The term alignment is widely used by educators in a variety of contexts, most commonly in reference to reforms that are intended to bring greater coherence or efficiency to a curriculum, program, initiative, or education system.
When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what alignment is referring to. In some cases, the term may have a very specific, technical meaning, but in others it may be vague, undecipherable jargon. Generally speaking, the use of alignment tends to become less precise and meaningful when its object grows in size, scope, or ambition. For example, when teachers talk about “aligning curriculum,” they are likely referring to a specific, technical process being used to develop lessons, deliver instruction, and evaluate student learning growth and achievement. On the other hand, some education reports, improvement plans, and policy proposals may refer to the “alignment” of various elements of an education system without describing precisely what might be entailed in the proposed alignment process. And, of course, some “alignments” may be practical, thoughtful strategies that produce tangible improvements in schools and student learning, while others may be unspecific “action items” that never get acted on, or they may be strategies that show promise in theory, but that turn out to be overly complex and burdensome when executed in states, districts, and schools.
The following are a few representative examples of how the term is used in reference to education reforms:
- Policy: Educators, reformers, policy makers, and elected officials may call for the “alignment of policy and practice.” For example, federal or state laws, regulations, and rules may not be enacted in districts or schools, or educators may not follow policies established by school boards and districts. Or enacted laws and regulations may contradict one another, leaving school leaders and teachers wondering which laws and rules they should follow. In addition, the interpretation and implementation of a given education policy in schools may diverge significantly from the guidance and objectives of a policy, which may then require modifications to—or the alignment of—the policy language and resulting “practices” used by educators. Generally speaking, the alignment of policy usually entails a process of refinement, iteration, clarification, and communication during the development, and following the adoption, of a new policy or set of policies.
- Strategy: School leaders may work to “align” the organization and operation of a district or school, including how students are taught, with a given school-improvement plan, reform strategy, or educational model. In this case, the alignment process might entail a wide variety of reforms—from reallocating budgetary expenditures to restructuring school schedules to redesigning courses and lessons—in ways that are intended to achieve the objectives of the improvement plan, while also ensuring that its parts are working together coherently and effectively. For a related discussion, see action plan.
- Learning Standards: Educators may work to “align” what and how they teach with a given set of learning standards, such as the Common Core State Standards or the subject-area standards developed by states and national organizations. In this case, modifications may be made to lessons, course designs, academic programs, and instructional techniques so that the concepts and skills described in the standards are taught to students at certain times, in certain sequences, or in certain ways. For related discussions, see learning progression and proficiency-based learning.
- Assessment: Teachers may “align” assessments, standards, lessons, and instruction so that the assessments evaluate the material they are teaching in a unit or course. Test-development companies also “align” standardized tests to a state’s learning standards so that test questions and tasks address the specific concepts and skills described in the standards for a certain subject area and grade level. In individual cases, teachers may align assessments and lessons more or less precisely, but developers of large-scale standardized tests utilize sophisticated psychometric strategies intended to improve the validity and accuracy of the assessment results (although this is a source of ongoing debate). For a related discussion, see measurement error.
- Curriculum: Educators may “align” curriculum in different ways, but perhaps the most common forms are (1) aligning curriculum—the knowledge, skills, topics, and concepts that are taught to students, and the lessons, units, assignments, readings, and materials used in the teaching process—with specific learning standards, and (2) aligning various curricula within a school, such as the curriculum for a particular course, with other curricula in the school to improve overall coherence and effectiveness. In the second case, for example, educators may align curricula by making sure that courses follow a logical learning sequence, within and across subject areas and grade levels, so that new concepts build on previously taught concepts. For a more detailed discussion, see coherent curriculum.
- Professional Development: School leaders, educational experts, reform organizations, and government agencies may “align” professional development—such as training sessions, workshops, conferences, and resources—with the objectives of specific policies, improvement plans, or educational models. For example, state education agencies may provide training sessions for superintendents and principals to help them implement new teacher-evaluation requirements, or districts and schools may contract with experts and outside organizations to help their faculties learn new educational approaches or teaching techniques.