Executive Perspective

Aligning Body and Mind

by Paul D. Houston, executive director, AASA

Like many of you I get a sore neck occasionally. We could speculate that comes from working in a business that attracts so many “pains in the neck” that the pain moves from the figurative to the literal. This has led me to go to a chiropractor to get myself realigned. You see, when tension hits, my muscles tighten up, pulling my bones out of alignment, causing further stress on my muscles, creating even more misalignment. It’s not a good thing.

When I go to a chiropractor he “cracks” my back. By pushing and pulling certain areas of my back, his actions cause a loud crack as the bones slip back into place. Some might think the cure is worse than the affliction. Yet like many things we fear, the sound is scary, but the action is not painful and relief is almost immediate.

In education, we have been seeking better alignment for a long time. Years ago we concluded that if we were to get a fair assessment of how we were doing with kids, we needed to align our tests with our curriculum. It is interesting that until the mid- to late 1980s alignment didn’t matter so much. Up to that point, education was more about making sure everyone had an opportunity to go to school and to drink from whatever cup was offered to them. Then, as now, we knew that what was offered was very dependent on the kind of community they lived in. Kids in rich communities got more. Kids in poor communities got less. That was just the way it was.

Government Help
Along came “A Nation at Risk,” which pointed to all sorts of real and perceived weaknesses in the educational system and suddenly excellence became our Holy Grail. We needed to ratchet up achievement, raise test scores and make our country great again. Sadly, we still had kids in poor communities getting less and those in richer communities getting more.

 

The solution to this inequity, of course, was to raise standards. We would homogenize the outputs to make up for the inequity in inputs.

As we raised standards, we needed to see how we were doing, so we expanded the testing programs. Naturally it became important to find tests that really measured what was being taught so curricular alignment became the way to go. We need to align the tests to the curriculum.

But something strange happened on the road to excellence. Increasingly states and the federal government stepped in to help the process along. We started getting state standards, national goals and federal programs that were prescriptive—down to which tests we needed to give. As we pushed to disaggregate student data, we aggregated curriculum to higher authorities and to places further from the classroom.

Now, we still need to align curriculum, but we are aligning the curriculum to the tests we are giving rather than finding the tests that assess what we are teaching. So curricular alignment has taken on a new name—it is now called “teaching to the test.”

This practice creates problems. The resulting education isn’t very good and parents have figured that out and don’t like it. They know that teaching to the test means we are narrowing the curriculum to fit what is being tested, narrowing instruction to fit what is being tested and narrowing minds to regurgitate only what is being taught.

We are aligning our schools to a very limited vision of what learning can be. And while parents want to know how their kids are doing, they also know that their kids need to know depth and breadth, as well as how to think and how to get along and how to be happy. Our current curricular alignment leaves much of that behind.

Thoughtful Alignment
Three ways exist to leave no child behind. One is not to go anywhere. That path is one of lower expectations, no resources and a narrow concept of what education is about. The second way to leave no child behind is to throw a rope around children’s necks and drag them behind a bus of higher expectations but one running on empty in terms of resources. They’ll eventually be left behind.

 

The third way is to find out what it would take to make sure they progress toward that broad expectation that parents hold for their children and then lift them up to that new standard. This way means that when we align the curriculum, we are also aligning the way we teach, the provision of resources and a calendar that allows students who learn at different learning paces to move toward the same goal.

Only that last way will ensure our students end up aligned with our new expectations for excellence so they don’t need to head for an educational chiropractor to have their necks cracked back into place from the stresses we have placed on them.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.
E-mail: phouston@aasa.org