System Alignment: Why it’s important and how to achieve it

Laura Slover and Sean Slade
July, 2023

Originally published in EdPower, this article focuses on the alignment that’s needed between system processes and culture.

Alignment is frequently referred to as a key element of success in multiple contexts. In the workplace, alignment is important for things like mission and purpose. People who are aligned with one another tend to accomplish more as they are working in sync to achieve common goals. In the sport of rowing, which Laura participated in, alignment is about timing and effort: All rowers must put their oars in the water at the same instant to get the boat to reach maximum velocity. And of course, we all know the concept of tire alignment: tires that are out of alignment wear unevenly and prematurely, make driving more difficult as the car pulls off its course, and can in certain circumstances be dangerous.

What does alignment mean in terms of education? Here we lay out the components of a system that is aligned to achieve its maximum potential of success, which we define as strong outcomes for students and efficacy of teachers. At a time when the field is in the midst of major shifts, it is more important than ever for schools and districts to have a cohesive, internally aligned system.

Visioning and Values: Successful alignment relies first and foremost on a common vision and set of values as a starting point. This may be obvious, but too often change is embarked upon without taking the step of determining – and conveying the rationale behind an approach or a change. And a lack of shared vision can undermine the success of a change effort. Leaders must be clear in establishing a compelling vision and direction - and then in turn must engage and build ownership among other stakeholders. Everyone must own the vision to work in tandem (i.e., row in the same direction) and accomplish their goals.

Core values are the fundamental beliefs of a person or organization. They help a team determine if they are on the right path and fulfilling their goals by creating a guidepost. In this way, the vision rests on a foundation of values.

Both visioning and establishing values are examples of mindset shifts that are necessary for true change to occur. Too often plans are made without deep reflection on the purpose or overarching desired outcome. Does the vision fit with the actions taken? Do the actions align to the values? Do all stakeholders and staff understand what is being advocated for and why? Leading change can be sidetracked or diluted if there is not alignment to the purpose - and if this purpose is not owned by those implementing the change. It is the role of system leadership to make sure that such mindset shifts have taken place or are underway. True change comes when everyone is on board and heading in the same direction. With clear goals and targets in place, actions can then be modified to suit changing circumstances.

From this frame of a common vision aligned to shared values, the processes of aligning curriculum, assessments, professional learning, and high-quality instructional materials and practices, can begin.

Curriculum: Selecting a high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum is more important than ever. Organizations such as EdReports externally validate curricula based on objective criteria to aid schools and districts in their selections. Curriculum covers the letter and the spirit of the standards, giving all students the chance to learn meaningful content that prepares them for the next grade and ultimately for success in college and careers. An unaligned curriculum doesn’t fully cover the standards. For example, it may cover only some of the standards or it may cover them all but at a lower level of rigor that the standards require. While curricula may vary in terms of sequencing or pedagogical approach, they should not veer from the standards they cover.

Educational leaders should select curriculum that is aligned with their values and vision. If they value equity and excellence, they should ensure a curriculum that is culturally responsive and aligned with quality criteria.

Assessments: Assessments aligned to curriculum measure the concepts contained in the curriculum, which are aligned to the standards, and which were taught in the classroom.

Effective assessments can be formative, diagnostic, and/or interim so long as they are administered to match the scope and sequence of the curriculum. When used in-step with instruction they measure what students are learning now, not what they’ll learn next or what they learned several months ago. The resulting data tells the true story of student learning to strategically inform future classroom instruction. Teachers can use the data to quickly pinpoint areas of growth and identify instruction and resources to fill any gaps. Assessments that are not aligned may test only some concepts and leave others out, they may test out of sequence, or they may test things that aren’t in the curriculum at all.

Results from these assessments can misrepresent student learning, and cause confusion for teachers and parents. And just like a car with misaligned tires is harder to keep on course, a mismatch between assessment and curriculum is likely to cause extra data interpretation work for teachers for a clear roadmap to get students where they need to go. A cohesive, aligned system empowers educators and accelerates student achievement.

Data and Assessment Literacy: Professional learning focused on data and assessment literacy boosts teacher capacity to understand the right type of assessment and how to analyze the data to inform instruction. Overall, this helps educators lean into and improve their practice. By delving into the features of alignment and using data to drive instruction, teachers strengthen how they engage students in deep learning. This process is particularly effective when teachers work together, and professional learning is connected to both the implementation of the curriculum and results from assessments. Targeted training for district and school leaders and educators is a vital component of every aligned system. When teachers work with peers, they learn from one another and build a shared understanding of the vision and goals for students. Professional learning that isn’t aligned to curriculum and assessments may result in a lack of understanding, improper use of assessments, or inconsistent use of data.

Putting it all together: An aligned system isn’t just nice to have — it’s a necessity for an effective and equitable system that helps keep all educators and leaders moving in sync towards their collective goals. This is true in the best of times, and it’s more important than ever in our current reality. With a clear vision based on shared values, a quality curriculum and aligned assessments, and strong professional learning in place to support the understanding of data, teachers and leaders will have the direction, the information, and the support they need to optimize the effectiveness of the school or school system and advance student learning and growth.