‘Focused Instruction’ raises questions, challenges in Minneapolis


Does “Focused Instruction” threaten the diversity of programs and learning options in Minneapolis Public Schools? Or is it a necessary tool in attacking the achievement gap? Will it help students by standardizing curriculum and instruction across schools? Or will it handicap them by making it harder for teachers to focus on specific needs of students in their classrooms?

From Anishinabe Academy, an elementary school with a Native American focus, to dual immersion schools, Open schools, and traditional community schools, the list of unique program options within the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is a long one. While all MPS schools must meet the Minnesota state standards in education, they have used diverse methods to impart those standards to their students.

Now MPS is implementing Focused Instruction, a set of guidelines prescribing what to teach, how to teach it, how and when to test students, and what to test them on. The guidelines, or instructions, are given to all MPS teachers, from early education through high school, and, as recently as the November 12, 2013 school board meeting, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson referred to the full implementation of Focused Instruction as “non-negotiable.”

These guidelines, which derive in part from national frameworks, have also been shaped by MPS’s Department of Teaching and Learning since 2011. They are designed to “align” instruction in the Minneapolis Public Schools both with the Common Core Standards (for English Language Arts and social studies) and with Minnesota’s own education standards (for math and science).

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Beyond explicitly laying out what the standards are for each grade, Focused Instruction also provides units of study, lesson plans, and assessments for teachers. While the lesson plans are optional, the “benchmark assessments” that accompany each unit of study are not, according to a one page document given to MPS teachers by the district.

The MPS website makes it clear that Focused Instruction asks all teachers to engage in planning, delivering, and assessing standards-based lessons to all students, with a goal of having continuity across the district. A distinct emphasis within this is the use of benchmark tests, which are to be given towards the end of each unit to assess where students are in order to “inform instruction.”

The assessments have been created with the input of some Minneapolis teachers, according to a framework laid out by the district’s Department of Teaching and Learning. In 2013-2014, math and science teachers in grades 3-11 are required to submit benchmark test scores for their students, through a data management system known as “Classroom for Success.” (See attached PDF.) Whether or not this submission of test scores will expand to other subjects and grade levels in the 2014-2015 school year is not yet known.

Mike Lynch is the current director of the Department of Teaching and Learning, and is in charge of directing and managing the implementation of Focused Instruction. According to Lynch, Focused Instruction is a way to get to the district’s goal of ensuring “all students achieve at high levels” on their way to becoming “college and career ready.” It encourages greater emphasis and consistency on “what we teach, how we assess what has been taught,” and what tools are used to get students to a point of success, according, at least in part, to benchmark test results.

Lynch acknowledges that the Minneapolis Public Schools is a very diverse district, in terms of approaches to education. Getting a standardized instructional method to fit with the strong independent streak within MPS may prove to be quite a challenge. Armatage Montessori School teacher Mandy Perna, for example, has said that, initially, Focused Instruction was not adapted to the Montessori style of teaching, which includes a strong emphasis on individualized, self-guided learning. When this was pointed out to the district, several Montessori teachers were then paid, by MPS, to create materials that would fit Focused Instruction with a Montessori approach to teaching and learning. So far, however, Perna has not seen much flexibility or “differentiation” from the district, regarding how teachers are to be trained in, and utilize, Focused Instruction in their various classrooms.

Similarly, the district has established International Baccaulaureate (IB) programs at Henry, Southwest, and Edison High Schools, and is moving to implement IB at Roosevelt and Washburn High Schools. Some IB practitioners, such as Southwest High School principal Bill Smith, question the compatibility of Focused Instruction with the inquiry-based IB programs, which emphasize research, reflection and other “thinking” skills. Smith, who is not entirely dismissive of Focused Instruction, has said that it amounts to a “skill set,” while IB is “holistic,” and more about encouraging “self-mindedness and collaboration” in students.

Magnet and school-specific programs are not the only source of criticism regarding Focused Instruction. Lynn Nordgren, head of the Minneapolis teachers’ union, questions how a more uniform approach to teaching will help children who are either below or above grade level, and students in Special Education (SPED) or English Language Learner (ELL) programs. Nordgren remembers, in fact, that accommodations for SPED students and ELL were not immediately presented with Focused Instruction; instead, she recalls school board members questioning the district about how SPED and ELL would fit with Focused Instruction.

The district’s Focused Instruction plan calls for teachers to attend up to three days of professional development (PD) training at district headquarters. Each PD session is arranged by grade level and subject area, such as a K-1 cohort of teachers, or a group of middle school English Language Arts teachers.

While the Focused Instruction initiative requires changes in teaching and extra preparation, it’s not the only challenge. According to Nordgren, the district is currently asking some or all of its teachers to implement a multitude of new initiatives, all at the same time. Nordgren said there are some 200 initiatives, which include new teacher evaluation systems, new protocols for working with ELL students, and the decision to handle the needs of “gifted and talented” students within regular classroom settings, on top of the implementation of Focused Instruction. With Focused Instruction, the MPS district, Nordgren said, “is asking too much.”