educational malpractice."

In May and June, 1981, the Board of Education, on the recommendation of Ruth B. Love, removed the Continuous Progress/Mastery Learning Curriculum and voted that beginning in September, 1981, the mandated curriculum for reading in Chicago would be the Chicago Mastery Learning Reading curriculum.

Like its predecessor, cmlr has been developed in-house.

Like its predecessor, cmlr follows the sequencing of the 283 skills.

Like its predecessor, cmlr defines "mastery" as the passing of 80 percent of the criterion-referenced tests.

The main difference is that cmlr has its own materials--totalling more than 5,000 pages--and that some of the more offensive record-keeping burden has been lifted from the teacher.

However, there has yet to be adequate field testing of the program, despite the fact that it is now being marketed nationwide. Claims about successful field testing by the program's promoters have either been seriously questioned or proved bogus.

It is against this background that the mastery learning workshop took place at the 1982 ira convention. A more in-depth article would have better served your readers although the one that you published reports accurately what was said during that one panel.

It is worth noting, however, that the major proponents of mastery learning reading curricula--with the exception of the Chicago people--admit that to date the program has only been used on a very small scale. Combine this with the checkered history of Chicago's versions of "Mastery Learning" and you can easily see how an otherwise objective article could turn out to serve those whose self-serving activities have now burdened Chicago with its first generation of semi-literates. The tap results prove that Continuous Progress failed. Extrapolating, one can assume that the new not-so-improved version of the same thing will likewise fail.

I hope that you will make some effort to correct the impression left by your article.

George N. Schmidt President Substitutes United for Better Schools Chicago

Vol. 01, Issue 34

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