The Origins of Proficiency: Part 3 — Mastery Learning

Benjamin Bloom: Portraits of an Educator - Thomas R. Guskey & Associates
Benjamin Bloom

For a long time, as I have written before, I have wondered how the various educational movements that pre-date the 2013 advent of Proficiency-Based Learning in my home state of Vermont fit together.  As I’ve said in the past, the speed and stealth operation of education reform is truly a wonder. The more I study educational history, the more I’m in awe of how often big, sometimes-state- or country-wide changes in practice and policy occur (and then usually disappear . . . ); and rarely the proponents of such reforms seem to have any inkling of the past efforts from which new ideas have sprung, sometimes nearly unchanged.

The 2013 adoption by the state of Vermont of the Vermont Educational Quality Standards, which included a provision for Proficiency-Based Learning, was just such a trend.

This post is my third attempt to try to understand where that trend came from. The two previous posts under this heading were snapshots, but starting now, I’ll aim to more carefully fit the pieces together in order. This post is based on the research I have been doing this summer.  It’s far from the full picture, and I make no claim to scholarly validity, but I consider this a working teacher’s first, iterative, good-faith attempt to get at the truth.

Specifically, I wanted to outline the difference between a number of related movements, including:

  • Mastery Learning
  • Competency Education
  • Minimum Competency Testing
  • Outcome-Based Education
  • The Standards Movement
  • No Child Left Behind
  • Proficiency-Based Learning

I’ll start at the beginning, with Mastery Learning.

Mastery Learning

Out of all the trends and systems of learning that I examined, Mastery Learning is the one I was most familiar with.  In part, that’s because it was the first.  Mastery Learning cast the mold — for Outcome-Based Education, for Proficiency-Based Education, and so many other trends and movements since.  It’s the original, and it’s elements are still very strongly with us today.  In some sense, it’s as though they’ve never left.  All its principles were carefully elaborated by its founder, one of the foremost educational scholars of the 20th century, Benjamin Bloom.  Bloom himself had a significant impact on another of other educators who’d go on to influence 20th and 21st century education, including Thomas Guskey and William Spady.  To say that Mastery Learning has been impactful would be almost an understatement.

And again, it’s one that I understand.  The basic principles aren’t hard to locate in literature; I won’t bother spending time retreading them here.  (See my previous post, “Bloom’s Curve,” for details.)  What interests me more is understanding the rough timeline of Mastery Learning’s popularity in schools, and how that dovetailed with subsequent movements, and how it shaped the Proficiency-Based Learning movement of today’s Vermont.  

What I found in my subsequent study, elaborated on in the coming posts, is that Mastery Learning is still very much with us.  Not only PBL, but many of our modern “best practices” surrounding instruction and assessment are taken straight from the tenets of Mastery.  Think for example of the prevalence of the terms “formative” and “summative” assessment — staples now in our vocabulary in Vermont — rather than using “quiz” and “test.” These new terms are lifted straight from Benjamin Bloom’s work in the late 1960s.  In a sense, we’re actually using Mastery Learning today, just under a different name.

Bloom created Learning for Mastery — as he called it then — in the late 1960s, and published several influential papers about the topic through the mid-1970s.  Many schools and districts began experimenting his Bloom’s theories at this time, as well as with a somewhat related system created by Thomas Keller, called both The Keller Plan and PSI (Personalized System of Instruction).  PSI different from Mastery in that students learned largely at their own pace, with less whole-class guidance on the part of the teacher.  In my belief, PSI later became the basis for the Competency-Based Education / Personalized Learning movement, in which computerized algorithms allowed students to essentially learn on their own, on computers, without teachers.

A search on Jstor shows that the research on Mastery Learning really starts to tick up during the mid-70s and lasts for quite a long time — 15 years or so, until about 1990, with the largest flurry coming in the late 70s/early 80s.  Either way, this is a long period for such sustained attention by scholars; clearly Mastery was deeply influential.  It also appears as though schools and districts began to adopt Mastery Learning by the mid-70s, including some of the largest school districts in the United States, such as Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

Chicago is a good case study.  According to this article, the Chicago Mastery Learning Program was piloted as early as 1975, implemented by superintendent Ruth Love during the 1981-1982 school year, and removed as official district policy following the end of Love’s tenure, in 1985.  

The reaction to the program as not positive.  The program was blamed in 1982 for “the declining reading test scores of high school students there.”  According to this blog post, many teachers began referring to Mastery Learning as “seats and sheets” for the repetition of its assignments.

The issue was, according to Chicago teacher Kenneth S. Goodman, who wrote a 1985 Education Week article, that Mastery Learning was forced onto all students in Chicago schools in a very set, formulaic, behavioristic manner: 

“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.”

Another problem was that all students, chasing the requisite 80% — the apparent goal of “mastery — had to move in lockstep.  Teachers perceived the program to be aimed at “teacher proofing” education.  Gifted students who completed the materials languished, while slower students were only given set periods to mastery content, and then moved on no matter what.  Either way, the content was seen as dumbed-down, formulaic, and centered on basic worksheet.

Mastery Learning’s name had already been “destroyed” by 1980, according to self-proclaimed father of Outcome-Based Education William Spady:

“In January of 1980 we convened a meeting of 42 people to form the Network for Outcome-Based Schools. Most of the people who were there—Jim Block, John Champlin—had a strong background in mastery learning, since it was what OBE was called at the time. But I pleaded with the group not to use the name “mastery learning” in the network’s new name because the word “mastery” had already been destroyed through poor implementation.”

It’s important to note, as Thomas Guskey was to later write, that Benjamin Bloom’s work did not stipulate or seek to restrict about the intellectual depth of the assessments under a Mastery system.  In fact, if anything, Bloom’s prior work — such as his legendary taxonomy of educational objects — was aimed at increasing the depth and challenge of educational goals.  Yet Mastery was clearly “dumbed down” in practice to the point where the 80% scores students were expected to achieve were scores on low-cognitive level worksheets and quizzes, rather than intellectually challenging, rich assessments.  That was probably owing in part to the chaotic nature of classroom instruction; as I’ve written before on my occasions, time is most definitely not a variable when you’ve got a room full of 25 hormonal, jumpy teenagers.  It’s simply beyond the ability of most functioning adults to be able to coordinate all of those kids while they’re in 25 different places.  Therefore, if you’re forced into a system where a child must score a certain percent to move on, it’s so much easier to keep all students on roughly the same pace that it incentives teachers to make the assessments pretty easy to score well on.  Plus, if you’re doing that many assessments, the incentive is certainly there to make these assessments easy to grade (and hence, basic worksheets, rather than challenging, in-depth performance tasks).  The two teachers I knew who were still doing Mastery Learning by the 2010s had a giant cart full of file folders, with three or four copies of quizzes — same content, different questions — for each sub-unit.  Students who’d not scored well on the first formative were to study on their own, then take these quizzes on their own, on the honor system in an empty classroom, at their leisure.  You can imagine these quizzes were designed to be easy to grade.  The whole system pushes this way and incentives such things.  

And the other problem too — the implementation — is where I actually start to change a tune I’ve been singing for many years.  Generally I hate it when reformers complain that their beautiful systems are besmirched by the dirty hands of real-live teachers and administrators who can’t be trusted to properly implement these golden theories and therefore ruin things for everyone.  

But at the same time, you can see how someone who might have said that about Bloom’s ideas in Chicago had a point.  The ideas inherent in Mastery aren’t bad at all — in fact, I think they make a lot of sense.  But Chicago definitely sounds as though they did implement them in — with every incentive to do so — the worst possible way.  Same thing happened later with Outcome-Based Education, another not-so-bad idea (which was ridiculed even more unfairly).  

Here is a great blog that really gets at the heart of what went wrong with Mastery Learning in the early 80s.  According to this writer, educational theorist Edward Thorndike’s notion of behaviorism won out over John Dewey’s more fluid, humanistic notion of instruction.

“In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education (page 122) John Dewey stated,

“An aim must, then, be flexible; it must be capable of alteration to meet circumstances. An end established externally to the process of action is always rigid.”

“Another professor at Columbia University contemporary to John Dewey was Edward Thorndike. He became famous in psychology circles for his work on learning theory. That work led to the development of operant conditioning practices within Behaviorism. In 1910, he created the first widely accepted standardized achievement test; it measured handwriting skills. In the 1920s, he focused on intelligence testing.

“Ellen Lagemann, an education historian, wrote (Kohn page 7), ‘One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes the Edward K. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.’”

This seems like what happened with Mastery — it simply became, partly from exigency, but also partly from the true philosophy of many educators at the time, too behavioristic and unresponsive.

At the same time though, the fact that Mastery Learning itself was not inherently Thorndikeian — that it could encompass higher-order learning, rich assessments, and any curriculum whatsoever — meant that its good ideas (progress monitoring via formative assessments, clear, actionable feedback) would still be in the bloodstream of the educational establishment.  These ideas never really went away.  As I wrote above, Mastery continued to be debated and studied by scholars throughout the 1980s.

At about 1990, that flow dried up, right around the time that the Standards Movement was really getting going.  Much of the talk about Mastery, too, switched over to Outcome-Based Education, as I’ll write about subsequently.  My sense is that Mastery went away for two reasons.  First, it’s a system that will always require a lot from teachers.  Keeping different students on parallel tracks in the same classroom is always tough. And second, I don’t think Mastery fit the political demand for “rigor” that was increasingly important in the 80s and 90s.  The idea of giving students more time and more attempts at assessments was surely not appealing to reformers who wanted higher standards and greater accountability.

Mastery never went away, of course. Good ideas never do. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Thomas Guskey, for instance, one of Bloom’s students and most talented spokesmen, was still touting the virtues of Mastery in academic journals and in articles. One particularly potent argument he began using in the No Child Left Behind era — with its focus on “achievement gaps” — was that Mastery Learning had been designed in the first place to remove these gaps.  By then, too, Guskey could do something important: he could cite a body of research supporting Mastery Learning practices.

But then things changed. After the low-ebb on No Child Left Behind, it seems like Mastery had something of a resurgence, albeit under different names and in slightly different forms.  This time, however, there was more of a focus on avoiding the mistakes of the 70s and 80s by advocating for more rigorous curriculum and assessments.  Mastery in itself, with its multiple opportunities for success, with its focus on individual students, could be seen as an antidote to the Test and Punish era of education.

As for how Mastery relates to Proficiency-Based Learning today in Vermont, I believe there’s a strong connection. Here’s an example: In 2017 when a Vermont teacher questioned PBL in an op-ed, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe responded with a published letter of her own defending PBL. In it, she essentially says that modern PBL is the same thing as Mastery Learning. I’ll write more on that later too.

PSI returned, too, in the form of computer-based Competency-Based Education.  More on that later as well.

Either way, Bloom’s ideas from the late-60s still seem solid to me.  Mastery Learning really does make a lot of sense, even if some of Bloom’s claims do seem a little inflated, and even if the whole idea of students on parallel tracks is always going to be an organizational challenge for teachers.  Meanwhile the concepts of providing more and better feedback, clearer standards, criterion- (not norm-referenced) assessments, and the general goal of intervening with students, not attempting to separate students by assessment data, all of these are still tremendously promising ideas for education, just as they were in 1968.

In the next post, I’ll describe the movement toward Outcome-Based education, the next phase in discovering the origins of Vermont’s system of Proficiency-Based Learning.