Aligning Curriculum with Integrity

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How can we ensure that the process of aligning standards with lessons, units and assessment is robust and credible and not merely an exercise driven by the pressures for schools and teachers to comply with existing mandates? How do we help teachers use the standards as a true lens for assessing, revising and designing their curriculum?

Well-designed, tightly aligned curriculum that embeds the CCSS and attends to the development of skills and processes is key to achieving the goal of preparing learners to meet the challenges of college and careers (present and future). Such curriculum demands thoughtfulness and a degree of critical thinking that disappears in the face of high anxiety or compliance in completing an assigned task. A mandate, or even a suggestion that this is a worthy goal to be taken seriously, must be accompanied by the conditions that support its attainment. When it comes to curriculum alignment and design, those conditions move far beyond requirements and expectations.

They include:

  • providing an array of differentiated and guided experiences that foster an understanding of the standards themselves as well as the connections among standards, curriculum that embeds them, the instructional practices that such curriculum requires and the learning that such curriculum produces;
  • building practices in teaching, learning and assessment that move the CCSS from a powerful concept to influencing the realm of possibilities and reality that is their declared, ultimate intent.

The process of designing learning experiences and assessments is often generative and iterative. Unless teachers have some practice asking questions like, “What standards do I want to address?”, “What learning experiences are most conducive to supporting students’ exposure to the standards?” and “What assessment evidence would reveal students’ attainment?” it is often the case that there is some misalignment between standards that are originally identified and the learning and assessment experiences that appear in a unit or extended lesson. This is especially true when teachers design units inside a short period of time and lack opportunities to revisit, discuss, or refine as they implement them. This misalignment evidences itself in lessons and/or assessments that do not address specifically identified standards, and others that address standards that were not identified.

One LCI activity, designed to help teachers who found themselves in just such a situation, provided them with an opportunity to engage in a very concrete alignment activity involving the use of curriculum maps and units from other districts. These teachers had already drafted “CCSS-aligned units” by taking a cursory look at the standards and then generating assessments and lessons to support them, but they had not returned to the standards to check for true alignment among all the components as they further designed and implemented their units. In studying these examples, the teachers discovered the need to clearly articulate the relationship between standards, guiding questions, skills, strategies, learning opportunities and assessments. They also realized the importance of explicitly including the standards they have selected within their performance tasks and assessment evidence to ensure that assessments measure the standards, as well as the need to revisit the standards in their continued design to replace standards which are not well addressed or assessed and to include additional standards they may have missed in their original design

The insights that result from using professional learning experiences such as this are significant and include participants’ realizations that:

  • there is a tendency to read more into lessons and assessments than is often explicitly stated, giving “credit” for standards alignment where it doesn’t actually exist. 
  • without access to checklists or rubrics that accompany assessments, it is difficult to ascertain alignment, even when the assessment tasks themselves use the language of the standards 
  • group activities and assessments may not provide sufficient evidence of individual students’ attainment of the standards 
  • the scaffolding that is necessary to support the attainment of standards by all students should be incorporated into the learning opportunities 
  • the language in curriculum units and maps should either paraphrase or restate the standards as much as possible so it is easy to appreciate how the standards are addressed in lessons and assessments 
  • the standards alignment process needs to be done every time teachers implement and revise their units, since any change in a unit affects the unit as a whole

The advantages of engaging in the concept and practice of curriculum alignment as an ongoing process are significant for teachers, students and schools. Teachers are able to consistently incorporate new insights and lessons learned, updating and adjusting each time they teach a unit, and can revisit the integrity and congruence of their units, assessments and instructional practices relative to desired standards. Students can experience units that have benefitted from the wisdom of teachers’ experiences over time. Schools, in turn, accumulate up to date representations of their evolving curriculum.

It is critical that both classroom practitioners and school leaders, create and access multiple and ongoing opportunities to revisit and align the curriculum. How can you find ways to help yourself and others position curriculum alignment experiences as part of an ongoing process of design and refinement?

Giselle is the President of Learner‐Centered Initiatives, and Joanne is the Vice President. They, and the entire staff of LCI, are committed to supporting educators in developing and implementing learner‐centered practices that promote the CCSS and prepare students for success in college, careers and the future.