Improving Student Learning: Together, We Can!

Common assessment is key to improving student learning.

Teaching can be exhausting. You work hard to create meaningful lessons, assessments, and interventions. You manage students in class with varying learning needs, behavior needs, and experiences. You grade papers and answer emails and phone calls. You participate in parent-student conferences, IEP meetings, and serve on committees or leadership teams. You manage duties on campus and fill out report cards. And all with little fanfare for the effort.

And, on top of everything, the hard work can be made more frustrating when high-stakes assessments show consistently poor student performance or little student growth. What is a teacher or school to do?

It turns out that teaching each and every student is a bigger job than any one person can do well. How are you utilizing a collaborative team culture to help? How are you working more efficiently and effectively as a team with grade-alike or course-alike colleagues to collectively answer the four PLC critical questions:

  1. What do we expect students to learn?
  2. How will we know if they learned it?
  3. What will we do if they do not learn?
  4. What will we do if they do learn? (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, & Mattos, 2016)

Roland Barth tells us, “Ultimately there are two kinds of schools: learning-enriched schools and learning-impoverished schools. I have yet to see a school where the learning curves … of the adults were steep upward and those of the students were not. Teachers and students go hand in hand as learners … or they don’t go at all” (2001, p. 23).

This means by learning with our colleagues, student learning can improve too. But how do we know our learning as a team is also translating into improved student learning? The answer lies in the data.

Benefits of Data Gathered by Collaborative Teams

The more I work with schools as a long-term embedded coach in the area of school improvement, the more I have come to learn the importance of a relentless focus on data generated by collaborative teacher teams. In fact, it is this focus on data that begins to shift instructional practices and deepen student learning for real and sustained improvement. On the front lines of learning, teacher teams use data to address student learning in a timely way and generate information needed for ongoing adult learning.

Through the lens of common assessment data generated as a team and organized student by student and standard by standard:

  • Teachers can better identify what students have learned or not learned yet and develop a plan.
  • Teachers can identify the instructional practices that have the greatest impact on learning.
  • Students can engage in their learning by tracking their learning themselves and setting goals.
  • Teachers can celebrate the small and large victories in student learning.

Can you imagine the relief and energy generated when your own learning from colleagues helps you become a stronger practitioner every day? When it translates into each and every student learning across your grade level or course?

What if your TEAM

  • Analyzed data and made a team plan for future instruction or intervention instead of it all falling on your shoulders?
  • Created the assessments before a unit ever began, so you knew the data you needed to collect as evidence of learning and could better plan each lesson?
  • Made sense of the standards students had to learn and the rigor involved before the unit ever began, so you could look at student data by target and better give feedback to students during lessons?
  • Analyzed data from common formative assessments during the unit to identify strong instructional practices you could replicate or share?
  • Stopped to look at the data and could use it celebrate the small successes and large successes in student learning?

But how?

Sometimes starting or growing in your practices as a collaborative team to efficiently and effectively address the four critical PLC questions is confusing or daunting.

The most meaningful and insightful data comes from:

  • Teacher-created common assessments tied to the standards students must be proficient within each unit.
  • Common high cognitive tasks teachers agree to use in class during instruction to identify what students have learned and what their roadblocks or misconceptions may be.

So the how involves rolling up sleeves and working to create the common assessments and tasks needed to inform teaching and learning.

When I work with collaborative teams to design common assessments, the goal is to align the identified standards and clarify the cognitive demands required for more effective instruction. We dive deeply into the data student by student and target by target to determine which students have learned and which still need to learn, as well as to identify the instructional practices making the largest impact on student learning. These are not always easy conversations to have, but they are crucial for the learning of teachers to grow the learning of students. They are also critical in order to design the most effective team interventions and extensions or enrichments for students, giving equity for student learning across the team.

With my colleague and fellow author Dr. Sharon Kramer, we have written a book titled School Improvement for ALL to jumpstart and re-energize your work by showing you how to urgently and meaningfully chart the course to greater student learning. It comes from our work together and with colleagues in schools and districts as we work with teams to improve practices that result in student learning. Along the way, we provide collaborative team rubrics and examples of team products to help you create the kind of sustainable changes necessary for long-term wins in student learning we have experienced in schools. It shows how to prioritize and unwrap standards, create units and common assessments, design effective instructional lessons, and analyze and respond to student data.

Imagine a world where your hard work is no longer just affecting the students in your classroom, but across your grade level, course, or school AND making your job more manageable along the way. Imagine stopping to celebrate reaching team goals related to student learning. Imagine the high-stakes assessments taking care of themselves because of the work done all year to ensure student learning. This happens when teachers and students learn together.

Sound too good to be true? It turns out that together, we can do it! And, in fact, we must. Our students’ futures are counting on us.



Barth, R. (2001). Learning by Heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Company.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T., and Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at WorkTM, 3rd Edition. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


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One thought on “Improving Student Learning: Together, We Can!

  1. Hello,

    I am a student at ASU in a teacher program. I am wondering if the team interventions and strategies used to help the students were shared with the next group of teachers that the students had; i.e., the teachers in the next grade.


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