Baltimore Schools Say 'Yes' to Mastery Learning

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

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.

Important Differences

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."

Pilot Program

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

Vol. 05, Issue 08

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories