What Role SHOULD Standardization Play in a PLC?

John Spencer — an #eduthinker who I respect greatly — has been wrestling with the role that standardization should play in a professional learning community this week.  He wrote:

The truth is that I became a better teacher when I was finally given autonomy. It's not an excuse. It's the impetus for innovation. When I have creative control and the freedom to experiment, some of the best lessons occur.

Last year, I was able to use a tech-integrated framework, move away from traditional grades, go with a project-based and problem-based approach and teach thematic units. I also had some of the highest reading, writing and math scores in the district.

All of that required a hefty dose of teacher autonomy. Although we were a PLC, the principal was flexible enough to say, "Try this and compare the results with your team." He never mocked my need for autonomy, but actually embraced it instead.

That's the same issue that Justin Tarte — an assistant principal in a school that values autonomy and innovation — is struggling with:

This year at Poplar Bluff Junior High School we are going through year two of Professional Learning Communities. Additionally, we are in the first year of our professional studies book club. We have been experiencing a lot of growing pains, but more importantly we are having difficult discussions that are helping to move us forward.

Most recently we read "Linchpin" by Seth Godin (you can find my blog post here).

While we were discussing the relevancy of Godin's thoughts to our school and students, a teacher asked a simple but profound question: "How do PLCs and their standardization of education fit in the mix of creating and developing Linchpins?"

And it's similar to the thinking of George Courous, who is in the middle of developing a series of supporting documents designed to give teachers a clearer picture of what effective #edtech integration should look like in their classrooms:

How do we ensure that all of our students get the same opportunities no matter what school they attend, while also ensuring that our teachers have the autonomy to be innovative in their teaching practices?  

Interesting stuff, isn't it?  Essentially, John, Justin and George have all stumbled on one of the central challenges of leading PLCs: Balancing the competing need for autonomy and standardization in the collaborative schoolhouse.

On the one hand, teachers are creative professionals who expect to be trusted.  We want to work in schools that allow us the flexibility to do what it is that we do best: Make instructional choices based on our deep understanding of our own strengths, our curriculum AND the students in our care. 

On the other hand, autonomy to the extreme often leads to drastically different learning experiences for students in different classrooms on the exact same hallway.  The push towards standardization that feels so wrong to teachers like John and I is just an inevitable response to this sad reality.

So where SHOULD the balance between autonomy and standardization in a collaborative learning community rest? 

Let's start by looking at a simple definition that Rick DuFour gives in almost every presentation:

A professional learning community is a group of educators who are engaged in an ongoing cycle of collective inquiry around practice.

Can you see autonomy hiding in this definition?

"Ongoing cycles of collective inquiry around practice" DEPEND on autonomy, don't they?  You just plain can't collectively inquire around practice in environments where teachers aren't given the professional freedom — as individuals or as collective groups — to explore and experiment.

Standardization to the extreme — something that happens in districts where teachers are given scripted pacing guides, district-wide assessments developed outside of the schoolhouse, and required practices that must be implemented with unforgiving fidelity — is nothing more than #edugarbage

That kind of standardization — which John rightly explains is becoming all too common in today's high-stakes, coercive, corporate-driven educational environments — literally runs contrary to the fundamental tenets of the professional learning community model.

That kind of standardization isn't really standardization at all, y'all.  It's regimentation — and good teachers figure out pretty darn quickly that collective inquiry in a regimented reality is pointless because all of the thinking is done by those in positions of power. 


At the same time, professionals engaged in ongoing cycles of collective inquiry DO standardize their practice.  The reasons are simple:  Professionals are committed to succeeding and success depends on figuring out what works and replicating it. 

What does that look like in action? 

Look back at John's example early in this post.  He had the opportunity to inquire, right?  He asked questions about how his instructional practices could be improved, tried some new things in his classroom, and tracked the impact that those choices had on his students. 

And those choices worked, didn't they?  John mentions that his students had the highest reading, writing and math scores in the district.  Autonomy gave John the chance to innovate and that innovation led to a new discovery about what works with kids.

But now it's time for standardization to kick in.  I would hope that John's learning team will be ready to take a closer look at what he was doing with his kids and begin to find ways to incorporate those practices into their classrooms — especially if their own practices aren't producing similar results for kids.

To do otherwise — to look at clear and convincing evidence that John has discovered something that works for kids and to ignore it in the name of autonomy — would be irresponsible at best and educational malpractice at worst. 

If "we" are committed to figuring out what works with our kids and "I" discover something that makes a real difference, "you" ought to be willing to give it a whirl in your room.

Likewise if "we" are committed to figuring out what works with our kids and "I" realize that something I'm doing isn't nearly as effective as something that "you" are doing, I owe it to my kids to rethink the professional choices that I'm making.

The way that I see it — and remember, I've been working on professional learning teams for almost a decade now — standardization is a natural outcome of teams that are truly committed to studying practice together.

Any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

I Finally Drank the Kool Aid

Drinking the Kool Aid – Part Deux

The Challenges and Successes of a PLC

12 thoughts on “What Role SHOULD Standardization Play in a PLC?

  1. Bo Adams

    Nice post, Bill. As long as autonomy does not mean isolated-doing-as-I-please, and as long as standardization does not mean regimentation (as you point out), I agree. Standardization can connote to sharing high standards, but achievement of those standards can look unique in differentiated settings. Autonomy can connote creative license, but working in isolation can cause potential atrophy. Thanks for helping us think and understand together.

  2. MaryAnnReilly

    An important topic, Bill especially in these days when standardization is more and more a national push. I don’t think the examples you give though are examples of standardization. Rather, they involve autonomy insomuch as one is making a choice to make use of something or not.
    Standardization requires an epic construct, not the lived world of a classroom. It is built on the assumption that learning can be transferred much like coins from one pocket to the next.
    Curriculum is not a product as much as it is complicated conversation. For that reason, standardization especially is a poor substitute for innovation, thought, and agency.
    We would do well to turn our backs on standardization. It is for the unimaginative and is deadly for learners.

  3. WiscPrincipal

    Great post Mr. Ferriter. We talk about this in our district as well. We want best practices in all of our schools and classrooms, but if we are all doing the same thing, where is the opportunity for growth? We handle this through what we call “experimentation with permission.” Someone throws out a “what if” scenario with a plan and then reports back to the rest of the team with how it worked. If it went well, then we try to make sure it becomes a practice in all classrooms in that team. It all fits with the inquiry of PLCs.

  4. Dawn Hangen

    Bill Ferriter,
    I am also a student in the Education Media course at the University of South Alabama where I am in the process of renewing my teaching license. I believe that each department has to be collaborative because some teachers will go off on their own and the students will not be prepared for the next course or next year. I think that the teacher keeps his/her control by being able to decide how to implement the strategies as well as when to expose the students to these strategies. No professional is able to work as an isolated individual, so it is essential that teachers cooperate to prepare their students not only to graduate but also to be productive workers.

  5. Robert Fisher

    Dear Bill,
    I am a student at The University of South Alabama taking an Education Media class. After reading your initial post and the responses I see the problem but have no solution. In our class we have discussed technology in the classroom. We have discussed the need for technology and the barriers preventing classrooms from attaining it. I think that educators need to have enough autonomy to introduce innovations in teaching. I believe that will be beneficial to the student’s experience. I hope that the standard will change in that favor. You can visit my blog here. Thank you for your post.
    Robert Fisher

  6. Vr2ltch.wordpress.com

    The idea of PLCs, as with many things in education, is a great one. As a professional I dream of authentic collaboration that will help me grow. However, what happens is what you pointed out, the idea becomes bastardized.
    I think there are a couple of underlying reasons for this. PLCs are actually a constructivist community, but those who employ behaviorism in their teaching often rely on standardization and fear. The other aspect is teaching the way we were taught. And those ideas of teaching and learning become so ingrained in our way of thinking that it can be difficult to see another way to teach for our children to learn.
    The ending results are really a one or the other. There is either an authentic collaborative community or a forced community that does what they are told. (I like to call it the mom’s way: do it because i told you to.) There is a community built on trust or distrust that teachers are professionals and can make informed decisions.
    Sadly, as one commenter pointed out, those who understand these things often leave teaching. Why stay in a place where you are not valued? A place where you are told to put up or shut up? And let’s face it, if a professional who (as he put it) is of the top 1-2% are not being treated with dignity and given the opportunity to grow then how are any of the children’s needs being met? (they are not because what happens with standardization is that you teach to the middle/masses)

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for stopping by, y’all. I’m enjoying the conversation and each of your comments is pushing my thinking.
    For now, I wanted to tackle a thought from Paul because I think it reflects what a lot of us are feeling.
    He writes:
    When I find success by exploring new techniques, they are often chalked up to my personal style or my willingness to do things that others are not because of the time commitment or the use of unfamiliar digital tools.
    Then, the choice must be made: convince my entire PLT to “do it my way”, or revert to doing the old way.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _
    Isn’t there a middle ground in there somewhere, Paul?
    What if your team looked at what you were doing and found a comfortable way to incorporate a small part of what you’re doing into their practice?
    Better yet, what if YOU looked at what you were doing and tailored something that was more doable for your peers — a step forward from where they currently are, but a step behind where you currently are?
    It’s the “innovate at the edges of the box” stuff that we’ve talked about before.
    I get it: The kinds of folks that are hanging out in our digital spaces are pretty far ahead of our peers. In Schlecty’s terms, we’re trail blazers and that is intimidating to the typical settler-esque folks who are working in schools.
    More importantly, it’s intimidating to us because we know just how damn hard it’s going to be to get everyone on board with the new trails that we’re blazing.
    But that doesn’t excuse us from trying to move other people down the right path, does it?
    If you’re convinced that what you are doing is the right thing for kids, can you honestly ignore the fact that the majority of the students on your hallway aren’t going to ever experience those same instructional practices unless you decide to take action?
    Sure it’s hard work — but hard work has to start somewhere.
    Any of this make sense?

  8. Eric Twadell

    Well done Bill. Reminds me that Collin’s was right when he asked to embrace the Genius of And. ET

  9. Andrew B. Watt

    The “my way/our way” dichotomy is a big one. Standardized learning seems really simple, until you try to implement it. A ‘standard’ PLC seems really simple, too, until you realize that My PLC includes ceremonial magicians, buddhists, and a plumber who never completed 8th grade, as well as a plumber-librarian and a Latinist-janitor. A colleague’s PLC includes a chain-smoking grandma and a Cherokee lawyer and a Bible-thumping former meth addict.
    Instructional practice really only improves when we the teachers feel one of two things: 1) panicked because our current methodology is likely to get us fired, or 2) happy because our current methodology is working, and we’ve been boosted publicly and privately to find ways to make it work for more of our students and colleagues.

  10. Ric Murry

    Hi Bill,
    Good post, and good references in John, Justin, and George.
    Sometimes, I think we overthink issues. This might be one of them.
    Let me see if I can explain:
    1. If I am a professional (which is a debated topic as well), then I will seek out those things that will make me excel at my profession; including networking with people who can make me better.
    2. If teachers are allowed autonomy, they will become really good at something others will not consider (my opinion). They will follow their passions and become experts (Godin, Pink, and Gladwell) and have something unique to offer the PLC.
    3. As a professional, I will seek help when I need it, and will find it from the autonomous teachers who have become experts in an area I have not considered or for which I had no need. This is called true collaboration. I will get better as a teacher, and my students will benefit as learners.
    Innovation and standardization will always be debated, and I think rightfully so. The majority of people (including teachers) would rather be told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, so they can get on with their own personal lives.
    Innovators are innovative because they don’t think like others in their fields. They are the overwhelming minority of people in every profession. They are the truly “gifted” 1%-2% who make the differences for their students, and unfortunately leave the classrooms to become consultants who quickly lose their edge and relevancy.

  11. Paul Cancellieri

    I love this idea, I really do. The problem that I have run into is this. When I find success by exploring new techniques, they are often chalked up to my personal style or my willingness to do things that others are not because of the time commitment or the use of unfamiliar digital tools.
    Then, the choice must be made: convince my entire PLT to “do it my way”, or revert to doing the old way. And, that is where I get frustrated with the standardization vs. innovation debate. Can PLTs find a solution to this problem?

  12. Scott

    Great post, Bill. This makes me think of Dr. DuFour’s “loose-tight” approach to a PLC. We need to be tight about ensuring all kids have the same depth of experiences and support. But teachers need the autonomy to choose the high yield strategies that work for their kids. A PLC doesn’t create an assembly line like many schools try to create.

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