Minneapolis falters in first use of 'focused instruction' technique

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2014 - 12:43 AM

Minneapolis grades that used new instruction system didn’t keep up with other grades in testing.

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Hale Elementary teacher Cara Croonquist discussed with her students in Minneapolis thoughts about a book she had read to them in class.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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It’s been a rough first year for Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s main tool for raising the achievement of Minneapolis schoolkids.

Students who were introduced to “focused instruction” — an attempt to match classroom teaching to state standards and tests — fared worse on state math and reading tests last school year than those who were not.

The new approach also remains unpopular with some teachers who feel it undercuts their judgment.

The results have forced some retooling in the new approach that the district said would help all students and cut the racial achievement gap.

“Like all strategies, focused instruction is a work in progress,” said Richard Mammen, school board chairman. “It’s being reviewed constantly as it rolls out.”

Focused instruction is a district-mandated system that attempts to standardize the order in which key components of learning are introduced in a grade and subject. Part of the goal is to make switching schools less disruptive to students in a district where many students move frequently.

Teams of teachers helped develop sample lessons, including additional help for both struggling and overachieving students. Teachers may substitute their own lessons, but are required to use standard tests for each unit.

The district began its three-year rollout of focused instruction during the 2012-13 school year, mainly in kindergarten, third, sixth and ninth grades.

The first test of the new system came with the state math and reading tests given to third and fifth-graders last spring. (Kindergartners and ninth-graders don’t take state math and reading tests.)

A Star Tribune analysis found that in math, there was no increase in the percentage of Minneapolis third- and fifth-grade students who tested proficient in 2013. Meanwhile, the district’s proficiency in all tested grades rose by 3 percentage points.

For reading, where scores fell statewide in response to a new reading test, the falloff for third and sixth-graders in Minneapolis was greater than for the district as a whole.

”We see some real successful implementation and also we see some sites that are struggling,” Chief Academic Officer Susanne Griffin said, confirming that the district noticed the same pattern.

“It’s not been as successful as it might have been,” said Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

The state hasn’t publicly released test results for 2014 tests, which would include additional grades that got focused instruction.

Looking for improvement

The disappointing performance in 2013 could result from adjustment difficulties as teachers switched to the new approach. District leaders are taking several steps to improve how well focused instruction works.

District researchers are looking closely at the tests the district mandates for each unit to see how accurately they measure the standards that students are trying to master. Researchers are also interviewing and holding small discussions with teachers, principals, the union and others to learn how focused instruction has worked and how it could be improved.

Some teachers are making adjustments on their own. For example, at Hale elementary, fourth-grade teachers found their students didn’t do well on the required test after the first literacy unit. So they analyzed the test for the next unit, and adjusted how they taught the skills that would be measured.

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  • Hale Elementary School teacher Cara Croonquist read a book to her class. Later, her the students in her Minneapolis school sat and wrote about their thoughts on a book. Croonquist is one of the teachers in the district who has been using the new “focused” system of education that the district has introduced to close the achievement gap among students at many grad levels.

  • Cara Croonquist's class sat and wrote about their thoughts on a book at Hale Elementary School, Thursday, June 5, 2014 in Minneapolis, MN. ] (ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com

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