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Minneapolis schools embrace this year’s hot approach to teaching: focused instruction

If there’s one thing Minneapolis Public Schools teachers have long groused about — well, aside from the standardized tests, stalled contract talks, and the expectation that they can make up for every deficit in every other part of their pupils’ lives — it’s the dizzying number of initiatives they’re supposed to get in line with.

There’s the North Side Initiative, the district’s 3-year-old plan to lure families back to the city’s most challenged quadrant by dedicating extra resources to schools there.

There’s Arts for Academic Achievement, an effort to capture students’ imaginations by integrating arts throughout the curriculum.

There’s the 4-year-old, much-lauded, much-needed effort to transform the way MPS’ high schools serve every student.

There are technology plans, attendance plans, discipline plans and of course the ambitious strategic plan administrators and board members have been hard at work on for the last two years, ever since receiving ambitious recommendations for reform from consultants at McKinsey & Co.

All of these efforts are worthy, but incoming Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson wants teachers this year to home in on one and only one: a continued shift toward an approach called focused instruction.

Approach has helped lagging students
Education insiders will recognize the term, which is this year’s hot approach to closing the achievement gap. The approach has shown some success at helping students who are lagging far behind to catch up quickly; whether it can be scaled up in a district as large and as burdened by divergent philosophies as Minneapolis remains to be seen.

“There will be those that will feel like I’m taking the creativity out of teaching,” Johnson said in an interview last week. “But every child deserves to be exposed to a standards-rich curriculum across the district.”

Say what?

Pared back to its simplest elements, focused instruction is an approach to keeping a whole classroom moving toward performing at or above grade level in every subject despite the fact that some kids may be years behind.

Say two-thirds of a second-grade teachers’ pupils are struggling to conquer first-grade math skills. She or he has to keep teaching second-grade math, but must also find a way to backfill with the kids who are at sea.

Staying on plan, while tailoring for kids with gaps
In other words, teachers have to simultaneously stay on their lesson plan, figure out what basic skills each child who is struggling has missed out on and how best to impart that knowledge. Because any particular instructional method works for about two-thirds of learners, kids with gaps in their understanding may all need different, creative approaches.

Think of a game of Jenga where the object is to wiggle the planks back into a teetering tower. Educators call this process “scaffolding up,” and if it sounds like a tall order, how else to help kids make up for sitting through the same incomprehensible subject year after year?

It sounds impossible, but hyperkinetic Johnson, the constitutional opposite of laconic predecessor Bill Green, has set wheels in motion. 

A little more educator jargon: A year and a half ago, when Johnson was chief academic officer, she initiative a curriculum audit. If the details are duller than the word pedagogy, the upshot is a kitbag of tools to help overwhelmed teachers actually reach all those kids.

Over the summer, 1,300 teachers spent a combined total of 35,000 hours writing curriculum and designing training to help one another engage in focused instruction. The idea is to help a teacher who realizes that a child was never exposed to, say, patterns, lay their hands quickly and painlessly on a lesson that can fill that gap.

It’s an approach that has helped some of the country’s most successful charter schools post outstanding results with disadvantaged learners.

More tests to spot progress, deficits
It also means more tests — as many as one a week in every subject to help teachers spot deficits while the gaps are still narrow.

“Steady, incremental growth is not enough,” said Johnson. “A 1 or 2 percent gain each year is not going to get our students where they need to be.”

Back to that tangle of strategic initiatives: The district will keep marching on many of them, but Johnson wants teachers to concentrate as tightly as possible on focused instruction.

“It may be a tall order,” the new superintendent concluded, “but it’s coherent.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 09/03/2010 - 12:56 pm.

    If I am understanding the Focused Instruction strategy correctly, it is missing one of the most important instructional imperatives-teaching at the correct level of difficulty. If a whole class is doing reading where second graders should be but half the class reads below that level then half the class is getting virtually no instruction because it is beyond them. What a waste of time. Interestingly the instructional model that Mpls should be using is Response to Intervention which was nearly developed by the special education staff in Mpls. But it is not used there despite its spread throughout the country. One has to wonder why. Mpls like so many schools throughout the country and most tragically in inner city schools are firmly in the grasp of failed constructivist philosophy.

  2. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 09/05/2010 - 08:33 am.

    Thanks to Beth Hawkins for yet another a great article—especially for interpreting the educational jargon.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Schapiro on 09/07/2010 - 09:01 am.

    Focused Instruction has no relationship to failed “constructivist” theory. It is quite in line with the factory model of education that gets rejected, then reinstalled, every few years.

    The attack on “the gap” is a counterproductive requirement of American education policy making. May it pass quickly.

    Dennis Schapiro

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