In Chapters 8 and 9 of Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker’s book Revisiting Professional Learning Communities, the authors suggest that in the past, schools were constructed to serve as filters by which society could segregate students, based on their competence and aptitude. By using classes as “sifters” say the authors, schools could pick out the brilliant from the ordinary and begin preparing students for better or worse forms of employment. Because such sifting was the primary goal of schools, say DuFour and Eaker, assessments were designed according to that end. Scholars developed “intelligence quotient” tests in order to figure out which students had the innate biological aptitude to learn. But according to DuFour and Eaker, few Americans scored highly. Colleges therefore turned to a psychologist to design another test that would show schools which students were fit for college. This was the now common SAT test (DuFour & Eaker, 2008).
According to DuFour and Eaker, even one of the authors of these tests believed they were flawed. They believe that the problem lies within the goals of tests. Classrooms, say DuFour and Eaker, should not be sifters that help some advance while leaving others behind. Instead, they should provide formative learning, which seeks, not just to tell students that they have not learned properly, but to address their leaning problems and to show them how to overcome learning barriers (DuFour & Eaker, 2008).
DuFour and Eaker stress the importance of collaboration in teaching, both between teachers and students. They ask teachers to involve successful students in helping struggling students to understand problems. They also ask teachers to make learning goals together and to help coach students in areas where other teachers come up short. They also stress the importance of frequent assessments of essential skills with rapid feedback, as opposed to standardized testing, which only looks at how well students have done. The results of standardized tests generally do not provide any feedback in time for them to implement or help them improve (DuFour & Eaker, 2008).
DuFour and Eaker make a great deal of sense. Their assertion that students often do not get the results of standardized tests back in time to help them apply anything they might learn from a response is quite true. Their claim that students are often left behind because a teacher’s schedule or a test says that the unit is over is also true. In many traditional classes, teachers do not have the time to wait until every student has mastered a concept. In many ways, then, the authors’ assertion that teachers ought to try to create formative assessments and to encourage successful students to help those who struggle along seems like a very good one. But DuFour and Eaker seem to overlook one very basic fact. That is that students are often very different. Many are capable of doing some things that others cannot. Just as DuFour and Eaker observe that sometimes teachers are better at teaching certain lessons than others, some students excel in areas in which others do not.
While it is kind to think of all students as equal in every way, it is not realistic. A student who is physically disabled, for instance, may not be able to run as quickly as a student who is not. A student who is mentally disabled probably cannot score as highly as a student who is not on a math test. DuFour and Eaker would have the entire class try to work together until each student comes along. But schools do not have unlimited amounts of time. Legislation such as No Child Left Behind requires teachers to teach to certain standardized tests. Teachers must be sure their students score highly by a certain deadline. If classes do not progress until every student is capable of understanding lessons, schools can lose funding.