Chicago Mastery Learning Reading:'A Program With Three Left Feet'

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The Chicago Board of Education's recent decision to drop Chicago Mastery Learning Reading as a required program may have appeared to be a political move, not one based on the merits of the program. That is an unfortunate impression, because CMLR is indeed a very bad program. The children and teachers of Chicago are better off without it.

Chicago Mastery Learning Reading is said to have been based on the mastery-learning concepts of Benjamin S. Bloom. I can't confirm or reject that claim. Nor can I say whether the problems I see in the program and its implementation are intrinsic in mastery learning or merely signs of a bad mastery-learning program. I can, however, explicate some of the particular faults of the Chicago program.

Perhaps what, more than any other factor, brought down the program was that it was imposed on teachers: Every teacher at every level from kindergarten through grade 8 was required to use CMLR methods for all pupils in a rigid and unvarying way. The program perverted the principle that "every child can learn" into the idea that "every child can learn in exactly the same way." The only thing teachers were permitted to vary for individual children was the amount of extra drill they received. There was a pervasive put-down of teachers in this approach. It was as though they were not to be trusted to do anything other than act as technicians administering the program.

A second aspect of the Chicago program that would have brought it down eventually in any case was its insistence on whole-class instruction. This method was presented in promotional materials as a major innovation linked with "management by instructional units." The 1,400 objectives of Chicago's earlier reading program were reduced in the CMLR program to 273 skills, which were then compressed into 150 "test points"--each the culmination of a unit lasting about a week. The whole class had to progress from instructional unit to instructional unit at the same time.

There were two tests in each unit. Pupils who succeeded on at least 80 percent of the first test were considered successful in the unit. But these pupils were not permitted to go on to the next unit until the rest of the class was retaught and retested. The successful pupils had to mark time. They were permitted some free reading, but the program strongly suggested that they use CMLR practice materials. Meanwhile, those children who did not pass the first test were rushed along and pressured to put in more time on CMLR study, including homework. The teacher gave them pep talks about working harder and faster. If pupils did not meet the 80 percent criterion on the second test, the class moved on anyway.

Those pupils who did not score at least 80 percent on 80 percent of the tests (no justification was given for these absolute criteria) were not promoted to the next grade. In this program that promised that every child would learn, failure and retention were built in. Defenders of the program may claim that CMLR was not intended to be the whole reading program. Yet students' success or failure in school was contingent on their progress through the CMLR program. That practice led to a snowballing problem for the Chicago schools. If they followed the program absolutely, they would have huge percentages of students retained in grade. If they passed the failing pupils, they would not be able to use the correct CMLR grade-level program.

In fact, the schools' tendency seems to have been to promote pupils but have them repeat the CMLR grade level. This practice appears to have been reflected in the way annual results were reported: Pupils were not included in the figures for their grades if they were working below grade level.

So far, I've suggested that the program was bad because of its view of teachers and learners. Now let's look at the content of the program.

As I've indicated, the CMLR program is a sequence of instructional units. These consist largely of workbook-like materials. Every unit has a series of practice materials, a test, more practice for reteaching or for keeping those who have passed occupied, and a retest. Nearly every one of the exercises has exactly the same form as the two tests and may even contain identical items. Teaching is very likely, then, to be a rehearsal for the tests. Reading, in this program, is a series of test scores. It is quite likely, in fact, that many students in CMLR classes rarely read any books or stories. Even in the materials for the upper grades, there is rarely anything as long as a full page to read.

Chicago Mastery Learning Reading offers no stated rationale for what reading is, how it is learned, and how the program's sequence of units was determined. In the early grades, units seem to alternate between synthetic phonics (learning sounds and blending them) and memorization of word lists. The lists seem to be random, even capricious. In the later grades, the focus is on isolable "skills" that can be tested in paper-and-pencil tests in which each item has a definite correct answer. Teaching is "telling" in these units. Pupils are told explicitly about the structure of what is to be read. Then they receive step-by-step instructions on how to process and interpret what they are about to read.

The faults of the CMLR program do not stop with these. Item by item and page by page, the materials reflect poor writing and careless editing. In addition, some of the content and pictures have been criticized as being racist or insensitive to children with problems; at one point, critical reactions were so strong that a major revision was ordered. That revision didn't completely solve such problems. The fat boy who needed two seats was removed, but the stereotypical Eskimo in an igloo was retained to illustrate the letter i. In an exercise apparently designed to deal with number words, singulars, and plurals, a picture shows a police officer. The choices to "match with the picture" are: a woman, a policeman, two milkmen. Maybe it did not occur to the authors that a woman can be a police officer or a deliverer of milk.

Perhaps what best illustrates the materials' lack of concern for meaning and conceptual and linguistic development is a picture that shows three disembodied left feet. The writers apparently did not consider that 2nd-grade children would already be aware that human feet come in pairs, one right and one left, or that this fact would be relevant to their making sense of the item.

But, after all, Chicago Mastery Learning Reading is a program with three left feet. It should never have been imposed on the children of Chicago. The city's teachers should never have been forced to use the CMLR approach regardless of whether they accepted its premises or believed, in their professional judgment, that it was good for their pupils. That this program was spawned in an urban school district with large minority populations suggests a tendency to believe that minority children cannot achieve unless they are regimented and dehumanized--that they are incapable of learning language in the way other people learn. I hope that minority parents and leaders recognize this attitude as a form of racism.

It's time that we stop looking for the solution to urban literacy problems in a magic set of teacher-proof, child-proof materials. It's time that we begin to use the half-century of research on language and literacy that indicates that people learn language easily--written language, too--when it is whole, meaningful, and useful. It's time that education decisionmakers understand that what happens between teachers and students in the classroom is what makes the difference--and then support insightful teachers who can build on the strengths of children.

Vol. 05, Issue 06, Page 20

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