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Research Questions

  1. What are the themes and tensions in how instructional system coherence is conceptualized in extant literature?
  2. How is instructional system coherence studied and measured in the literature?
  3. What does the literature say about relationships between instructional system coherence and instruction and between coherence and student learning?
  4. What does the literature identify as key drivers of instructional system coherence (i.e., factors that help develop or strengthen coherence)?

This report describes the authors' findings from a scoping literature review on the topic of instructional system coherence. The authors reviewed 77 pieces on coherence published from 1990 to 2023, including articles, reports, books, dissertations, and conference papers.

The scope and definition of alignment and coherence have seemed to expand with increased interest, although there appears to be little consensus on the terminology, definition, and key instructional system components to consider. Moreover, multiple ways to study and measure alignment and coherence have emerged and have not yet been catalogued. In part because of these definitional and measurement differences, there is also little consensus on the drivers of coherence or teaching and learning outcomes of more coherent systems. The authors consider overall methods and takeaways from this body of literature.

Key Findings

  • While the concept of alignment typically addresses consistency between two (or more) student-facing instructional system components, coherence is more broadly conceptualized.
  • Some literature implies that coherence is a state to be achieved; other literature emphasizes it as a process. More recently, coherence has focused on the perceptions and sensemaking of educators.
  • The literature varies in how the system in instructional system is defined and the components that ought to cohere.
  • Few studies address equity in the process of developing or as an outcome of coherent systems.
  • More than one-quarter of the literature on coherence focuses on conceptualizing coherence rather than on measuring it. Researchers who do measure coherence apply a variety of measures, including surveys, rubrics, and qualitative interviews.
  • Findings relating coherence to instruction or learning are limited and inconclusive.
  • Literature points to state policies, school leadership, and teachers' sensemaking as drivers of stronger and more coherent instructional systems.

Research conducted by

This study was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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