Managed instruction is not going away unless we make it!

by Erin Dyke, member of the IWW Education Organizing Committee

Focused Event
students, community members, parents, and educators at the community meal, all photos taken by Maggie Sventek

More than 50 people came together for the first social justice education community meal of 2014 on February 16th, to explore the prevailing trend toward managed instruction in our schools and potential alternatives. We gnoshed on a delicious (and free!) Sunday brunch of fruits, eggs, potato hash, breads, and other treats while we caught up with old friends and made new comrades. We want to take some time to reflect on what we learned from our time together and consider ways to move forward to fight against the forced de-skilling of students and educators.

To kick off our inspiring panel of veteran educators and parents, we viewed a brief clip of how Garfield High School (Seattle) students, educators, and community fought to get rid of an irrelevant, time- and resource-consuming mandatory standardized test (the M.A.P.) dubiously used to rate teacher performance. While their campaign, “Scrap the Map”, had a slightly different target than focused or scripted instruction, their victory shows us that we have the power to transform what seem like inevitable, top-down administrative decisions. By remembering and imagining what’s possible, those of us who are on the ground and doing the work in our classrooms and communities can and will have a say.

Before we get any deeper into considering the effects of managed instruction and what we can do about it, let’s first get familiar with some terms:

  • scripted curriculum – refers to commercial reading programs that have highly structured lessons, often with specific time allotments for teaching specific skills, and often word-for-word scripts of what the teacher is to say. These curricula (i.e., Mondo) are commonly used in particular subjects and grades in St. Paul Public Schools, and strictly manage when and what teachers can do in their classrooms.

  • focused instruction – while not necessarily scripted per se, focused instruction is based on the same kind of logic that removes autonomy from students and teachers. While Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) calls it “simply good teaching and learning”, focused instruction is an approach to managing students and teachers by prescribing guidelines for what, when, and how to teach, test, and manage student data. It is now mandated across all levels of MPS, from early childhood to 12th grade.

  • direct instruction – still running on the same logic as above, direct instruction is managed instruction but with an extra emphasis on teacher-directedness and teacher authority. Harvest Prep Academy, a charter school in North Minneapolis that serves primarily African American students, and that has received national attention for its high test scores, uses Direct Instruction from Houghton Mifflin. From my experience tutoring in classrooms here, a direct instruction approach emphasizes lecture and culling pre-determined answers from students who, when not answering questions are told (by school-wide policy) to sit with a “bubble” in their mouths and their hands squarely on their desks.

  • managed or standardized instruction – these are more catch-all terms that encompass curricula and instructional strategies that attempt to ‘sync’ and control teaching across classrooms and are generally mandated through top-down decision-making.

Panelists (from left to right) Pia Payne-Shannon, Jill Jacobson, and Sarah Lahm
Panelists (from left to right) Pia Payne-Shannon, Jill Jacobson, and Sarah Lahm

Veteran teacher, Pia Payne-Shannon, who teaches at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary in North Minneapolis and is a long-time North Minneapolis community member, told us that while focused instruction seems like the latest fad in MPS, it’s not going to go away unless we do something about it. Jill Jacobson, also a veteran teacher of around 20 years, shared her experiences being recruited to a curriculum planning committee on focused instruction where nearly all the others making decisions about focused instruction for all of MPS had 3 years or less of teaching experience. And, our third panelist, Sarah Lahm, an MPS parent, an Opt Out activist, and a freelance journalist, shared with us how her children experienced the alienation of focused instruction and her concerns about the increasing momentum of corporate education agendas. The panelists made clear that managed instruction is NOT in the best interests of students. But, it is an effective strategy for managing labor, it serves to turn public money over to private education corporations, it builds political power and wealth for upper level administration through appeasing those who are linked to corporate education reform, and it systematically denies and discounts the voices of all educators, community members, and students. So, what effects have we seen and will we continue to see in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools as a result of these trends toward standardizing curriculum and instruction?

The de-skilling of educators and students

As the panelists and larger group of participants seemed to repeat throughout our time together, managed instruction was never put into place in the best interests of the young people on whom it is forced. The trend toward managed instruction is a systematic de-skilling of students and teachers, and a de-professionalizing of teachers. Jill, a world history teacher, explained to us how focused instruction manages and disciplines the labor of teachers: after focused instruction became mandated in her school she was forced to speed up her curriculum, covering whole civilizations and critical historical events at breakneck pace before moving on to the next mandated section. This coercive speed-up of work alongside the dominating discourse that students in the schools most affected by managed instruction policies need mere (often militaristic) discipline to become “achievers” serves to make students and teachers working and learning conditions more precarious, surveilled, and less autonomous.

Increasing rates of school push-out and student/teacher alienation

The way focused instruction is implemented, like many mandates, disproportionately impacts students of color and working class students. It is pushed on schools with lower test scores and “urban” or “inner-city” schools (code words for schools that serve working class people of color). When classrooms become spaces of seemingly meaningless study and when teachers and students are constrained from engaging in the real, artful, and complex practices of learning, these spaces become suffocating. Most MPS and SPPS students and teachers of color already haven’t been seeing their histories, experiences and their people in the “official” curricula.

free and fun childcare at the community meal!
free and fun childcare at the community meal!

Pia Payne-Shannon shared with us how, in her culturally and racially diverse classroom, she has to veer from the mandated curriculum in order to be able to work in culturally relevant literature for her students. Beyond the ways in which managed instruction perpetuates the dominant trend of privileging white supremacist and colonialist histories and ways of knowing in schools, it also actively devalues student knowledge production and creativity. School then becomes mind-numbing, boring, and irrelevant for everyone in the classroom. This alienation leads to increased “behavior issues”, leading to school pushout and sustaining the school-to-prison pipeline.

The increasing efficiency of schools to sort and stratify students along the lines of class, race, gender & sexuality, and (dis)ability

On the other side of the coin, practices like managed instruction values and rewards particular dispositions, bodies, and ways of knowing. Obedience, rote recall, and learning as a means to move up and out are valued over fostering social and political consciousness or critical participation in and a deep commitment to our communities. As Sarah Lahm pointed out during the panel, you won’t often see managed instruction or the same degree of standardized tests in middle and (especially) upper middle class communities and schools. This illustrates how focused instruction and scripted curriculum are preparing MPS and SPPS students differently and for different futures than more wealthy suburban schools. The practices of managed instruction make it clear that the game has been rigged from the get-go, and students in our schools often already viscerally understand this.

If managed instruction is helping to dismantle our working conditions as teachers, support staff, paraprofessionals, and students, and if it’s alienating us from our teaching and learning conditions, why is is it gaining such momentum and power? At some point, we have to ask ourselves, do we want to continue to perpetuate an ever-increasingly efficient system of sorting people into prison, the streets, low-wage/low-skill work, and professional careers or do we want to fight for an education that can reclaim and re-work how we live, learn, and critically engage one another and our worlds? Organizing against focused instruction is possible. Just as the Seattle teachers have made the MAP test optional there, so a mass, public refusal of focused and scripted instruction could allow us to transition these oppressive approaches from a requirement to an option. Students, communities, support staff, and teachers: instead of allowing the wealthy and well-resourced folks at the top continue to act the parasite to our host, let’s build our power together and reclaim our schools!

If you’re interested in discussing, strategizing and organizing, and/or sharing your experiences with managed instruction, please contact us at tcedfair@gmail.com, or call us at (612) 787-2272.

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