Southwest Principal Bill Smith: Focused Instruction equals the Common Core State Standards


“We have a national curriculum; we just don’t want to admit it,” said Southwest High Principal Bill Smith, describing the way that Focused Instruction fits in the larger picture of curriculum. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) have mandated Focused Instruction for all schools and teachers, and opinions about the usefulness of this initiative vary widely.

Southwest High School is a point of pride for the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), frequently ranked among the top high schools in Minnesota, according to U.S. News and World Report. Smith shared some of his thoughts on Focused Instruction in an interview in his office. For more perspectives on Focused Instruction, see our Focus on Teaching series.

In your estimation, what is Focused Instruction?

Focused Instruction equals the Common Core State Standards, but there is no such thing, really, as “Focused Instruction.” Charlotte Danielson, who has written a lot about teacher evaluation methods, has used focused instruction to describe what quality instruction looks like. When we are talking about how to improve education, we need to focus on instruction.

How is Focused Instruction related to standards-based education movements, such as Common Core?

We have a national curriculum; we just don’t want to admit it. We have the ACT and the SAT for students, and we have logical, somewhat universal expectations for what six year olds, or thirteen year olds, for example, can do. States do put their own spin on things, but math and reading standards are mostly universal. In Minneapolis, we call it “Focused Instruction.” There is nothing mystical about it.

Why call it “Focused Instruction,” then?

We have seen one big change, with Focused Instruction. As a district, we have agreed what is going to happen, per classroom, where people used to do their own thing. If everybody was doing their own thing, it could be difficult to compare notes, plan professional development sessions, or share successes across the district. Focused Instruction gives the district a common voice. This is a distinct difference to where we were before. However, efficiency shouldn’t be applied to kids too often.

What is the purpose of Focused Instruction, in your view?

In the old system, if you weren’t careful, a school may have focused on what it wanted to, at the expense of a broad-based approach to learning. It pushes schools, then, to stress mandates, and what we need to cover. Before Focused Instruction, we kind of knew what was happening; now, we are pretty confident about what the kids are being exposed to.

What are the origins of this, within MPS?

In 1999, MPS Superintendent Carol Johnson was the first to promote coherence across the district, versus letting schools use the reading materials, for example, that they liked. It wasn’t bad that they were doing this, it is just that a new emphasis on consistency came about.

How does Focused Instruction work?

The Minneapolis Public Schools is a big system, and Focused Instruction tries to systematize it. We’ve agreed, for example, on what we will teach, how we will teach it, and how we know kids learned it. Focused Instruction builds assessments into teaching, because it can be tough to know what kids have learned. The assessments give the district something to talk about. In a city, or large district, you need some structure for all kinds of reasons. With grades K-5, for example, Focused Instruction helps teachers nail down basic instructional standards. After 6th grade, however, Focused Instruction starts to take on a strange look.

Can you explain this, please?

The Middle Years Program (MYP) is available in grades 6-10 and is being put into place in some schools across the district. The MYP leads to the IB [International Baccalaureate) program, which is what we follow at Southwest. The IB approach tends to be more application, or outcome focused, where Focused Instruction is more of a skill set that promotes a right or wrong answer. Both methods are standards-based, but those of us who practice IB believe it is a holistic approach to living and learning. IB practitioners are interested in self-mindedness and collaboration.

How does this connect to classroom learning?

We are never sure where any kid is going to engage the most. It could be art, sound, or whatever resonates with a kid’s background knowledge. Rather than to suggest right or wrong answers, IB asks what each kid is going to contribute to the solution. It says, “let’s work together.” I will take my strengths, as a teacher, and you take yours, as a student. There are thirty elementary schools that feed Southwest. We accept these students as they are; each one brings a different set of experiences. Our task is to find common ground together.

How does a conversation about current education reform efforts fit in here?

In the United States, we’ve grown accustomed to looking for the silver bullet that doesn’t exist. Most of the public, who read the newspaper, don’t have kids. Joe Schmoe taxpayer reads news about the schools, and wants a quick answer. Everybody’s got an answer, a gimmick. As a society, however, if we’re really interested in all children learning, then we’ve got to solve poverty.

What do you mean?

We’ve got to talk about health reform, housing, and safety. Unfortunately, these are expensive, and not silver bullet solutions. As a society, we are not comfortable talking about the things that really matter. A hungry kid is a tough one to teach. Tell me which instructional strategy fixes that.