Why I Won’t Be Using Common Formative Assessments This Year
Although I’ve only taught in the classroom for six years, I’ve been around long enough to observe trends in education. For instance, I’ve watched Paul Tough and the No Excuses movement catapult grit, the notion that all it takes to succeed is perseverance, from a charter school mainstay to the NAEP and the national stage. Another current trend in schooling is Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory. In a nutshell, Dweck argues that ability is more important than innate talent. Both grit and growth mindset theory state that children need to learn to push through discomfort in order to develop inner resources of resiliency. Stated as a platitude, few would argue with the idea that determination is important for a successful life. Teaching children to better navigate a school system predicated upon rooting out standard deviations is a no-brainer. However with both of these trends educators have put forth counter-narratives suggesting that grit and growth mindset theory actually disenfranchise children.
This essay is an attempt to place another contemporary education fad, the PLC, under a critical lens. PLC, an initialism that stands for professional learning community, has become a ubiquitous part of today’s education scene. A PLC is a group of teachers who meet weekly to discuss learning and instruction. So far so good. The birth of the modern PLC movement dates back to 1969, when teacher Richard Dufour created the PLC at Work model to foster a results-oriented school culture. Since then, PLCs and Richard Dufour have become big business. Out of the first sixteen results that popped up on Amazon when I typed ‘PLC’ into the search bar, Dufour has authored fourteen of them. It’s not hard to see why the topic has become so popular. Teacher collaboration makes sense. It’s hard to argue against professionals discussing their craft. As someone who has experienced the atomization of teaching (every classroom as an island), I welcome any trend that supports meaningful collaboration. But underneath the veneer of Dufour’s cottage industry lies an ideology of teaching that enforces standardization, accountability politics, and data idolatry. This essay teases out what I see as the significant problems of the PLC model to ultimately argue that professional learning communities coerce teachers into taking part in harmful pedagogy.
PLC, Common Formative Assessments, and Data
I came across the above advertisement while reading the most recent paper issue of Education Week. Although PLCs vary in their particulars, the four bullet points in the ad sum up the anchoring components of most professional learning communities. The first bullet point speaks to the role and value of common formative assessments in a PLC. Formative assessments are typically low-stakes assignments used by teachers to check for student understanding. Under the PLC model, teachers must use identical formative assessments. For instance, my fellow 7th grade ELA teachers and I would all give our classes the exact same quiz on whatever skill we’re all teaching that week. Then, for the next meeting, we would bring our assessment data to discuss trends and devise remediation strategies for any student who didn’t ‘get it.’
This isn’t good. Let’s break down the assumptions about students, teachers, and assessments implicit in the PLC approach. In order for the PLC to function as intended, I would need to teach the same things at the same time as every other 7th grade ELA teacher in the building. This doesn’t make sense. The students aren’t the same. The teachers aren’t the same. The classroom realities aren’t the same. Why would we all do the same thing? I’m granted essentially no agency as an educator in a professional learning community. Being in lock-step forces me to ignore the teachable moments that abound in any dynamic classroom setting. This standardization numbs me to the vitality of the moment. Instead of picking up on student tangents and teaching in the moment, I’m pushing through shallow curriculum. The system reduces my autonomy and forces me and my students to conform to externally created standards and speeds.
After my PLC created and administered our common formative assessments, we would then use our next meeting to go over the results. Since analyzing student performance requires a consistent data set, our assessment have to rely upon multiple-choice questions. This type of assessment favors the measurement of discrete skills over developing organic and complex understandings. I can’t test to see how reading, analyzing, and writing poetry has affected a student. I can, however, test someone to see if they know what a simile is. Or how many times a poem uses alliteration. The system is setup to guarantee shallow teaching. In the age of accountability when teachers across the country struggle against unfair evaluation methods based on high-stakes tests, why would I do anything other than what gets the best scores? This has nothing to do with teachers and everything to do with the systems that define teaching and learning through a technocratic lens.
The final two bullet points on the advertisement are equally problematic. This company promises to connect me with content and training from “top authors” and “PLC-certified coaches.” By appealing to non-teacher ‘experts,’ the PLC model frames teaching as a simple delivery mechanism. A non-thinking entity taking from one pile and putting in another. Such an approach devalues my knowledge, training, and passion. I refuse to farm my classroom out to interest groups predicated upon expanding the bottom line. I understand that not every PLC hires consultants or buys subscriptions to websites. Schools, however, do. Reading programs, school-wide benchmark assessments, and mandated curricula all remove the locus of control from the teacher, deskilling and marginalizing him in the process. I won’t allow county or state mandates to coerce me into instructional practices that stunt the emotional, academic, and social development of my classroom.
PLCs and the Banking Model of Education
By reducing students to data points and teachers to impotent technicians, the PLC model aligns itself with what Paulo Freire called ‘the banking model of education.’ The banking model of education explains that teachers discover essential knowledge through official channels (objective, scientific processes). Teachers break the knowledge down into properly sequenced units to deposit into a child’s brain. Students are then responsible for demonstrating an understanding of the knowledge through some sort of performance task. The cycle of learning is complete when the teacher tells each student whether or not they ‘got it right.’ Rinse, wash, repeat. Human growth cannot be static. It cannot be reduced, memorized, and regurgitated. I’m arguing that PLCs are yet another form of the banking model of education. I don’t believe that Richard Dufour created PLCs out of a malevolent desire to shortchange teachers and students. I do believe, however, his desire for accountability and results through shared instructional methods has been misguided.
A Social Constructivist Stance
So this year I’m going to abstain from common formative assessments and curriculum standardization. Instead, I’m going to invite myself, my colleagues, and my students to make meaning together. We’ll develop ourselves through a social constructivist stance. I’ll work to create a classroom where learning and meaning come from the interplay between individuals and their environment. There are no universal truths here. Meaning is context dependent and communal. A teaching stance rooted in social constructivism replaces the PLC with actual teacher collaboration. I want to meet with my colleagues to discuss what we see in our classrooms. I’m excited to learn from teachers who speak and think and act free of the bonds of standardization and accountability. What theories and pedagogies we’re using and experimenting with. This is what collaboration is.
I want to teach fully from the top of my head and heart and spirit. If this sounds unspecific and vague, that’s because it is. It has to be. I’m not teaching by numbers or following a predetermined path. I’m allowing myself and my students the freedom and support to follow their natural inclinations wherever they may go. Will they learn? Absolutely. But this knowledge won’t fit on an Excel spreadsheet. It explodes both outward and inward and takes no discrete shape or form.
Thanks for reading!
 Please see http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/07/31/as-mcgraw-hill-education-leaves-state-testing-market.html to read about how formative is the new summative for major testing companies.