Arthur Academy Charter Schools use an incremental, mastery-learning approach for teaching basic subjects of reading, math and language found in a series of detailed, pre-planned programs called Direct Instruction. This specialized approach to teaching for the foundational subjects of reading, math, spelling and language skills is based on a comprehensive model of instruction. This model is a way of teaching that also defines our charter school option. Providing this model is based on the belief that a powerful way of teaching exists that is not being utilized in most schools, and therefore our charter schools offer it as a choice.
The instructional model is called Mastery Learning. The instructional programs using this model are called Direct Instruction (DI) for teaching early literacy and the fundamentals of math in grades K-5. This model, with these programs, is the most thoroughly documented educational reform model in elementary and middle school grades. It emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons, designed around small learning increments and prescribed teaching tasks. Learning is arranged very incrementally so that students find learning easy but challenging and, therefore, can be successful in mastering everything that is taught as they progress through the programs.
The DI curriculum materials break down all general objectives into very small teaching progressions. All activities are very carefully sequenced so that they can be easily learned, mastered and gradually accumulated towards larger objectives. The activities are presented to children in very exacting, interactive ways so that children are motivated.
This model is academically focused right from the beginning, in kindergarten. It is based on the belief that academic learning can be highly motivating by itself when taught clearly, systematically and enthusiastically. It has been observed that children are excited and gain self-confidence when they are learning academic skills and knowledge in these programs.
Although this way of teaching represents a historic advancement in the field of education, the basic ideas may not be all that new. A quote from Samuel Johnson, enlightened philosopher and educator of the 18th century illustrates this point.
"The chief art of learning, as Locke has observed, is to attempt but little at a time. The widest excursions of the mind are made by short flights frequently repeated; the most lofty fabrics of science are formed by the continued accumulation of single propositions." Samuel Johnson (July 9, 1751)
Origins of the Mastery Learning Instructional Model
The use of these programs has resulted in high academic achievement. There are good reasons for these kinds of results. The DI programs used in our schools are some of the most evidence-based instructional programs available. They all use a careful logical analysis of core learning and component skills combined with a Mastery Learning approach to teaching. The basis of Mastery Learning is that a child’s rate of progress is determined by the extent to which he or she masters carefully sequenced lessons and activities that lead to mastery of essential foundational skills and knowledge.
The Mastery Learning approach found in these programs is a part of a long line of educational theory and research that dates as far back as the work of Carleton Washbourne (1922) and Henry Morrison (1926) of the University of Chicago Laboratory School. This work was continued by many others, most notable, John Carroll’s (1963) model of school learning and the further work of Benjamin Bloom (1984) and his graduate students, also of the University of Chicago. Most of the Mastery Learning (ML) features also emerged in the large number of Effective Teaching studies reported by Jerry Brophy, “Teacher’s Behavior and Student Achievement”, (1986) and Barak Rosenshine, “Advances in Research on Instruction” (1997) as critical features for effectiveness.
The Direct Instruction(DI) programs, developed, researched and published by Engelmann, Becker and Carnine, are known for carrying Mastery Learning principles of high-quality instruction to their ultimate, systematic conclusion in curricular materials.
These materials alone have been the subject of numerous studies. The two most recent studies involved reviews conducted by the American Institute of Research (AIR) in 1999 and 2005. In these reviews, 22 widely adopted comprehensive elementary school reform teaching models were identified. The DI programs were one of only two programs that received the highest rating for having evidence of positively impacting elementary level student achievement in both reviews.
Collectively, the reform models reviewed in the 2005 study served thousands of mostly high-poverty, low-performing schools nationwide. According to these studies, the models that received a high rating, such as the Direct Instruction programs, are considered “research-based” and provide the training to achieve student success. These reports are the most extensive and comprehensive reviews of elementary school reform models ever issued. The DI literacy programs also met the No Child Left Behind(NCLB) criteria for scientifically based evidence and were on the NCLB list of approved programs.
Early intervention in beginning reading has been a well-recognized need in schools, especially within the last two decades. Researchers, Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich, have produced a large body of research that examined the value of early prevention of reading failure. They summarized the results of their studies in a 1998 report, “What Reading Does For the Mind”, found in the Spring/Summer issue of the American Educator. The focus of their studies was on the effect of volume of reading in a child’s life on over-all intelligence. Children who begin reading early have a distinct advantage in accumulating reading volume, and thus, are more likely to acquire reading skills at a higher level. These researchers found that reading volume accounts for differences in several measures of smartness: growth in reading comprehension at grades three and five, high-school grade average, IQ tests, and a Practical Knowledge test.
In a unique ten-year longitudinal study, the authors found that all three standardized measures of first grade reading ability (decoding, word recognition and comprehension) predicted eleventh-grade reading volume. These first grade reading measures were an even stronger predictor of reading volume than IQ measures. Children who accumulate high levels of reading volume do so mostly because they learn to read early. This volume of reading, in and by itself, has a powerful affect on future learning and on the shaping of the mind. We have learned that, if at-risk children who have the highest likelihood of learning problems can start kindergarten in a strong academic program, many of their learning difficulties can be prevented. Just within the 2007-08 school year, 55% of all 138 kindergarteners, in all six schools, started the year below average in reading. By the end of the year, only 2% were below average. Giving this kind of accelerated progress in kindergarten provides all children with a huge advantage for success in future grades.
We also, now know, from national reports by Reid Lyon of the National Institute for Child Health and Development (NICHD) and the work of Sally Shaywitz, M.D., Co-director of the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, and others, that proper early instruction can bring about permanent, measurable changes (MRI brain imaging research) in the activation patterns of the brain to prevent and overcome future reading problems. This all provides strong evidence and cause for providing careful, highly effective instruction in reading in the early grades. All of the Arthur Academies are providing this instruction with outstanding results.
Mastery Learning also shows up in the writings of the distinguished psychologist, Albert Bandura. According to a 2002 survey, Bandura is the most frequently cited living psychologist and the fourth most frequent of all time. In his work on Self-Efficacy: the Exercise of Control (1997), he identifies four sources of Self-Efficacy that are consistent with Mastery Learning theories. Self-Efficacy is defined as the ability to achieve or accomplish results. Perceived self-efficacy is the belief in one’s capabilities. Such an outlook produces personal accomplishments and reduces stress. Self-Efficacy is based on mastery experiences, which are initiated by learning through demonstration and modeling, strengthened by encouragement and reinforcement that result in a student’s belief in their capacities. We believe that schools based on Mastery Learning can play a large part in producing these qualities in children. Accord to studies conducted by Bandura, measures of self-efficacy are strong predictors of school success.
The Reading Mastery program, a component of the full body of Direct Instruction programs, implements the recommendations made by two national reports commissioned by the US Congress, reports by the National Research Council (1998), which resulted in the publication, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, and the National Reading Panel (2000).
The approach to beginning reading found in this program and supported by these national reports is consistent with a long line of research reports beginning with Jeanne Chall’s 1967 book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, her many later publications, the work of Isabelle Libermann and Donald Shankweiler on phonemic awareness, the work of Kieth Stanovich on causes and consequences of reading difficulties, (“Matthew effects in reading,” 1986), Marilyn Adams’ 1990 book, Beginning Reading, and Reid Lyon’s historic summary of NICHD research on reading “Reading: A Research-Based Approach.” This is just to mention a few of the vast amount of publications made within the last 20 years along these lines. It is also important to call attention to Bonnie Grossen’s 1997 report, “Thirty Years of Research: What We Now Know About How Children Learn To Read: A synthesis of research on reading from the NIHCHD.” Dr. Grossen is a member of the board of directors of Mastery Learning Institute (MLI).
Arthur Academies’ Unique Contribution
Arthur Academies have found that children can gain a head start in learning to read in kindergarten. Yet, very few schools start this process seriously until first grade. Also, in spite of the research reviews done by AIR, which have been widely publicized (front page Oregonian, 12/14/05), very few schools use a Mastery Learning approach to teaching. There also is still a delay in recognizing and implementing the results of the recent reading commissioned reports. The Arthur Academy Charter Schools demonstrate the effectiveness of these teaching practices and therefore can have an influence in disseminating their use, in various forms, in other schools.