IF YOU HAVE WONDERED whether anything can be done to same millions of American children from near-illiteracy and constant failure in school, the answer is Yes. If you believe that children from the inner city or from broken homes can be helped to learn better, you're right; according to Benjamin S. Bloom, a professor of education at the University of Chicago, it all depends on how they are taught.
Bloom, one of the nation's wisest and most meticulous educational researchers, does not make statements lightly. But in this book he maintains that the schools are perfectly capable of bringing at least 80 percent of their students to a high level of achievement. The schools can do this at fairly low cost, he says, with existing teachers and without anything more radical than the common-sense system which he calls "mastery learning."
As Bloom describes it, mastery learning seems so obvious that one wonders why it is not being used everywhere. It is an attempt to give each child the kind of feedback that would be provided by a private tutor. This means making sure that each item to be learned is fully mastered before going on to the next, no matter how long it takes. It involves the frequent use of tests (not for judging or grading, but for the diagnosis of difficulties), plus corrective work, as needed, with the help of tutors outside the classroom. This extra tutoring need not be given by the teacher, however; with a little guidance, other students, aides or even parents can do a fine job.
The reason that middle-class children do so much better in school than those from poorer families is precisely that their parents give them so much individual tutoring at home, either consciously or unconsciously, according to Bloom. He notes that such tutoring is particularly potent during the child's first four years of life, when intelligence is most malleable. Children who have received more effective tutoring at home before they enter the first grade are much better prepared to profit from whatever the school has to offer -- and they learn more rapidly. But given extra time and mastery learning methods, nearly all children can reach the same point, Bloom insists.
He urges American teachers and administrators to give mastery learning a chance, at least in the first three or four grades of school, which set a pattern of success or failure for the rest of a child's school career. Under mastery learning, as now practiced in a growing number of classrooms in Chicago, Denver and other cities, as well as abroad, particularly in Korea, nearly all students experience repeated success. This experience makes them far more interested in the subjects they are studying. In addition, it does wonders for their self-image. "To put it bluntly," writes Bloom, "repeated success in coping with the academic demands of the school appears to confer upon a high proportion of such students a type of immunization against emotional illness." By contrast, the present system is "rigged" so that only the top 10 to 15 percent of students do well and get A's. This produces repeated failure for the majority of students and, according to Bloom, it explains "how schools may actually infect children with emotional difficulties."
Bloom's earlier books, such as the influential Taxonomy of Educational Objectives , were scholarly and technical. All Our Children Learning is easier to read because it consists of articles and speeches for a wider audience. One chapter is addressed primarily to parents, to whom he gives down-to-earth advice on how to arrange their homes and schedules so that their children will have the best chance to "learn how to learn." Here again, as with mastery learning, some of his points may seem obvious (e.g. parents should make sure that their children finish tasks on time); nevertheless I know very few homes which provide everything he suggests.
Bloom argues convincingly that virtually all children can learn well, regardless of their parents' circumstances or their teachers' personalities; what matters is what actually goes on in the classroom and the home.
He points out that educational researchers are now focusing on behavior, which can be altered, rather than on the fixed characteristics of teachers, parents or students. Thus, instead of classifying children according to their parents' race or social class and using this to predict achievement, as was done a decade ago, researchers are now examining the interaction between parents and children -- for example, how parents develop their children's verbal ability. Instead of analyzing teachers' characteristics (after 50 years of research on this subject, says Bloom, it can be confidently stated that "the characteristics of teachers have little relation to the learning of their pupils"), researchers are now investigating what teachers actually do in class, how much time their pupils spend studying, and how much feedback the students get.
It's rare to find a book about education which makes so much sense. It should be immensely valuable to teachers, administrators, and to anyone who is concerned with our children's future.