Minneapolis teacher: One-size-fits-all approach of Focused Instruction doesn’t work


Minneapolis Public Schools teacher Pia Payne-Shannon works at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School in north Minneapolis, where she teaches English Language Arts classes to 6th and 7th graders. Recently, I spoke with her about the impact of the Minneapolis Public School district’s implementation of Focused Instruction on her classroom.

Can you tell me what Focused Instruction is?

Focused Instruction, in my opinion, is an attempt to implement a one-size fits all, standardized curriculum across the district. It is also being promoted as a scripted curriculum in which novice teachers, with no classroom or curriculum experience, can come in and teach units without any prior knowledge. It is a form of test prep curriculum with very little creativity.

Why haven’t you participated in making Focused Instruction materials?

Before Focused Instruction came around, teachers worked collaboratively, by grade level, on planning for their classes. We shared assignments and created model units and lesson plans. All of these materials were part of a collection of resources for teachers, sort of like model units. Then, Focused Instruction came, and these model units are now part of a script being given to teachers. No one at the district told us that the materials we had created, as part of our usual collaboration time as teachers, would be imported into Focused Instruction. Instead of a collection of resources, Focused Instruction seems like a guide book for novice teachers who are inexperienced and need all of the units, with lesson plans, links, and resources, given to them. I would say this kind of teaching is modeled on what is happening in “beat the odds” charter schools.

What are your main objections to Focused Instruction?

I teach some of the neediest kids in the Twin Cities, and Focused Instruction feels like a one-size fits all way of teaching. Instead, I have to have the ability to adapt what I do to the kids in front of me. For one thing, I have such a wide range of skills and abilities in my classroom, including Special Education students who have been mainstreamed. Focused Instruction units assume that all students are performing at grade level, because of the pace of the units. To cover a lot of material in a six to eight week unit, and then give the students a benchmark test, could only be done when everyone is at or above grade level. Also, I have to work to make the material I cover relevant to my students, in order to keep them interested and engaged in school. Following a prescribed, predictable unit of study just isn’t going to work for all of them.

Right: Minneapolis Public Schools teacher Pia Payne-Shannon (Photo by Sarah Lahm)

The Minneapolis school district lists Focused Instruction as a way to ensure greater equity across the district. Do you see that happening?

I think the district is confused about the meaning of equity. Equity does not come from giving the same unit of study to all kids across the district. Teachers have to know how to change and adapt material for the kids in front of them in order to provide a meaningful teaching experience. The district has said that Focused Instruction, which is connected to Common Core, creates rigor, equity, and high standards for all. But this is not even remotely possible when you have kids coming to you at various levels. You have to tap into their experiences to make a classroom work. Also, with the Focused Instruction units we’ve been given, a less experienced teacher may not realize the holes that exist in the units, regarding what students need to know, and how to move seamlessly through the unit while scaffolding instruction to close the gaps.

Are there any other ways that the notion of “equity” impacts your classroom?

With technology, for example. The use of technology is included in Focused Instruction lesson plans, and that might mean having the students log into a blog, or do some writing or a quiz online. However, at my school, the laptops are all six years old, and there is no money or system in place to update the technology or replace broken computers. Also, the schools tech lab is closed for six to eight weeks out of the school year for standardized testing. I can’t count on it being available. Most of my students, too, do not have computers at home and therefore can’t finish computer-based assignments at home. A school with a larger budget, or wealthier students, might not have these problems.

Are you opposed to standards being used to guide instruction?

I am not anti-standards. In fact, I have served on a committee that worked on creating standards. Part of what I object to here, with Focused Instruction, is the way curriculum models come and go so quickly in the district. Right before Focused Instruction came around, in 2011, we were using an approach called “Principles of Learning,” which the district had made a huge investment in. After two or three years, we dropped it, but I think it takes five to seven years to really see if an approach is working.