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Sunday / July 23

Preventing System Failure: Common Formative Assessment 2.0

Merriam Webster defines a system as “….an organization forming a network especially for distributing something or serving a common purpose.”

School systems exist for the “common purpose” of educating students, but what happens when the common purpose is not common? Simply put…the system crashes!

I had the unfortunate experience of my computer crashing. A quick search online to understand the collapse led me to Computer In reading the post, “PC Troubleshooting Tips: Why is my PC Crashing?” I detected an eerie parallel between school and computer malfunction.

Fortunately, just as Best Buy’s Geek Squad® offers tips on keeping your desktop’s operating system (OS) running smoothly, there are research-based practices that will position school systems to negate failure and maximize success potential.

In Common Formative Assessments 2.0: How Teacher Teams Intentionally Align Standards, Instruction, and Assessment, Larry Ainsworth offers solutions to educators that can help avoid system failure.

Below are reasons why school systems, like computers, crash and accompanying solutions CFA 2.0 provides:

Problem #1: Corrupted System Registry Files

Windows-based PC’s have an important component called a Windows registry. The registry contains settings and preferences that guide the performance and operation of the computer (“PC Troubleshooting,” 2016). These can be thought of as a kind of DNA. Schools also have features that guide operations and influence how they look and function, such as vision, mission, and core values. Over time, like a computer operating system (OS), some of those files or principles can become corrupted, misplaced, or lost all together.

Consider the 3” binders spilling over with curricular documents, standards based report cards, and core values touting “student responsiveness.” When curricular or other documents resemble a work of fiction rather than facts, the system registry or guiding principles of a school become compromised – resulting in system failure.

Solution #1: Focus on What Matters—Keep It Real!

CFA 2.0 provides busy educators with tools that have the power to cut through misplaced priorities. It provides a lens that allows educators to intentionally align standards, instruction, and assessment while bringing simplicity and clarity to the complex process of improving teaching and learning.

Bestselling author and educational researcher Michael Fullan underscores the power of focus in “What America Can Learn From Ontario’s Educational Success.” He describes the educational school system in Ontario, Canada, as one that rose from stagnation to one of international distinction by adopting five characteristics of a high-performing organization. First and foremost, Fullan noted Ontario’s commitment to reducing their priorities to only a few.

Fullan’s emphasis regarding the power of focus is echoed in Mike Schmoker’s best-selling book, FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, where an entire chapter and premise of the work is devoted to simplicity, clarity, and priority.

Credible and convincing evidence of student learning and teacher impact are at the core of the CFA 2.0 process. By providing focus for leaders, teachers, and students, it has the potential to dramatically influence practitioners and the students they serve.

Problem #2: Disorganized Files

Disorganized files in the computer’s memory prompt frequent crashes. Fragmentation occurs when a file is saved in multiple spots on the computer drive as opposed to being stored as a single chunk of information (“PC Troubleshooting,” 2016).  An unnecessary demand is placed on a system when information is compartmentalized. All organizations, schools included, benefit from knowing how parts relate and are interconnected. Just as a physician should understand how parts of the human body are intricately connected, so too should educators realize the symbiotic nature of standards, instruction, and assessments.

Failure to connect “parts to the whole” in the medical and educational fields can have dire consequences. Take for example the classroom teacher that fails to realize that classroom management, instruction, and motivation all impact classroom effectiveness. Without understanding interconnectedness, the most knowledgeable and experienced educator can find it difficult to teach. Often teachers who are considered expert in their content areas but fail to recognize that positive relationships motivate students, learn the hard way that students “Don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Whether it’s in the ER or in the classroom, effectiveness increases with the understanding of how component parts comprise the whole system.

Solution #2: Simple and Synergistic Pathway

Windows-based PCs have a built-in optimization solution: the disk defragmentation utility that aligns files sequentially and thus prevents system failure (“PC Troubleshooting,” 2016). Similarly, CFA 2.0 outlines a straightforward, linear process that provides practical “how-to” steps for bringing to life and simplifying standards. Beginning with the standards, educators prioritize what is to be learned and then design assessments and the instructional pathways necessary for students to successfully reach the goal. What is often considered a daunting task is now streamlined into a manageable and logical sequence. This creates a healthy system of component parts similar to what our friends from Geek Squad might call a “defragmenting” solution.

Problem #3: Malicious Software

Malicious software can vary from a nasty virus to adware creating the ubiquitous annoying pop-ups that wreak havoc on a computer’s performance (“PC Troubleshooting,” 2016). As a teacher and school administrator, I know well the perils faced by educators who are continually confronted with mandates, educational fads, politicians, and other, sometimes albeit, well-intentioned people that wreak havoc on schools. It can be wicked, nasty, cruel, and yes, malicious. It takes effective leadership to help educators remain disciplined and stay focused.

Solution #3: Research-Based Response

Happily, just as there are many topnotch programs that help guard against malicious software, CFA 2.0 provides educators with iron clad and powerful research-based processes and practices. Supported by the research of such educational giants as Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie, CFA 2.0 serves as a blueprint for schools looking to “stay the course” while providing the credible evidence and path to dramatically influence student achievement. It’s hard to debate practices such as formative assessment, that, according to Wiliam, “…when well implemented…can effectively double the speed of student learning” (p.36) and, as Hattie claims in Visible Learning, has the ability to produce “…more than two years of student achievement gains in a single academic year” (Ainsworth, 32).

Problem #4: Too Little Available Memory

PC memory can be depleted with incredible speed (“PC Troubleshooting,” 2016). Organizational memory (OM) is a critical factor in achieving long-term success and represents the accumulated body of knowledge within an organization. There is perhaps no other organization so dependent on human capital and talent as education. Failure to speak a common language and create an environment that facilitates collaboration, support, and teamwork destroys organizational memory.

Solution #4: Collective Wisdom

If it appears that your available memory is low, there is a PC cleanup program. When employees in schools or organizations share experience, insights, knowledge, and acquired skills and then pass them on to newcomers, internal capacity is built far more quickly and effectively than any proprietary software or product purchased. Education is rife with extreme complexities demanding the ideas of many people. CFA 2.0 equips educators with a professional language and common vocabulary that fosters group learning and expands educators’ collective wisdom to help them achieve their ultimate goal: improving student learning for all.

If you’ve run through all of the preceding possibilities and can identify with some of the problems that your school system may face, avoid a system failure, and consider making CFA 2.0 your “upgrade solution.”


Ainsworth, Larry, and Donald Viegut. Common Formative Assessments 2.0: How Teacher Teams Intentionally Align Standards, Instruction, and Assessment. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2015. Print.

Fullan, Michael. “What America Can Learn From Ontario’s Education Success.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. <>.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. <>.

“PC Troubleshooting Tips.” ComputerTipscom. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. <>.

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