Vertical Alignment in Education
“Okay class. I’d like for us to review prepositional phrases this week before we jump into the more advanced phrases.” Blank stares. “Who can remind me what a prepositional phrase looks like?” Crickets. “Anyone? Try to remember what you learned in middle school.” Silence, and then a shy hand raise. “Mrs. Marley, what is a preposition?”
Though this may not seem detrimental at first glance, especially for non-English majors, it was a serious wake-up call for me as an educator. To put it clearly, this would be like a 10th grade science student telling her teacher that she didn’t know what a hypothesis was, or a math student telling his teacher that he didn’t know his multiplication tables. My 10th graders were clueless about grammar. I not only discovered that they struggled with prepositions, but many of them had a hard time simply identifying the subject and verb of a simple sentence-a skill that they should have learned at an earlier age. As any English teacher understands, these skills are the foundations for writing. If students don’t know how to compose a sentence, they are extremely limited in what they can communicate on paper. It’s like approaching a stack of wood, ready to build a house, without any tools in hand. Impossible. And even if the attempt is made, it is less than sufficient. After working with my sophomores for a period of time, I quickly realized what the root of the issue was: lack of vertical alignment.
According to an article on The Holmes Education Post, Dr. Ronald Holmes offers some insight on vertical alignment. He defines it as “a complicated district-wide process designed to engage the instructional staff to develop curricular over a period of time that will be taught and assessed in the learning environment.” He cites a source, the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement (CCSRI), and discusses how “although a comprehensive vertical alignment plan with timelines, leadership roles, outcomes, responsibilities, assessments and the like can yield positive results, it is a challenge for schools to implement.”
Vertical alignment issues in education are almost always a source of tension. 10th grade teachers tend to blame the 9th grade teachers, who then blame the 8th grade teachers, and so on and so forth. But is this a true assessment of the problem? According to an article in The Glossary of Education Reform, governments have even tried to minimize this issue by “exerting more control over the learning process”, ultimately “requiring greater standardization in the education of students.” But is this even the best solution? As with many forced solutions from our government, many teachers could agree that actually implementing the ideal solutions presented to us from the state is much more difficult that reading it on paper. So what is the solution?
It would be pompous of me to try to solve all of the vertical alignment issues in our state, even our district, so I am going to stick to specific issues in my subject. As mentioned above, the lack of grammar instruction is definitely a problem in our district. But the even more glaring problems are the lack of writing and preparation for the EOC (End of Course- a.k.a. STAAR). For the past several years, we have seen our high school students come to us severely hindered in the writing process. For some reason, somewhere along the way, our students stop receiving focused instruction in writing. They stop learning essential grammar rules, more complex writing skills, and stop writing as much in general.
As high school teachers, it is easy for us to blame shift- to justify our low writing scores by pointing out the deficiencies in the middle-school curriculum. But that helps no one, especially our students. To combat the problem, we have proposed a solution that we will be implementing this year for the first time.
One of the ways we feel like we can be more vertically aligned is by having the same drive to push our students to succeed on their English EOC. And not only succeed, but also even reach commended. Although there are many complaints about the test, which is another argument in itself, the bottom line is that we still have to get our students to pass it. Because the 7th and 8th grade STAAR tests look radically different from the high school tests, we believe that this has become a major disconnect. The middle school is only preparing them for a test on their level, which becomes drastically more difficult in high school. We believe that if we are in congruence about the standards they have to meet by the time they are sophomores, our students’ writing and reading skills will improve drastically.
Before this proposed solution, this is what our problem has been. When the 8th graders move up, we don’t have enough accurate data to see where they need help. It isn’t until they take 9th grade STAAR test that we realize how behind they are. We have created “Practical Writing” courses where we place students who don’t pass the EOC. They have to drop an elective in order to be in this class, but we make it a requirement. For the past few years, our sophomore practical writing classes have been extremely dense. We usually have about 80 students who have to be placed in those classes. Luckily, we begin dwindling those numbers with the retests, but the point is that we are tired of reacting. We are ready to be proactive in this issue.
Our proposed solution is that 8th graders be required to take a practice English I STAAR test at the end of the year. This test will count towards their English grade, but even more importantly, it will give us something we never had- accurate data. By having them take the exam, not only will the high school teachers be able to see the weak skills, but the middle school teachers will as well. We are hoping that this will create a chain reaction- one where we can begin properly preparing for our incoming freshmen, where the middle school teachers can begin properly preparing them for the high school EOC, and even where the middle school teachers begin aligning more with the intermediate teachers, and so on and so forth.
In order to make sure the process goes smoothly, we have discussed having the 9th grade teachers administer the test. We have also already lined up a couple of 9th grade teachers to train the middle school teachers on how to properly score the short answers and essays.
We are hopeful for this new solution, and we believe that it will greatly improve many of our vertical alignment issues. Dr. Holmes uses a great analogy to describe the overall goal of vertical alignment: “Just as the wheel alignment to an automobile must meet certain specifications for high performance, the same is essential for student performance in the classroom and on standardized tests… For best results, these standards and assessments are to be aligned…” In order for our students to succeed, it is going to take vertical (and horizontal) teamwork. This will be a process, but well-worth the time and energy.
Hidden curriculum (2014, August 26). In S. Abbott (Ed.), The glossary of education
reform. Retrieved February 8, 2015, from http://edglossary.org/hidden-curriculum
Holmes, R. (2012, November 6). How does vertical alignment improve student
performance in the schools? Retrieved February 8, 2015, from