Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why is K-16 Alignment a New Idea?

I recently came across an Education Week commentary on Twitter called High School to College: The New Alignment. So, being the alignment aficionado I am, I, well, actually, put off reading it for a few weeks. January has been crazy busy!

Anyway, I finally had a chance to read the blog, and I wanted to share a few reflections not necessarily on the blog, but rather on some of the issues raised by the author, Jordan E. Horowitz.

The Problem. The basic premise is this: many students are not ready for the transition to 2- or 4-year institutes of higher education. The main hypothesis posed by the author seems to be that K-12 academic standards (and the standardized tests that are hopefully aligned with them) are not the same as college- and career-readiness standards, which in turn are not the same as college-entrance expectations. While there is likely merit in these distinctions, it tastes like so many "education meals" people have tried to feed me since I got into the alignment biz in graduate school: grown-ups arguing semantics while nothing ever changes for kids and teachers in classrooms.

To the author's credit, he has been working on solutions to this potential problem.

Alignment Redux, Good or Bad. Relatedly, the idea of alignment redux is posed for our consideration. To quote: "...we continue to align high school curricula and work to state standards and assessments." First of all, most of the research and experiential evidence I've examined would contradict this statement. Our alignment with state standards and assessments is typically quite low. But let's go on with the premise laid out by Horowitz.

Here's my take: if we aren't aligning something to something else, then we are purposefully setting up a system designed to confuse and frustrate all members of that system. The problem isn't alignment redux. It's that what we are aligning our assessments (and hopefully instructional content) to isn't the right "stuff." Hopefully the work of the Iowa Core, now with the Common Core State Standards in English/Language Arts and Mathematics, will get us closer to what students need to be successful beyond the K-12 system (college-bound or otherwise).

Why is K-16 Alignment a New Idea? To answer my own question, I have no idea. I don't think it is. I just don't think we've spent much time genuinely considering the idea and doing something about it. The culture of education in the United States is one of autonomy, though I fear this doesn't typically lead to individualizing student learning experiences.

We should not be surprised many students struggle when they make the transition to college. If the culture is one of autonomy, by definition we would expect to see a potentially infinite set of educational experiences. Let me be clear on this point: we may need a wide range of instructional methods and experiences to best meet the needs of each and every student, but when we provide them drastically different opportunities to learn different topics, concepts, and skills, we are setting students up to struggle.

Like it or not, prior learning affects current and future learning. We may want students to be able to generalize and transfer learning to new and novel situations with minimal direction from teachers, but research from both constructivist and "direct instruction" or behavioral perspectives both point to the need for practice with feedback. This gets difficult if the topics/concepts/skills are repeated with shallow coverage, or if big gaps exist between transition points in the K-16 system.

Potential Solutions. Before we can talk about solutions, one has to perceive there to be a problem. Since I'm the blogger here at the moment writing this, we'll go with my perception, which is that there is a problem, and alignment can and should be part of the solution. Horowitz suggests three potential solutions to tighten alignment between high school and college.

(1) "First, postsecondary institutions must be able to clearly state and explain what is expected of entering students."

(2) "Second, we must develop longitudinal student-data systems that allow us to track students from year to year, school to school, and educational segment to segment."

(3) "Finally, this must be done by faculty members."

I think these can all be part of the solution, no doubt. I actually really support these ideas. I have some additional ideas as well.

(1) Purposefully engage in increasing the degree of alignment in the K-12 system. If we aren't working on alignment at all times in the K-12 system, it will be impossible to work on alignment with the post-secondary system. Misaligned + ?? = Misaligned. We are beginning this work with the Iowa Core in Outcome 4, as well as with the work of other Outcomes like Assessment for Learning in Outcome 6.

(2) Include groups like ACT in the process for creating an increasingly aligned K-16 system. Despite the ever-increasing loudness about the shortcomings of large-scale standardized assessments, ACT in my opinion continues to provide useful information and services. This Iowa-specific report provides some potentially useful information about student preparedness for college. ACT provides reports like this for all of the states, as well as overall.

Collectively, I think improving K-16 alignment is potentially a win-win. The K-12 system has a better picture of what they are supporting their students to get to, and the post-secondary system should be getting better-prepared students. That is why we are all in education, right? For the students?


  1. I find several important and valid points here. K-12 alignment is an excellent starting point, and unfortunately, is a missing point in a large group of schools. However, can we create only K-16 path? Why is it that we cannot create various paths--much like European systems--that prepare different kids for different futures? I don't get why we cannot as a state of educators acknowledge that there are several paths are students will follow, and different paths require different preparation. Your thoughts?

  2. I couldn't agree with you more Cathy. I think there should be several pathways for students to take, and some of them should be straight-to-work or apprenticeship experiences. Two- and four-year school options don't have to be for everyone. I think students should have several choices when they are done with the K-12 experience. Thanks for the question, and for reading the blog!