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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Foundations Series: What is Alignment?

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Greetings blogosphere! Guess what? It's February during a leap year. You know what that means, right? Do you? It means a whole extra day to talk about curriculum alignment! Let's get to it!

Last month, I wrapped up the first part of the Foundations Series on curriculum alignment by examining the question "What is Learned Curriculum?" Briefly, I examined what it is students actually learn in the context of the intended, enacted, and assessed curricula, after having both posed and examined the questions "What is Curriculum Alignment?" and "What is Curriculum?" Visually, I have represented curriculum as a learning-centered triangle"

I am starting with the next "chapter" in the Foundations Series this month where I examine various aspects of alignment. I am starting with a broad question "What is Alignment?" In the coming months, I'll be dissecting alignment into smaller parts, just like I did with curriculum. Before I get into alignment though, I just want to take a small bird walk and share what I'm up to right now...

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I'm writing my latest bog post in the Foundations Series from Philadelphia, PA. I'm a long way from Urbandale, IA, both figuratively and literally! I'm at the annual conference of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). I try to make it here every 3 years or so. Even though my degree from graduate school is in educational psychology, and I did my thesis and dissertation on curriculum alignment (cheap plug), I was in the school psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So, these are my peeps. Or at least my original peeps.
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I've been both honored and blessed to work with educators in many different disciplines over the years, and I feel like I've learned a great deal from many of those educators. In that spirit, this conference is a reminder to me of two big things that I think directly apply to curriculum alignment. First, curriculum alignment isn't just the responsibility of the classroom teacher, or the "curriculum adoption" committee. It takes entire systems to ensure tight alignment; administrators, psychologists, occupational therapists, and the students themselves, just to name a few. Second, I am reminded that there are so many other pieces in the schooling formula that impact student learning; social-emotional well-being, connectedness, reliability and validity of assessment processes and tools, and the evidence-base for instructional materials/practices, again just to name a few. So while I believe curriculum alignment is central to the success of any school system, let's not forget how many things need to be going well for a student to have a positive school experience. With all of that said, let's dig into some curriculum alignment, shall we?

Although defining curriculum was a complex process, much of what curriculum is can be framed as something tangible. Assessment materials, content standards, instructional materials, lesson plans, test results. That's not to say that there aren't more intangible aspects to curriculum, like conversations and thoughts that certainly make up part of the enacted curriculum. But there are definitely concrete curricular elements that we can put our eyes and hands on. Alignment, on the other hand, isn't really a tangible thing. Instead, it's the nature of the relationship among curricular elements. Here's an official type of definition:

Curriculum alignment is "the extent to and how well how all policy elements work together to guide instruction and, ultimately, facilitate and enhance student learning." (Webb, 1997).

This is the sort of definition that is usually more useful for researchers than practitioners. But it absolutely applies to practitioners, day in and day out. Think of "policy elements" as the intended, enacted, and assessed curricula. The "working together" part is really getting at how similar are those elements to each other. For example, if a teacher provides instruction on vowel teams (enacted curriculum), an assessment experience (assessed curriculum) that is "aligned" with that would also include vowel teams. That would be the two elements working together. If the assessed curriculum was composed of vowel-consonant teams instead of just vowel teams, that would be an example of the curricular elements not working together.

While I hope that example provides a simple picture of what alignment is, it by no means does it justice. In reality, alignment is a multi-dimensional thing. Just like the big idea of "curriculum" is composed of smaller components (i.e., intended, enacted, assessed, and learned), so to is alignment. Below is a visual of the multi-dimensional nature of alignment:

We will be digging into each an every aspect of the diagram above in the coming months. I will make the argument that unless each of these elements is considered, any alignment work will be short of getting the "bang for the buck" that alignment can bring. That's it for now. Check back next month! In the meantime, hit me up on Twitter.


Webb, N.L. (1997). Criteria for alignment of expectations and assessments in mathematics and science education (Research Monograph No. 8). Madison, WI: National Institute for Science Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.