Schools spend a lot of time talking about rigor. So do politicians and the media. It seems to be a general consensus that schools nationwide need to add “rigor”. The problem is that we seem to have rigor mortis when it comes to adding rigor. Why? What is it about adding rigor to our schools that seems so difficult? There’s no question that a lot of challenges exist when we consider adding rigor to our schools.
From my perspective, one of the greatest hurdles to implementing rigor is actually defining what rigor means. Many in my generation remember a strict teacher somewhere along the way that would routinely assign 50 math problems for homework, or the English teacher that would crush your grade for errors in the bibliography and associate these practices with rigor. Too often rigor is viewed as establishing instructional practices that are punitive in nature, or practices that require increased levels of homework or that are rigid and result in high failure rates. It is also often viewed as teaching 5th grade content to 3rd grade students or teaching more material in less time. And, as many people often assume, raising the grading scale doesn’t in and of itself add rigor. According to Strong, Silver, and Perini, “Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.”
Understanding this concept significantly changes the scope of adding rigor to schools. It means that rigor should be a universal concept in schools. It means implementing instructional strategies that transition from inquiry based learning to real world solutions through modeling. We’re talking about classrooms that find ways to be connected to the outside world and use the latest technologies to communicate, collaborate and use peer review. These classrooms embrace the personal and emotional connections that motivate today’s digital natives to embrace a challenging curriculum. These strategies should not be reserved for the honors and AP courses. Strong, Silver, and Perini state that “the decision to withhold rigor from some students is one of the most important reasons why schools fail.”
So how do we add rigor? First, our district has to collectively believe that all kids can not only handle a rigorous classroom, but that they deserve it. Secondly, we need to provide our teachers with as many opportunities as possible to learn how to incorporate rigor into their classroom. We need to have more in our teaching arsenal than lecturing, worksheets and homework. To that end, our focus on professional development this year will be on Marzano’s Classroom Instruction that Works, a collection of research-based strategies for increasing student achievement often cited in studies on increasing rigor and student engagement. And lastly, we need to build a common understanding among our students, staff, parents, and community about what rigor really looks like and what it means to our students. Not only do we need each of our teachers and administrators to know what high quality, rigorous teaching looks like…we need our parents and community to know as well. And we must all accept nothing less.