Intervening with teachers to improve instructional alignment

Morgan Polikoff
Thursday, April 14, 2016


It goes without saying that a primary goal of new college- and career-readiness standards—including both Common Core and the state-specific standards being implemented in non-Common Core states—is to improve the content and quality of teachers’ instruction. Indeed, the whole theory of change for standards-based reform, which has dominated U.S. schools for several decades, rests on teachers’ instructional responses to the standards.

While it is perhaps too early yet to say whether teachers are responding to the standards in the way their authors intended, we know from earlier standards efforts that implementation often falls short of intention. There are many reasons for this failure of effective implementation, but one that especially interests me is the lack of adequate, aligned curriculum materials. The alignment (or coherence) of teachers’ instructional supports is also a key element of the conceptual framework that underlies our study.

I have written previously about the questionable alignment of textbooks to the Common Core standards, and others have found troubling disconnects, too. New tools have been built, such as Bill Schmidt’s Textbook Navigator/Journal and the website These tools are critically important if educators are to be able to choose better-aligned materials and fill in the gaps of the existing materials they’ve already adopted.

Even with these tools, however, there will be many teachers who do not have the support they need to implement effective, aligned curricula. Because the tools merely put alignment information out there and say to teachers “do with this what you will,” there are many who will choose not to use it. Furthermore, there is evidence that teachers are increasingly turning away from the traditional textbook to a more teacher-assembled approach to curriculum (though tracking textbook adoption and use at scale is a daunting task). For these teachers, edReports may not be so useful. Thus, the intervention we are designing and testing seeks to be even more direct in supporting teachers’ implementation.

Bringing policy through the classroom door may be a missing link that brings about the instructional changes needed to really move the needle on student performance.

Specifically, we are designing an intervention that brings high quality, alignment-related coaching directly to teachers’ doors. We are asking teachers to report on their instruction in nearly real time using a custom web-based log tool that we are creating. We are also asking them to turn in copies of the important assignments and assessments they are administering in their classes, which we will content analyze for alignment to the standards. Based on these two data sources, we will be able to track and report on a biweekly basis on the content and alignment of teachers’ instruction to standards.

But tracking alignment over time isn’t enough—teachers need to be given the coaching and the resources necessary to improve their alignment efforts. Instructional coaches will be assigned to each teacher and will meet with them virtually to give them frequent feedback. We will also develop a database of freely available, aligned curriculum materials that teachers can use to fill in the gaps of their instruction and alignment over time. It is our hypothesis that, by putting feedback and aligned materials directly in teachers’ hands, our intervention can provide a true test of the impact of coherent, aligned curricula on teachers’ practices and students’ learning. 

Standards-based reforms have been the law of the land for quite a while now. And while there are some modest improvements in student outcomes to show for these efforts, I think most advocates would say the movement has not lived up to its initial promise. It is our belief that bringing the policy through the classroom door through our intervention may be a missing link that finally brings about the instructional changes needed to really move the needle on student performance.