This article is rewritten from an earlier paper prepared for a seminar led by Allan A. Glatthorn at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D.

edited 4/20/14

Defining the Mastery Curriculum: essentiality and structure

Rather than treat the curriculum as amorphous, Glatthorn [1] proposes the following analysis: curricular items will be classified along two dimensions, essentiality and structuredness. That is, an item will be placed in one of four categories depending upon whether it is essential to a curriculum field or not, or whether it is structured or not. (See chart 1.) This will identify the extent to which curriculum is centrally plannable, the Mastery Curriculum.


chart 1: the MASTERY, or centrally planable, curriculum

On the face of it, this analysis is reasonable. Certainly, what is essential is a question raised by limits on educational budgets. Secondly, to the extent that the structure of curricular items may affect planning in their pursuit, it is reasonable to forego the expense of planning for outcomes beyond those which planning can influence.

But, consider, Randall Collins [2] argues that the systemic characteristics of the modern curriculum can best be understood as resulting from the interplay among three different and at times conflicting traditions of interest.

Status group interests understand the educational process as basically an initiation into a select society. Religious education and other elite schooling, e.g. the Liberal Arts, are paradigmatic of this interest. For status group education, the curriculum is ritualistic, intrinsically valued and skills acquisition and testing are perfunctory, if present at all.

Skills acquisition interests have historically manifested themselves outside the school in economic pursuits. Their mode of transmission has typically been the apprenticeship. Though their curriculum is goal-oriented, testing is not formalized beyond invoking the judgment of "craftmasters" as to whether suitable product outcomes have been achieved.

Bureaucratic interests derive almost entirely from organizational necessities. Formal testing, roll-taking, compulsory attendance and extensive documentation are not educational necessities, but institutional ones. The curriculum becomes increasingly formalized and abstract; the onsite practitioner is no longer allowed to exercise his or her professional judgment to whatever extent it can be supplanted by standardized tests.

On the basis of Collin's analysis we might expect that what is curricularly essential will be perceived differently depending upon what interest is being pursued. An English language arts teacher might view acquaintance with Shakespeare's dramas as an essential part of the curriculum. An ESOL teacher would not, unless they could be viewed as a means to enhancing the language acquisition of the learner. Grammar tends either to be overlooked by the language arts teacher, or treated as sacred text. ESOL teachers view grammar experimentally: they consider some kind of grammatical analysis essential but tend not to employ what are considered "traditional" grammars.

The bureaucratic viewpoint tends to view as essential those items which reinforce its existence, e.g. items easily codified into standardizable tests, such as punctuation, spelling, "comprehension" understood as multiple choice selection of short reading passages. The "New Math" was an innovation that failed because it pursued status group interests, i.e. mathematicological scholarship, to the exclusion of skills acquisition that is the public interest in mathematics education, at least at the elementary level.

Foreign language education and to a great extent English language arts education is torn between presenting itself as skills acquisition and as status group education: not every dialect of English is acceptable, although one might communicate very well in many a "substandard" dialect. Parisian French, "Hochdeutsch" and Castillian Spanish are still offered as the standard curricular fare, even though other dialects are equally useful in certain pursuits. Many teachers seem to be unsure whether their role is to equip students with certain "tools" or to defend the Citadels of Learning against the barbarian. Actually, it comes as no great surprise that what is essential in a curriculum might be open to debate. Collins' contribution is to indicate the sources of the dissention, not merely that it might exist.

But the notion of structure, too, is problematic. This is of importance to Glatthorn's analysis, for the boundary between the structured and the unstructured (see fig. 1) marks off the range of curricula it makes sense to attempt to centrally plan.

Constraints on the Central Planning of Curriculum

Let's make an interesting distinction. A curriculum field may be logically unstructured but pedagogically structurable. As a discipline a field may not recognize priorities among items; but as a set of pedagogical tasks structured, say, by a psychological theory certain items might be best taught before others, or the logically independent units might yet be approached pedagogically in certain plannable ways that maximize their acquisition by the learner. Number theory and topology are independent mathematical disciplines. But you'd best teach number theory first, especially in the lower grades.

The organic and the mastery curriculum will vary according to the supporting theories and interests which are invoked to define them. For example, for language arts teachers the widely used "traditional" grammatical approach does not prioritize the following structures for sequence of study: a. passive voice declaratives: b. active voice yes-no interrogatives; c. active voice declaratives; d. imperatives; e, negative passive voice yes-no interrogatives.

A procedural diagram for course of study might well look like figure 2:


figure 2: Traditional Grammar is Organic

The teacher is free to start anywhere. There is no linguistic reason to start one place rather than another.

But, invoking a transformational grammar with kernel sentences, we might get: (Miller) [3]


figure 3: Transformational ordering: grammar is mastery curriculum

Kernel sentences exhibit in their structure basic, irreducible forms. From this, by the application of more and more complex transformations, other sentence types are generated. Most efficient teaching begins with kernels and proceeds through a sequence involving more and more complex transformations.

Psychologically, however, there may be few options in sequence (Wittgenstein):[4]


figure 4: A developmental theory of grammar acquisition

This places additional individual behavioral and cultural restrictions on what might be centrally planned.

Consequences and Contradictions

In this short essay I have argued that the two dimensions that define the mastery curriculum vary according to the educational interests pursued and the theories invoked to provide structure. Essentiality will vary with the interest pursued, e.g. statue group, skills acquisition or bureaucratic interest. Structure will vary with disciplinary logic, psychological theory and pedagogical considerations.

Two conclusions appear to follow immediately:

a. as a general theoretical construct, "mastery curriculum" is stable across a variety of possible educational environments. It provides, no doubt, a certain practical clarity so long as issues of educational interest or structural theory do not arise;

b. the mastery curriculum concept is no weapon should any real issues of educational interest, e.g. purpose, goal, arise. Nor can it be invoked to adjudicate among conflicting disciplinary, psychological or pedagogical claims.

It is entirely possible and, I am inclined to think, likely that the interests and structural theories that in fact predominate in pedagogically efficient environments define the mastery curriculum out of existence. This blatant contradiction to the obvious thrust of this paper is independently derived and merits some comment. One might argue that in recognizing a variety of educational interests and many possibilities of structure, one insures, in effect that there will likely always be a mastery curriculum, i.e. that which is comprised of items both essential and structured.

But the mastery curriculum is supposed to be centrally plannible. What is at issue is at what remove from the pedagogical environment the planning function is located. Planning and implementation cannot be physically performed simultaneously. Thus it makes sense to locate the planning function outside the interactional situation of the classroom.

It does not follow, however, that the planning function need be located at any great remove from its contexts of implementation. Suppose that in some situations pedagogical effect is optimized by interrupting the implementation of the curriculum. Suppose further that this situation of -- one would hope abnormality -- is most effectively handled by leadership functions located in the pedagogical environment. Handling classroom disturbances is an example. In such a situation the mastery curriculum or any curriculum, for that matter ceases to be implementable. These are banal considerations. There is another more problematic set.

The attempt to establish a mastery curriculum may encroach upon academic freedoms. (This is what happened with the "behavioral objectives" movement of the late sixties. ) The existence of a mastery curriculum depends upon the extent common notions of essentiality and structure can be maintained. A mastery curriculum may exist for a given teacher, or a given team or even a given school. But at the district or system level, it may not. And if pedagogical efficiency is any consideration, it need not.[5]

Given what little we know about the factors that influence learning [6]and how they may vary depending upon things like social context and cognitive style [7], wise educational policies will not discourage eclecticism. The mastery curriculum concept might, but ought not, be used to justify Procrustean attempts at curricular uniformity.

See, On the Viability of a Curriculum Leadership Role ;
also, Curricular Structure



1. Glatthorn, Allan A. Lecture Notes (taken by E.G.Rozycki) Seminar, University of Pennsylvania, February 1983.

2.Collins, Randall. Some comparative principles of educational stratification. Harvard Educational Review 47, 1 Feb. 1977 pp.1- 27

3. Miller, George Some psychological studies of grammar. American Psychologist 17 (November 1962) 748-762

4.Wittgenstein, Ludwig Philosophische Untersuchungen Frankfort am Main. Subrkamp 1967. See especially Part 1.5 in which Wittgenstein remarks that for children is learned not through explanation but through training. His example is of a person learning by responding to commands.

5. See Edward G. Rozycki, Increasing Teaching Efficiency: the evaluation of method available at

6. McKeatchie, Willard, The decline and fall of the laws of learning. Educational Researcher March 1974.
Also, Coker, Medley & Soar. How valid are expert opinions about effective teaching? Phi Delta Kappan October 1980, 131-149. This article raised many an academic hackle in its day.

7. Cohen, Rosalie Conceptual styles and measures of learning ability. American Anthropologist Special issue on Race and Intelligence . S. Tax G. Gamble and J. Bond,. (eds.) 1971