Let’s say you’re a pretty solid math student.

You’ve mastered multiplication. You decimate decimals. Fractions are frictionless.

Then, one day, your teacher starts a new unit: algebra. Now you’re struggling. Why? It’s a big step up – and you didn’t have all the resources, concepts, logic and problem-solving skills you needed to ace the big test.

There’s a certain flow in a well-designed curriculum. It connects not just between units in a class, but also over years of education and between the subjects students take. When students learn skills foundation-first and build up, and when teachers reinforce those skills across grades and classes, that’s what we call vertical alignment.

(Not to be confused with horizontal alignment, of course, which describes consistent standards. What students learn between classes, schools, districts and states or provinces should, essentially, be equal.)

Vertical alignment is the how and the when of what we teach. It’s about linking lessons, skills and assessments together as a holistic experience. It helps us prioritize, focus, reinforce and place learning in new contexts. It helps schools make better decisions faster – and helps learners apply those skills in new ways.

No doubt about it, it’s a big and complicated task to do. You’ll be comparing and coordinating lots of moving pieces, from grade-level standards to unit content throughout the student journey. So we’re here to tell you what you can expect from a vertically aligned curriculum, and how you can bring cohesion into the classroom.

Level up your learning

Let’s start by breaking down how vertical alignment supports student success.

Reducing unnecessary repetition

Many subjects share the same foundational knowledge. But when teachers design curriculums independently, they don’t know what’s going on in other classrooms. So it’s quite common for students to re-learn the same material across grades and subjects.

Vertical alignment requires teachers to think beyond their classroom walls and collaborate with their colleagues. Together, they can organize around a better curriculum that focuses on developing those skills further, rather than repeating them over and over at the same level.

Addressing gaps in learning

Quite the opposite of repetition, you also don’t want to miss teaching any core skills. A vertically aligned curriculum helps you identify where students are currently struggling, and where they need extra attention.

Similarly, when you compare your curriculums side-by-side, you can see where you’re thin on lessons, or where timing doesn’t match up between the basics and the next level of learning.

Making knowledge more meaningful

Imagine your students are learning about Africa in geography class. Now imagine they’re learning African folklore in English Language Arts; studying the animals of the Serengeti in science; solving word problems that reflect life on the continent in math.

That connectivity gives students more depth because they can apply their knowledge in many ways, from many different perspectives.

Setting clear expectations

Vertical alignment is an exercise in coordination and planning. Curriculum maps need to be built ahead of time to make sure students learn skills in the right order.

Not only does it let teachers plan around what students should know before they arrive for the day’s class, it provides a way for students (and their parents) to know ahead of time what they’ll be learning and track progress throughout the year.

Sparking professional growth

Student development depends on teacher development. Let’s not forget that vertical alignment brings teachers together to talk about what’s working (and what’s not working) in their classrooms.

The nature of collaboration means teachers get to see what other teachers are doing. It gives them opportunities to share ideas and pick up new approaches to try.

Making decisions faster

Are students struggling with one topic in particular? Is there a gap that plagues your learning experience? Vertical alignment doesn’t just help suss out where you can improve as an institution – it helps you prioritize those gaps so you can focus on filling them.

It means being more nimble, too. Taking out the guesswork and looking at the big picture helps drive direction and make better decisions.

Your first steps to vertical alignment

Before we get started, we recommend brushing up on curriculum maps. After all, they’re a central piece of the vertical alignment puzzle.

All ready? Good. Let’s begin.

1. Bring your data together

Administration, regulators and teachers alike need to share what’s happening today, identify areas where there are common goals and find gaps in the current process. For that, you’ll want to compare some key data points as things stand today:

  • Targeted standards – knowing what your objectives are before you begin (and when you need to reach them) will help you map the best way to get there, at the right time.
  • Unit content– go beyond borders to examine in detail what students are already learning from across the spectrum of your school.
  • Assessments – alignment applies to the way you measure student learning, too, to reflect a logical and achievable progression between grades.
  • Course materials and resources – textbooks don’t always support a vertically aligned agenda, so it’s important that in-class materials line up between grades and subjects, too.
  • Student performance – the best way to identify gaps is by looking at trends. If students hit a wall during that week of trigonometry, there’s probably something you can improve.

2. Take some time to reflect

This meeting will result in a lot of information, so don’t make any decisions right away. Step back, look at what you’re working with, and let it percolate. Encourage everyone to think about high-level connections between skills, knowledge and subject areas.

3. Build curriculum maps

It’s time to put pen to paper (or use a tool like Chalk) to put together the first version of your new curriculum maps. Like any masterpiece, the first draft – which this is – won’t be perfect. That’s okay. This is the starting point from which you’ll build something much better.

4. Hold workshops and collaboration sessions

It’ll take a couple of sessions and iterations, but you’re working towards an important goal: nailing down a fully connected curriculum. Compare your new curriculum maps side-by-side, with the same data points as above, and align as much as you can.

5. Keep communication open

A curriculum isn’t a one-and-done thing. It ebbs and flows, and topics change, so your team will sometimes need to make changes on the fly – and keep everyone else on the same page. Save your curriculum maps in a shared place, and encourage professional learning communities where teachers can share tools and resources. Professional learning communities are also an important part of professional development. Learn more.

Vertical alignment is tough – there’s no debating that. But keeping your goals in mind and putting student learning front-and-center will help you solve for x every time.

Learn how vertical alignment can help with standards-based instruction by reading How to Approach Standards-Based Instruction that Works for You. Check out our eBook, The Complete Guide to Curriculum Mapping, or Self Assessment: Am I Ready to Refine My Curriculum Mapping Process. If you’ve already started curriculum mapping, utilize How to Audit Your Curriculum: An 8-Step Guide.