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When Alignment Fails

This post first appeared on the author's website,

“Alignment.”  Sounds like a great concept, huh?  It means “arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative positions.”  Nice, sterile, stable, predictable. In a word, neat and tidy.  (Well, okay, that’s three words, but that won’t deter me from the rest of this column, so read on.)

I work in a district where alignment has been a buzzword for at least a decade.  Apparently, we started talking about it because often, students would transfer classes a week or two into the semester — that is, for example, they’d switch from Mr. Brown’s 4th period economics class to Mrs. Jones’ 6th period economics class.  It was usually because the students would want to take a certain elective at a certain time, but to do so would mean a complete rearrangement of their schedules. (Okay, occasionally it happened because a teacher simply rubbed a student the wrong way, but let’s not go into how some kids didn’t like me in my early years of teaching.)

But when those student got to their new economics (or math, or science, or English, or whatever) class, they’d find that the teacher in the new class was using a different textbook, going at a different pace, covering different curriculum, and generally providing a diametrically different experience than the old class did.

We can’t have that, said the school board.  So the policy became the following: teachers who teach the same course will go at a similar pace, use the same textbook and the same cumulative projects/experiences, and use the same grading scales (if not identical rubrics).  And that has been the experience of every teacher working in my district since at least 2007.

Now, I want to say right here that the problem our board was trying to solve was a real one.  Different teachers using wildly different grading criteria does indeed lead to an equity problem.  It leads to awkward conversations between parents and teachers, along the lines of “Well, Mr. Brown gave an A to most of his students on this assignment, why didn’t you give an A to my kid?”  It leads to administrators looking embarrassed and then to come-to-Jesus chats in the principal’s office, where teachers are told they need to align more with their colleagues.

Here’s the problem with alignment: it is (or can become) depersonalizing, and it can really make relationships with students difficult.  And that, in the opinion of this author, outweighs most of the possible benefits.

What happens when you go at a predetermined pace with a group of students who isn’t ready to go at that speed?  Do you stay the course and leave the students behind? Or have a room full of kids who disconnect from the material because they mastered it quicker than you’re teaching it?

What happens when you teach skills to kids who haven’t mastered those skills by the end of the unit?  Do you leave the students behind for the sake of keeping up with your colleagues, and abandon the quest for skilled students?

What happens if you clearly have to reteach some content to some or all of the students in your class or classes?  The hard-core alignment people will say, “Nope, no time for that, if the kids didn’t get it the first time, obviously you did something wrong, shame on you, but that’s the breaks, we have to cover all this other stuff, carry on (and be prepared for a meeting with your administration later this semester).”

And where do we draw the line and teach the students that are in front of us?  The real, flawed, anxious adolescents who are human beings, not an abstraction or a statistical model; the ones who need to be known more than they need to know things at this point in their lives.  When do we decide to teach those kids, not the kids in a different classroom, or a kid that doesn’t exist at all (except on some spreadsheet in a district office)?

Look, I’m not a school board member.  I can’t tell you what the pressures are on these men and women from the communities they serve, except that those school board members probably would like to be reelected.  I just know that alignment for its own sake, or taken to an extreme, means that we’re not teaching individual students and meeting their needs. Instead, we’re teaching Joe and Jane Averageteen, whomever they aren’t.

My intention this year is to be a good team member and a good citizen of my district.  But given the choice between teaching the specific children in my room during any one class period on the one hand, and teaching content that the students didn’t choose and a pace they didn’t know about on the other…I think you, dear reader, know what I am going to choose.

Those are the facts.  Back to the show.

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I began my teaching career like a lot of others in my “generation.”  We were told that we shouldn’t be friendly with our students — relationships didn’t matter and could actually complicate our jobs. 

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