As part of our work, CTL provides technical assistance to schools regarding a variety of issues including increasing rigor to promote student postsecondary success.
Rigor is a term that means so much too so many people, and is important to define. There are a lot of strong definitions including:
SREB & Iowa’s Core definition: Rigor is the expectation that students will be able to perform at levels of cognitive complexity necessary for proficiency at each grade level, and readiness for postsecondary education and the workplace (including advanced training).
Richard Strong’s 2001 definition: Rigor is the goal of helping ALL students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.
Kenyatta Dorey Graves from Mindsteps Inc.: Rigor is when instruction consistently dwells rather than visits the upper level of Blooms’ Taxonomy and where students have to apply their skills in more than one content area and in unpredictable situations.
For our work CTL chose to adopt Barbara Blackburn’s definition from The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Rigor (2012) of rigor as a sharp focus on instruction: creating an environment in which:
- Each student is expected to learn at high levels,
- Each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and
- Each student demonstrates learning at high levels.
We appreciate and share Dr. Blackburn’s focus on both the learning that students are expected to achieve and the instructional environment that must be created in order for that vision to take effect. Rigor isn’t just about making the problems harder or raising the Lexile of a reading; it is a multi-faceted set of expectations that must be created by a school in order for teachers and students to be successful in raising the expectations for what students can do and are expected to do.
This is where Cheryl Gray’s work, Getting Rigor Right Academic Challenge without the Backlash of Failure provides a structure for CTL to develop our comprehensive approach to rigor. Gray lays out a very complex analysis of the components of practices that support rigor as part of her work at the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and now at Edvantia. This approach to rigor shines a spotlight on interactions of administrative policies, classroom practices, and school expectations to support students in learning at high levels.
In our research on rigor, it was evident that rigor as defined above cannot exist without high levels of student engagement. In fact international research into the field uses engagement as a proxy for rigor, meaning that rigor cannot be discussed without addressing engagement first. CTL has experience working with schools to increase engagement and through that engagement increase rigor in the classroom. Our current models; Adolescent Literacy Model (ALM), our Project Based Learning (PBL) and Artful Reading are based on high student engagement. We believe that it is not just about a teacher changing practice; it is about a SCHOOL adopting new practices and creating an environment where teachers and students feel safe to try new things and to learn together.
CTL’s Rigor Rubric addresses eight areas of practice; Assessment in the Classroom, Collaboration, Course Taking/Grouping Patterns, Curriculum Coherence, Expectations for Student Work, Grading practices, Instructional Strategies, and Student Support. These practices provide a broad analysis of the policies that a school has in place. We have been testing the rubric with schools to determine the best way of guiding schools through the process and what schools need in return as they craft their plan to raise rigor in their school.
It is not a simple process; it takes several meetings with leadership to work through the rubric components, identify the sources of data, and to honestly evaluate how the school is doing in each area. For instance when determining implementation of standards based grading, it is easy for a school to identify if they are doing it or not. However, analysis of academic press (the degree to which environmental forces press for student achievement on a schoolwide basis) is discussed, the conversation must include evidence from student learning as well as what teachers and administrators feel they are trying to accomplish at their school. For instance, if 70% of students are not making proficiency on science assessments then a tempered evaluation of academic press is in order. These hard conversations with schools provide CTL with a unique opportunity to help schools understand their context so they are able to create a plan to advance higher achievement to prepare ALL students for success.
In our initial pilots, CTL has identified that schools are better able to discuss the rubric in smaller half day chunks beginning with the components where they have focused efforts in recent years. This approach allows schools to process their approach through a lens of intentionality. Eventually, the school needs to tackle the harder conversations but this assessment isn’t about addressing all of the characteristics at once, but recognizing strengths and areas of stakeholder focus to get the biggest bang for their efforts.
CTL is looking for schools and districts that are pushing the envelope in their approach to preparing students for postsecondary success and are interested in making sure their plans are designed for maximum impact. We are looking for schools that are setting audacious goals for student success and want to go through this analysis to inform their work moving forward. Because CTL is committed to advancing excellence in teaching and school leadership, we are offering this service to a limited number of schools. If interested you are encouraged to apply to our Schools for Rigor Network, contact Roland O’Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org