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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

Coherence vs. Alignment: Why Sunnyside Unified Prioritizes a Holistic Approach to Education

By Ryan Mick

We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!

Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.


The ALP Conference concluded on February 17. 2023, and now the stories start coming in. A team of twenty-seven—including eight educators from Tucson—were a storytelling team in Tucson. For the next few months, this blog will share the stories of those folks.

Image from Wix

When it comes to running a school district, there are a million things to juggle. From curriculum to instruction to professional development, there are endless pieces that need to fit together to create a high-quality learning environment for students. And with so much going on, it can be tough to stay focused on what really matters.

That's why Pam Betten, the Chief Academic Officer at Sunnyside Unified School District in Arizona, is such an impressive leader. She's got a laser focus on what really matters: coherence. But what does that mean, exactly?

Well, according to Betten—speaking at the ALP convening in Tucson—coherence is all about making sure that all the complex pieces of a school system work together in a coordinated and purposeful way. That includes everything from curriculum to instruction to assessment and resources. And when everything is working together seamlessly, students benefit from a more holistic approach to education that takes into account their diverse needs and backgrounds.

But achieving coherence is no easy task, especially in a world where the pressures of accountability can lead schools to prioritize alignment over coherence. Alignment is all about making sure that everything is in a logical order, but it can sometimes result in a narrow focus on specific learning objectives at the expense of other important skills and knowledge.

That's why coherence is so important. When a school district is operating with a shared understanding, purpose, and language, everyone is on the same page. Teachers can promote a more holistic approach to education, and students can benefit from a more equitable and effective learning environment.

Of course, achieving coherence isn't a walk in the park. It takes hard work, mindset shifts, and an ongoing commitment to staying true to the district's comprehensive vision for student success. But Betten and her team are up to the challenge.

As Betten herself puts it, "The discipline it takes to not chase what shows up in the newspaper takes tremendous energy." But at Sunnyside Unified, the leaders are clear-eyed and committed to the long game. They know that coherence is the only way to ensure that students are seen, heard, and valued for who they are and what they aspire to be.

So, while the noise and news may try to apply pressure, the leaders at Sunnyside are undaunted. They know that the pursuit of coherence may be challenging, but it's also an admirable and worthwhile feat. And at the end of the day, it's all for the benefit of the students.


About the Storyteller

Ryan Mick is Chief Program Officer (CPO) of The Learning Accelerator (TLA). In this capacity, he is responsible for developing the vision for TLA’s programmatic impact, serving as a key partner in establishing overall strategy, and building and leveraging partnerships that support TLA in achieving its mission and goals.

A national leader in human-centered design, innovation, and continuous improvement, Ryan joined TLA after serving as the Senior Vice President of Program Design at City Year. There, he led the organization’s program model efforts across more than 350 schools and the launch of its school design and improvement division, which included the creation of a teacher residency program, a charter school, and several networks for school improvement across the nation.

Ryan is a first-generation college student from rural Ohio. He completed a bachelor’s degree in history and economics, a master’s degree in educational research, a law degree from George Washington University, and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in organizational learning, performance, and change. Ryan has worked in the fields of child policy, civic education, and legal advocacy and has held roles as special education teacher, program designer, performance coach, and was a founder of the Diverse Learners Initiative at Teach For America.

Ryan joined the TLA team because he believes that students deserve equitable access to the best education, free from barriers and system constraints. Ryan is based in Denver, CO and spends his time hiking the mountains, playing the piano, and traveling the world with friends and family.

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