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The Challenge of Alignment

Morgan Polikoff
Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Alignment is at the heart of standards-based reform efforts. A primary goal of the policy is for teachers to align their instruction with state standards. To measure student achievement against the standards, states are supposed to use aligned assessments of student achievement. To support teachers in their implementation efforts, states and districts must support them with aligned curriculum materials and professional development.

And yet, research consistently finds that alignment is much harder to achieve in practice than it is to advocate for. I view this disconnect as perhaps the most fundamental challenge of getting standards-based reform to work—that is, to positively affect teachers’ instruction and students’ learning.

There is ample evidence of misalignment in our policy systems.

There is ample evidence of misalignment in our policy systems. My own work, some of it conducted with C-SAIL co-PI Andy Porter has found that:

  • State assessments in the No Child Left Behind era were weakly aligned with the state standards they were intended to assess. In particular, they often emphasized lower levels of cognitive demand than were found in the standards or sampled content from a very narrow slice of the standards.
  • Teachers’ instruction in the No Child Left Behind era was only moderately aligned with the state standards teachers were supposed to teach. However, there was evidence that alignment was improving over time (i.e., that the policy was “working” to a certain extent), especially in tested grades and subjects.
  • Elementary mathematics textbooks in the Common Core era are only moderately aligned with the standards themselves. Again, textbooks often focus excessively on the lower levels of cognitive demand in the standards, neglecting the more ambitious student skills.

Other research has reached the same conclusions. For example, EdReports has found that many mathematics textbooks claiming Common Core alignment are not well aligned. Jim Spillane, Lorraine McDonnell, Heather Hill, and many others have found systematic misalignment among components of the standards-based reform system. In short, any way you slice it, there is misalignment, despite the centrality of alignment in the theory of action that underlies standards-based reform.

Why has alignment proven so elusive? What can we hope to do to improve alignment among the elements of the standards-based policy system (and, ultimately, of teachers’ instruction with standards)? There is no one answer to these questions, but understanding the factors that contribute to the problem can help identify strategies for improving alignment.

Understanding the factors that contribute to the problem can help identify strategies for improving alignment.

Certainly one of the factors that contributes to misalignment is the language of the standards themselves. An extended quote from the abstract of Heather Hill’s work makes this point clearly:

Words have no inherent meaning. Instead, they signify ideas or actions ascribed to them by communities, and meanings for specific words often vary across those communities. Words that carry specialized meanings in one community can be interpreted differently by another...

Even when standards are written to be as precise as possible, different folks can have different interpretations of the content messages of those standards. Test developers, textbook writers, and teachers all bring to the standards their own knowledge and beliefs, which undoubtedly shape their interpretation of what’s written in the standards.

Another contributor to our alignment struggles is the structure of our education system. Because we have such decentralized governance structures—50 different state systems and thousands of school districts all with their own rules and policies—there are many layers between the policy as written and the implementation in the classroom, each layer an opportunity for misalignment. Like the telephone game, as each actor interprets (or misinterprets) the standards, the intention becomes more distorted. Further compounding the problem is the issue of capacity. Does each district or state have the capacity to conduct serious investigations of alignment to make informed decisions? Do all three million teachers have the training or skills to construct their own aligned curricula? Unlikely, on either count.

A third contributor is a general lack of seriousness about alignment, what it is, and how to measure it. Alignment has become one of the most overused buzzwords in education, and thus it has come to mean almost nothing. Rather than applying systematic alignment methods, which often require extensive training and expertise, many districts seem to use a more “eyeball” approach to alignment (as they have revealed to me in discussions for another project about district textbook adoption practices). Thus, with little evidence to go on other than their own homegrown methods, districts often choose materials that are, in fact, poorly aligned with standards.

Of course there are many other reasons why alignment has been so much more difficult to achieve in practice than in theory. Regardless of the reasons, this issue remains an enduring challenge for standards-based reform. If we cannot achieve the alignment need to ensure effective standards implementation, we will continue to spin our wheels and achieve only modest progress toward our goal of a better education for our students.