Alignment. When we think about this word we probably most often connect it to what a mechanic does to the front end of our cars or what we might need for our backs after a few too many twists and turns on the dance floor at a friend’s wedding reception. Yet, alignment plays a very important role in education and is crucial for student learning.
The idea is simple, really. Curriculum, instruction, and assessment need to be aligned. In other words, what we are supposed to teach (curriculum), what we actually teach (instruction), and what our students are tested on (assessment) need to be connected.
Imagine if the curriculum we taught and the assessment used to measure our students’ learning were completely tied together, but in the classroom, we chose to teach something different. Our students’ success would suffer in this scenario. Likewise, imagine if we were teaching a curriculum and doing a good job of it, but the assessment used to test our students was focused on something totally different than what we taught and what was in our curriculum. Again, it is pretty clear in this scenario that students would not be very successful.
Fortunately, for the time being at least, our state’s curriculum here in Michigan and our state’s assessment, the M-Step, are arguably in perfect alignment. If you know the standards well, it is easy to read an M-Step question and quickly identify what standard it links to. This is how it should be—curriculum and assessment in alignment.
So, if our curriculum and assessment are aligned, where should we look if we are in a classroom, a building, or a district where our student achievement has dropped during the last few years or is just not where we want it to be? The answer is our instruction. This is not to imply—not at all—that we may be teaching “wrong” or not working hard enough.
I have the privilege of working with dozens of teachers who give it their all and then some on a daily basis for their students, teachers who are creative, thoughtful, and diligent in doing the important work of educating children. Yet, sometimes our hard work may not be aligned with the curriculum and the assessment which will impact student achievement. If this is the case, our instruction needs a bit of an adjustment.
What we need to realize is that in the past few years our curriculum in Michigan has shifted—from the Grade Level Content Expectations to the Common Core State Standards (aka Michigan K-12 Standards.) Our state’s assessment has shifted, too, from the long-standing MEAP assessment to the current M-Step assessment. If you are in a place where achievement has dropped during this time, the logical question to ask is: “Has our instruction shifted along with the new standards and assessment?” Making an adjustment in instruction, perhaps even only a slight adjustment in some cases, might prove to go a long way in improving achievement for our students.
One thing to consider when examining instruction to make sure it is aligned with curriculum and assessment is not simply to focus on what we are teaching but to also focus on how we are teaching. This requires a deep understanding of the standards within our curriculum. It also requires us to look at different levels of our teaching.
Understanding Norman Webb’s idea of Depth of Knowledge can be a helpful tool when looking at the how of instruction. Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, or DOK, levels help to identify different ways students interact with content. According to Dr. Karin Hess of the Center for Assessment in New Hampshire, a national expert on Depth of Knowledge, DOK levels help to identify the “mental processing” that occurs when students take on a task. She adds that DOK is not measuring how hard a task is but rather how complex it is. DOK levels can be a useful means of analyzing instruction in order to make adjustments in order to get instruction in line with curriculum and assessment.
Whatever tool you use to adjust instruction, it is important to make sure that instruction is aligned with curriculum and assessment. The good news is, while we may not have control over the curriculum we are asked to teach or the assessment used to measure student achievement, we do have control over what we are teaching in our classrooms and how we are teaching it. This is powerful to keep in mind.
We have it within our control to change our teaching to meet the needs of our students and new curricular challenges. Granted, change is not always easy. However, I have worked with many teachers in my role as an academic coach who have made adjustments in their instruction. Sometimes it’s been a minor tweak. Other times it’s been a major leap. Often times, in both instances, it has led to the same thing—increased student learning. That is something I’m sure we all can get in line with.
Upcoming Instruction Professional Learning at Kent ISD
- Reading Foundations Skills & CCSS: Strengthening 2nd & 3rd Grade Phonics and Fluency Instruction on 11/2 & 11/3 – CLICK HERE to enroll
- Modeling through Flipped Instruction, Online Course through Kent ISD- CLICK HERE to enroll
Tim Hargis is an academic support coach for the Kentwood Public Schools as well as an independent literacy consultant. He is the author of two books on teaching writing, The Writing Diner: Creating Active Thinkers in the Writing Classroom and The Writing Diner 2: Creating Active Thinkers for All Types of Writing as well as the children’s novel, Ol’ Man Caudill’s Hat. He has worked as a classroom teacher in the Grand Rapids Public Schools and as an adjunct professor of English at Grand Valley State University. Prior to teaching, Tim was a television news producer at WLWT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds degrees from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Tim lives with his wife and two daughters in Grand Rapids.