Teaching Opinion

On the Pursuit of Alignment

By David B. Cohen — March 08, 2017 6 min read
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I recently co-moderated a Twitter chat (#caedchat), focusing on the topic of alignment. It’s one of those buzzwords in education that can elicit strong reactions, both positive and negative. For some educators, alignment is almost a grail, a never-quite-achievable cohesion and coherence in schools and districts. For others, the “line” in alignment suggests confinement and rigidity. Like the word “data” so much depends on the context and meaning of the word in educational conversations.

Let’s be honest: many of us, me included, are fine with alignment when it means people aligning with our goals and vision, and not so enamored of the idea if it means we’ll have to make changes we didn’t choose or may not entirely agree with. But some kinds of alignment are worth pursuing, and some worth resisting.

Most educators I know, and everyone involved in the Twitter chat earlier this week, seem agree that alignment of mission, vision, strategy, and allocation of resources is a positive type of alignment. If a vision statement talks about students who are active citizens, there should be curriculum, resources, and activities that will engage students and the community, promoting the growth of citizenship. If your organization’s mission statement mentions the “whole child” then you should expect leaders who are not relentlessly focused on quantitative academic performance indicators. When districts and schools say they value creativity and innovation, we expect to see academic programs, working conditions, and professional learning opportunities that are aligned with those values. If a school has “Design” in its name, like Design39Campus, (Poway, Calif.) you expect to see time and materials allocated to creative and experiential learning.

Vertical alignment

Here’s where the concept of alignment becomes trickier. “Vertical alignment” means we want students in each grade level or course to build on what came before and prepare for what’s coming next, and that sounds logical and uncontroversial. In some areas, it might be straigtforward. We want high school graduates to effectively read and write complex texts with complex ideas, so we have younger students ramping up as they mature. We want students to learn algebra, so we teach them to be facile with multiplication and division. As a high school English teacher, I find it useful to connect new readings with prior readings, and it’s helpful that my school has agreed that Of Mice and Men is used in ninth grade, To Kill a Mockingbird in tenth grade, and so on.

Vertical alignment becomes tricky when we must deal with the fact that students don’t always master what they’re supposed to master in a given grade or course, don’t always remember what they knew at some point in the past, and don’t always apply what they know in new situations. The stereotypical complaint from the teachers further along the continuum is that the teachers who taught our students before us must have neglected skills or topics X, Y, or Z. On some occasions, I’ve been my students’ next teacher, meaning that I have them in class two years in a row, in which cases I’ve seen how learning doesn’t always persist year to year. Of course, when our students do arrive knowing exactly what they’re supposed to know, we may take less notice of that fact.

The question of vertical alignment can be challenging in two ways. First, the purpose of any given level of education is not when simply to prepare for the next class or the next school. Learning has its own intrinsic value, found in the joy of discovery and creativity, collaboration and community. Experimenting with ideas and skills, knowing something that’s interesting, or even mind-blowing - these do not always require justification elsewhere. Secondly, as the Common Core State Standards process evidenced for many observers, excessive vertical alignment can turn into an excess of backwards planning, giving higher education too much sway. The introduction of “college and career ready” language in elementary school warrants some pushback. Yes, skills developed in elementary school have an impact on later success in school, but we can challenge assumptions about the pace of student learning and the ultimate goals of education. I have no problem with the idea of backwards planning a course, or a unit of instruction. Backwards planning an entire education, for all students in a nation, state, or even district or school, may be a process requiring more critical examination, more checks and balances.

Horizontal alignment

How similar an experience should students have in a given course or grade level, across a state, district, or school? Horizontal alignment is the idea that practices and policies are similar for all fourth graders, for example, or all geometry classes. In Robert Marzano’s work, he argues for a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” as a centerpiece of school quality, but various districts, schools, and teachers will disagree about both of those terms. My reading of Marzano and others, along with personal experience, suggest that we need some agreements reached by professional and local consensus. As a teacher and as a parent, I see the value of having some consistency on baseline content and course expectations and policies. For example, if some teachers will and some will not extend due dates or accept late work (with some penalty or consequence generally), then students and parents, especially at the high school level, might raise legitimate concerns about the impact of being assigned to a particular teacher. Given all the variables that go into our effectiveness and our relationships with students, I also say it would be a mistake to focus excessively on any one or two differences.

And then there’s the broader issue of what horizontal alignment, taken too far, can cause in terms of uninspired or unresponsive instruction. When teachers aross a school or district are handcuffed to a canned curriculum and a rigid expectation regarding pacing, students miss out and teachers burn out. We need the felxbility to reach our students in the manner and timing that work best for individual students and teachers. It does not follow from that proposition that we must reject standards andn alignment, but rather, that we must seek in them some pedagogical guidance and not functionary obedience. Many teachers worry, and rightly so, that the pursuit of horizontal alignment can stifle innovation and individuality. I’m certainly in that camp, having been an outlier in grading and assessment practices for example. I also recognize the need to strike a balance and apply to ourselves the same critical examination we’d encourage regarding standardization. I’ve seen more than once how student learning can be inhibited by teachers who value their individuality and independence to an extent that justifies teacher-centered rather than student-centered instructional choices.

I feel fortunate to have had my thinking on this topic shaped largely through work in a school and district where the validity of both ends of the spectrum can be respected. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit so many teachers, at different grade levels and in different subject areas, in the process of gathering observations for my book, Capturing the Spark. The breadth of those experiences leaves me with one foot resting in the sphere of alignment, comfortable with the value of “guaranteed and viable,” and the other foot, and my head, and my overall pedagogical orientation focused on stretching the notion of alignment where we can.

If you want to see what other educators are thinking and doing regarding alignment, you can read through our #CAedchat Twitter conversation in this Storify link.

Photo: Edible garden at Design39Campus in Poway, by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.