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.
"Our instruction changed for the better," teacher Cara Croonquist said. That helped the fourth grade come close to achieving the teachers' goal of having three-quarters of the class get three-quarters of their answers correct on unit tests. "They saw much greater gains," said Mike Lynch, the district's executive director for teaching and learning.
Frustrated with 'focus'
Focused instruction comes from a national movement to create common standards for what should be taught in each subject. That movement has been supported by some politicians, education advocacy groups and often by business interests. Minnesota has adopted the nationally developed standards in English, along with extra content, but sets its own standards for other subjects.
But at the teacher level in Minneapolis, some say that focused instruction needs work.
Fifth-grade teacher Chandra Meach is using it for math in her class at Hmong International Academy. She said that because many of her students are immigrants and from low-income backgrounds, it's a struggle to cover the required topics at the pace set by the district.
"It's not in the best interest of the kids because the kids are not understanding the concepts," said Meach, a 16-year teacher. The growth of her students over the school year was actually worse in her first year with focused instruction than the previous year, she said.
In addition, her fellow teachers spend lots of time finding materials to fill the gaps in lessons under an approach she described as too worksheet-heavy.
For students who keep up and deserve more challenging materials, she finds the computers necessary to do that are often tied up for required testing.
At Hale, Croonquist followed the district's lessons for math, but substituted her own material for literacy. "I have a lot of tools in my tool kit and I really enjoy using those, and they were very effective in meeting the standards," she said.
She said she feels the district is responsive in making changes to focused instruction when teachers voice concerns.
"I personally like the idea of focused instruction in that it is aligned with the standards, and it has made me more aware of what those standards are," she said. "I feel like I am more focused as a teacher with my students."