It’s hard to believe, but TODAY is the last day for participants to jump in to our conversation (see here) on the nuts-and-bolts of restructuring schools as professional learning communities with Rick and Becky DuFour—authors of Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work.  After three days of brilliance from dozens of commenters, I feel good about what we’ve learned together.

If you’re looking to get caught up on our conversation quickly, check out our summary posts (see here and here).  You can also check out the following strands of conversation which started yesterday:

Joel started an interesting conversation on Slide 3 by introducing participants to the four key ingredients of an authentic community, as detailed by Shane Hipps.  Those key ingredients include a shared history, permanence, proximity and a shared imagination of the future.  What we’re wrestling with now is which of the traits PLCs tend to neglect the most often.  

(My answer:  Permanence.  That’s plain hard in a profession where turnover is the norm!)

On slide 4—where we’ve been wrestling with common assessments—Parry detailed a conversation that he had with a group of social studies teachers today.  He wrote: “One of the things that they are finding is that their students are quite good at spitting back facts, but that they struggle with more open-ended questions…

So these social studies teachers are now beginning to create more open-ended assessments, and they are planning to track how their students do on these assessments, looking for patterns within and across classes. What is particularly satisfying is that these actions on the part of the SS teachers are a direct result of their collaborative conversations and decisions to create common assessments.”

What’s satisfying to me about this interaction between Parry—who is a building principal—and his teachers is that Parry has made pursuing alternative forms of assessment safe for his teachers by being involved in the conversation.  While this may seem to be a subtle step, it will have a huge impact on the willingness of the learning teams in his building to be inventive when it comes to assessing students.  

The fact of the matter is that there is HUGE pressure on classroom teachers to prepare students from end of grade exams.  Deviating from multiple choice assessments is just plain risky—a gamble that many teams are unwilling to take without the explicit permission and support of their building principals.  

The lesson to be learned from Parry’s actions:  If you want your learning teams to experiment, take the time to explicitly support experimentation.  Doing so will give your teams a much-needed boost of confidence.

On slide 6, Andrew—who wins the “furthest afield award” after joining us from Cairo, Egypt—details the important role that collaboration around common assessments play in the professional growth of his teachers and the learning of his students.  He writes: “The practice of identifying essential learnings in a course or unit and using ongoing formative assessment as well as periodic summative checkpoints has helped our grade level subject area teams better understand how their students can get to, “Got It!” 

Andrew’s comments pushed me into the confessional, where I made an admission that still embarrasses me:  I knew little about my required curriculum before working with my learning team to develop common assessments.  

To that point in my career, I’d made instructional decisions based on what I liked to teach, what other teachers thought was important to teach, and what the textbook laid out for my students to learn.  It was only after we sat down to determine the skills that we wanted to cover on common assessments that I really began to wrestle with what exactly was in my curriculum.  

Which leaves me wondering how many other teachers are wrapped up in the same assessment nightmare.  I can’t be the only guy who had a thin grasp on what it was students were supposed to be learning, can I?

The takeaway for school leaders:  Not only can common assessments improve the quality of student learning in your building, they can improve the depth of knowledge that the teachers on your learning team have about the topics that they are supposed to be teaching.  

How’s that for a win-win?

So stop by Voicethread today, huh?

Find a way to contribute to this conversation before it closes to comments at 5:00 today!  While you’ll always be able to access the dialogue and share the link with colleagues, this is your last chance to lend your thoughts to the collective knowledge we’re building together.

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