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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

Mastery Learning in Chicago: Not an OBE Failure

    Instructional Strategies
      Widely circulated information says OBE failed in Chicago. As a program coordinator in the Chicago Public Schools at that time, I would like to clarify several points. First, we did not implement OBE. Our program, Chicago Mastery Learning Reading, was an adaptation of Benjamin Bloom's mastery learning theory, what Bloom and others would later call enhanced mastery learning. At all grade levels, instructional content addressed different learning styles through alternative modes of presentation; examples were both visual and verbal; and students were encouraged to apply their concepts and skills to new materials. The material for grades 5 through 8 contained embedded learning strategy prompts, which were gradually eliminated over the course of a unit.
      Second, test scores did not drop during this program. Students in the early primary grades maintained the traditional seven-month gain in their scores, and students in the upper grades had an average gain of 12 months in their scores for 1983 and 1984.
      Third, the program was not abandoned. Mandated by Ruth Love when she became superintendent, the program was officially dismantled as she was leaving. Individual schools continued to use the materials for years, and some schools still use revised versions of them under a different name.
      Fourth, the major substantive charges against the program were that the early grade materials focused too heavily on phonics and that the materials for all grades did not involve children sufficiently in real literature. Both are true, but at the time we implemented the program, the stories available in the program were an improvement over the “literature” in the basal textbooks being used.
      If I could do it over again, I would teach skills and strategies in the context of specific projects and units that would be interdisciplinary, learning-centered, and steeped in real literature. But as I look back on what we created, the research behind our program was solid, students did develop better reading skills, and for many, the program provided opportunities to be successful learners.

      Beau Fly Jones has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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