I spend a lot of time training school leaders. Invariably when they want to know about how to successfully plan for school improvement, the topic of “alignment” comes up. One thing I have realized from these conversations is “alignment” means many different things to many different school leaders.

According to the Glossary of Education Reform, “the term alignment is widely used by educators in a variety of contexts. For example, when teachers talk about ‘aligning curriculum,’ they are likely referring to a specific, technical process being used to develop lessons, deliver instruction, and evaluate student learning growth and achievement. On the other hand, some education reports, improvement plans, and policy proposals may refer to the ‘alignment’ of various elements of an education system without describing precisely what might be entailed in the proposed alignment process.” Because “alignment” is such an ubiquitous term, it is essential that school leaders understand the principle and know how to leverage it to improve their schools.

Different Models of Organizational Alignment 

Alignment is a concept from organizational theory. Organizational alignment refers to the principle that numerous, interdependent organizational elements must work together as an intentionally unified whole to meet organizational goals and environmental demands. Since alignment has been studied by so many different organizational experts, there are many different models. For example, we see how the Duncan Model focuses on organizational elements such as “reward systems” and “Top Management Team (TMT) behaviors” (see Table 1). In contrast, the model by Childress and colleagues, which was developed with schools in mind, focuses on organizational elements such as a “performance culture” and “stakeholders.” The Tushman and O’Reilly model focuses on elements that include “critical tasks” and “people,” and the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) model focuses on elements such as the “instructional core” and “environment.”

Table 1: Comparing Models of Organizational Alignment

The Duncan Model

The Childress, Elmore,
& Grossman Model

The Tushman &
O’Reilly Model
The PELP Model
  • Vision
  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Decision systems
  • Reward systems
  • Human resources
  • Culture
  • TMT behaviors
  • Strategies for teaching
    and learning
  • Performance culture
  • Systems and structures
  • Resources
  • Stakeholders
  • Environment
  • Critical tasks
  • People
  • Culture
  • Formal organization
  • Strategic choices
  • Executive leadership
  • Instructional core
  • Culture
  • Structure
  • Systems
  • Resources
  • Strategy
  • Stakeholders
  • Environment

It is easy to become overwhelmed when looking at all these different models. However, these different models actually have much in common because different organizational experts often use slightly different terms to discuss the same thing. So, what Duncan calls “TMT behaviors,” Tushman and O’Reilly call “executive leadership.” What Tushman and O’Reilly call “formal organization,” the Duncan and PELP models call “structure” and “systems.” “Instructional core,” “critical tasks,” and “strategies for teaching and learning” in the PELP, Tushman and O’Reilly, and Childress et al. models, respectively, also refer to the same thing. Also, notice that all of the models include “culture,” “structure (or formal organization),” and “strategy,” which describe the plan that leaders develop to accomplish organizational goals.

The fact that there appears to be some underlying truths about the different organizational elements involved in alignment leads to perhaps the most important point about different alignment models. Just like Duncan, Childress and colleagues, Tushman and O’Reilly, and the Harvard PELP faculty, you are an organizational expert. You are an expert on your own school organization. This means that while other organizational experts have particular ways of conceptualizing the elements involved in alignment, you will also develop a particular way of conceptualizing the key elements at your school. This is entirely appropriate, as long as you are not overlooking or inventing elements that are inconsistent with the observations of other organizational experts. 

The Value of a Multilevel School Alignment Model

“Why another model of alignment?” you might ask. The multilevel school alignment model we see in Figure 1 is useful for three reasons. First, the model synthesizes the organizational elements in other models in a way that reflects how many school leaders describe the core elements of their school organizations. Second, the model deepens existing models by breaking down elements, such as “environment,” into more specific elements and by introducing the element of the “self” (which is becoming increasingly well recognized as a fundamental element in organizations). Finally, the school alignment model categorizes the different organizational elements into the appropriate levels of analysis into which they are nested. These levels are the individual level, relational level, organizational level, and extra-organizational level. 

Figure 1: A Multilevel Model of School Alignment

Model of School Alignment

Understanding how organizational elements are categorized into four nested levels is important because the different levels explain why certain elements must be aligned. If an organization is properly aligned, it affects all parts of the organization, starting at the individual level with each person-especially the leader. So in your role as principal, your identity and personality, emotions, cognition, and overall “spirit,” as well as those of fellow staff, affect how you interact at the relational level. This includes the dynamics that emerge in teams and groups—how the staff solves problems (negotiates and manages conflict), how staff members communicate with one another, and even the choices the staff makes about other colleagues with whom they will (or will not) interact in their social networks.

Alignment at the individual and relational levels, in turn, feed into how the broader school organization operates. Alignment at the organizational level defines school culture—how shared beliefs, values, norms, practices, and artifacts are generated and reinforced. Alignment at the organizational level depends upon the style of leadership and governance at the school, including the strategies used to pursue the school’s mission, how decisions get made, and how influence, power, and authority are exercised. The effects from culture and leadership at the organizational level—as well as effects from elements at the individual and relational level—spill over to the school’s structure and systems. Most essentially, alignment affects a school’s “core technology,” namely teaching and learning in the classroom. This includes choices about curriculum and assessment, instructional philosophy, and methods as well as the supports (often nonacademic) that are provided to students.

Alignment at the individual, relational, and organizational levels determines how a school engages with its external environment. A school’s environment includes all of the factors and forces over which school leaders do not have direct authority. In fact, the environment often imposes pressures or rules to which schools must conform; however, the environment also provides key resources that schools need to accomplish their missions. Thus, alignment at the extra-organizational level determines which partnerships a school should solicit and how schools reach out to families, communities, and other constituents. Alignment at the extra-​organizational level also determines how a school manages mandates from federal, state, and local authorities; how it works with the unions; and how it addresses professional standards. 

Finally, the way a school engages with its environment represents the choices the school makes about how it conforms to or eschews wider cultural expectations about education, schooling, and the particular population of children the school serves.

Putting the Model to Work 

The first two questions you should ask are: “What activities have to take place in each of the organizational elements so that the new initiative is aligned with my school’s mission?” and “Which organizational elements will give me the most ‘bang for my buck’?” For example, you might realize that getting a new partnership initiative off the ground depends most on two organizational elements: organizational structure (such as putting specific protocols and systems in place for managing partner relationships), and encouraging a culture of collaboration among staff so they can work together to capitalize on their diverse relationships with outside organizations.

Even with all our best efforts as school leaders, sometimes the activities at our school are not mission aligned. By using an alignment audit you can ask questions that help you figure out why. You might ask these questions in a formal survey, in small meetings, in one-on-one conversations, or informally through observing different school activities. For example, you might generate questions related to organizational elements at each of the four levels (individual, relational, organizational, and extra-organizational). Alternatively, you might focus your questions on one organizational element that is of particular concern and ask different sets of stakeholders—students, staff, parents—about how mission-aligned activities in that element are working. Once you conduct the audit, you can compare the results against the outcomes that you would have expected and then begin planning for stronger mission alignment. 

Ebony N. Bridwell-Mitchell is an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.