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.”
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.”