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Friday, March 30, 2012

Foundations Series: What is Directionality?

(c) Brad Niebling
As I sit here, excited to start my next installment in the Foundations Series, I am looking outside at the beautiful weather, and feeling a bit torn. As much as I love a good blog post on curriculum alignment, it sure would be nice to be outside hiking somewhere rugged with my dog, Buddy. See, he's excited to see the world, too!

I'm guessing many of you are feeling the same way, either returning from or getting ready to go on spring break. Sometimes, we just have to find a way to push on. I'm sort of feeling that way today. But I will push on!

Last month, I kicked off the next "chapter" in the Foundations Series by exploring the question "What is Alignment?" As a reminder, I defined alignment as

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

Alignment is not necessarily a "thing" unto itself, but rather a characteristic of the relationship between different aspects of curriculum. The desire to have the different aspects of curriculum coordinated or matched makes practical sense. In my experience, where the breakdown occurs is how we view alignment. Let me ask you a question: have you ever heard a phrase that sounds something like "our curriculum is aligned"? Perhaps you've even used a phrase like that yourself. It's understandable. I hope, after reading my series of blogs defining curriculum as having many different types, that you we see alignment as more than a "yes/no" sort of thing. I can tell you that beyond that, alignment gets to be a broader thing when you break it down into smaller chunks as well.

This month, I start on a journey to break alignment down into smaller, more meaningful chunks, just like I did with curriculum. By doing so, one step at a time, I hope that together we can gain a deeper appreciation for alignment and learn how to use it more effectively. Visually, a multi-dimensional view of alignment looks something like this:

As you can see, alignment is not one single "thing." Right now, I will start from the far left of the diagram and explore the question "What is Directionality?" and work my way from left to right in the coming months. Let's get into it!

What is directionality?

That's a very good question, if I do say so myself! Wait, haven't I seen that picture before? Anyway, when I use this term in my work with folks, I mostly get blank stares. That's ok, because it's not a term that gets used very often. In general, directionality is...

"the direction in which alignment is examined." (Niebling, 2008, cheap plug)

Well, ok. That's not really helpful at all by itself, and probably not worth a citation. I think we can all wrap our heads around what the concept of direction means. Come on alignment boy, you gotta bring more game than that! Fine, you want it, you got it. Horizontal alignment is the

"degree of match, typically across two curricular categories (e.g., instructional content with state or national standards) within a single level (e.g., same grade comparisons)."

Boom goes the dynamite! I've got more, too. Vertical alignment is the

"degree of match within one curricular category (e.g., district benchmark assessments) across multiple levels (e.g., across grade levels)."

I don't even have to say it, do I?
image source -

Whew! That was a lot of work, blowing up all that alignment dynamite. However, beyond me entertaining myself, we need to put some meet on that directionality bones. Let's start with horizontal alignment. When you hear or see the term "alignment," most likely it's about horizontal alignment. Every example of alignment I have discussed in previous blog posts in this Foundations series was an example of horizontal alignment. Consider this scenario:

A 5th grade teacher wants to know what the degree of alignment is between what she taught and the statewide accountability test her students took during the Spring semester.

In this scenario, the teacher is curious about the degree of horizontal alignment between her enacted and the assessed curriculum. It's horizontal because she's curious about the degree of alignment between her 5th grade enacted curriculum and the 5th grade state test. As you can see, she's focused on 5th grade only. If you look back at the definition for horizontal alignment, you'll see this scenario meets all of the criteria defined.

Now let's consider vertical alignment, which is sometimes referred to as vertical articulation in curriculum circles, or vertical scaling in assessment circles. Each of these concepts are slightly different in some ways, but the terms often get used generically. I'm not going to go too deeply into the nuances of those differences here. What I will say is that vertical alignment still calls for coordination of curricular elements to facilitate and enhance student learning. In this case, that coordination occurs within single curricular elements, not across them. Consider this scenario:

The curriculum director of a school district wants to know how well common formative assessments are coordinated with each other as students transition from elementary to middle school, and from middle to high school.

In this scenario, the curriculum director is curious about the degree of vertical alignment between assessed curriculum across grade levels. So, her focus is on one curricular area (i.e., assessed curriculum) across grade levels. Take a peak back at the definition for vertical alignment, and you should see that this scenario meets all of those criteria.

Ok, those were sort of easy. Now it's time for a tougher scenario. You decide if this scenario is about (a) horizontal alignment, (b) vertical alignment, (c) both, or (d) neither. Here we go...

Arianna Miles is the principal of North County Elementary School. There are a lot of students in her building. Each grade level has six sections. It is a school of high poverty, with 70% of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. It is highly diverse with respect to culture and ethnicity. She knows how important it is to make sure all students have equity in their opportunity to learn the intended curriculum. She wants to know the extent to which teachers' enacted curriculum is aligned with each other at each grade level.

What do you think? Here's what I think. Although you could possibly make compelling arguments for their being vertical alignment issues embedded in Ms. Miles focus, in my opinion this scenario is primarily about horizontal alignment. The tricky part is that she is curious about alignment among the enacted curriculum of multiple teachers within a grade levels. If you look closely at the definition for horizontal alignment, it indicates that this aspect of directionality is generally about examining alignment among multiple curricular elements, but not always. It is very possible to examine the degree to which what different teachers teach is the same.

What research says about directionality and practical implications

Generally speaking, the research out their on alignment isn't typically framed around directionality. That doesn't mean that directionality isn't part of the research though. For example, research studies like Cohen's and Gamoran's incorporate horizontal alignment, with the idea that as horizontal alignment increases, so to does student achievement. Vertical alignment research often comes in a very empirical package, like determining the psychometric soundness of assessment tools, or more narrative and descriptive packages, like the degree to which standards expand and require more complex thinking across grade levels. Indeed, a simple Google search for vertical articulation or alignment yield very little information, other than a few PowerPoint presentations and long documents within which vertical alignment was mentioned but not really highlighted.

What can we take from all of this? Here are the practical implications of Directionality, in no particular order:

  • A high degree of horizontal alignment is generally a good thing.
  • A lower degree of vertical alignment is generally the goal. After all, we don't want the exact same things taught and assessed at every grade level, right? 
  • Achieving these goals will take district-wide vision and a lot of collaboration.
Final thoughts

Addressing the Directionality of alignment, be it horizontal or vertical, is important to understand what the work is about and what we want to accomplish with it. When you read something about alignment, or listen to someone talking about it, make sure to inquire about the direction they are talking about. 

As always, thanks for reading. Check back next month, as I dig into the question "What are Dimension?" See you then and there!

Resources Used

Cohen, S. A. (1987). Instructional alignment: Searching for a magic bullet. Educational Researcher, 16, 16-20.

Gamoran, A., Porter, A.C., Smithson, J.L., & White, P.A. (1997). Upgrading high school mathematics instruction: Improving learning opportunities for low-achieving, low-income youth. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19, 325-338.

Kolen, M.J. (2004). Linking assessments: Concept and history. Applied Psychological Measurement, 28, 219-226.

Niebling, B.C., Roach, A.T., & Rahn-Blakeslee, A. (2008). Best practices in curriculum, instruction, and assessment alignment. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology, (4)5, 1059-1072. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.