To the Editor:
While perusing the Education Week website the past week, I came across an opinion essay entitled “Graduation Must Depend on Learning, Not Time” (Oct. 12, 2021). As I read through it, I became aware of a major reason that American education has not really changed a great deal over the past half century.
The authors, all school superintendents, began by asking the question: “What if we flipped the current model of public education on its head and made the standard of learning the constant and time the variable?” In response to this question, the authors say they are “calling for a competency-based system of education that looks nothing like our current model.”
Unfortunately, the authors seem unaware of the long history of both the juxtaposition of time and learning, as well as the many varieties of competency-based education. The need to shift from time to learning was the basis for educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s 1968 paper, “Learning for Mastery,” based on the theoretical framework of psychologist John Carroll. Arguments in favor of competency-based education began to appear around the same time. (Kate Ford of the University of Maryland, University College, published a concise history of competency-based education in 2014.)
If substantial and significant changes in education are to be made, educators and policymakers must be aware of the history of ideas. When did the idea first appear and how did it progress over time? When and, more importantly, why did the idea fall out of favor? Specifically, why did mastery learning fail, and what can we learn from its failure? Answers to questions such as these enable us to learn from our past. Such learning, in turn, makes it possible to make meaningful changes that result in substantial improvement in American education.
Carolina Distinguished Professor Emeritus
University of South Carolina
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Educators Must Look to History When Reimagining Education