Déjà vu all over again?

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As news of the administration’s embrace of direct instruction, skill charts and promotion requirements filtered through the school system, the thoughts of veterans returned to the days of Continuous Progress/Mastery Learning.

Days like July 13, 1977, when the Board of Education unanimously adopted an unprecedented citywide promotion policy requiring students to master 80 percent of 8th-grade reading skills before they could go on to high school.

Days like Nov. 9, 1977, when the administration announced plans to check the reading progress of students every two weeks to find out which students were slow and which were fast and, by extension, which teachers were good and which were not so good. Teachers were to put together remedial plans for the slow students and devote extra time to reading. For its part, the administration said it would recruit volunteer tutors, including college students, to assist pupils three times a week.

Days like May 24, 1981, when Supt. Ruth B. Love mandated that the some 300 elementary schools with below-average reading scores use the newly developed Chicago Mastery Learning Reading Program (CMLR), a set of scripted, sequential lessons addressing everything from letter sounds to outlining to imagery to news and propaganda.

The materials, developed by the school system to help teachers teach the required skills, won a loyal following during their use in summer school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But a backlash set in when Love mandated their use at the 300 schools.

At the same time, the materials ran afoul of Dorothy Tillman and her Parent Equalizer group, which charged they were ineffective and that some lessons were racially or politically biased. In an attempt to provide an alternative to the bland lessons contained in commercial textbooks, the materials’ authors had written some provocative stories and examples.

The system revised the questionable materials, but Manford Byrd Jr., who had been at odds with the authors, discontinued the program when he was promoted to superintendent in 1985. Meanwhile, a number of other cities had purchased the materials and found some success with them.

Writing in the March 1994 issue of Educational Leadership, one of the authors, Beau Fly Jones, said, “If I had it to do 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.”

While there are similarities between the programs favored by the new administration and those of yesteryear—an emphasis on skills measured by standardized tests and the use of scripted lessons—there are some distinct differences, too. For one, in the old days, Chicago’s reading curriculum consisted of 273 discrete skills that were tested and charted for every student. Today, the language arts curriculum is pegged to more holistic “outcomes” that describe reading and writing activities that children should be able to do by various grade levels; schools are free to choose their own way to get students there.