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Redefining 'Rigor'


High school reformers are missing their mark in preparing high school graduates for the 21st century global economy, argue Ken Kay, president and co-founder of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and G. Thomas Houlihan, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

In their Education Week Commentary, Kay and Houlihan write that most high school reform initiatives focus on traditional metrics, which, though important goals, are no longer sufficient indicators of student preparedness.

A more meaningful, ambitious high school reform agenda, they write, can only be reached when high schools succeed in preparing every student for today's global challenges by aligning their improvement efforts with all the results that matter—mastery of core subjects and 21st-century skills.

Are U.S. schools teaching the skills necessary to compete in a global economy? What skills should be emphasized more?


Kay and Houlihan are correct; today's emphasis on high stakes testing and 20th Century standards don't address the needs for today's students. Indeed, the odds that today's students may even begin to approach modern pedagogical theories such as constructivism pale when set against the "3 R's" mentality thrust at educators through NCLB "reforms." Students are much more likely to take tests on computers than use them for global project based learning. Care to collaborate with other students in other schools either within the district or around the world? Good luck when most avenues towards this are filtered out because of the foundation of paranoia that schools build their technology houses upon.

Students need to learn new approaches to learning, and they're not going to get it in schools today. The mainstream media makes it clear that the Net is filled with predators and that nothing good ever happens there (ask yourself: have you ever seen a single positive story about the Internet and education on any tv news show?).

My guess is that only through virtual charter (and private) schools will students begin to have the chance to explore, collaborate, problem solve and think critically enough to begin to meet 21st century educational needs.

In my article Building 21st Century Collaborative Learning Communities I offer a number of ideas and free tools that educators and students may use to develop lifelong learning techniques and skills. My focus is on facilitation-- validation-- motivation-- collaboration. I don't see these words bandied highly in NCLB circles. I believe that teachers in public schools today feel so constrained and quashed politically that they don't believe they can truly make a difference any more... and that perhaps is the greatest travesty of all in today's classroom.

"In my article Building 21st Century Collaborative Learning Communities I offer a number of ideas and free tools that educators and students may use to develop lifelong learning techniques and skills. My focus is on facilitation-- validation-- motivation-- collaboration. I don't see these words bandied highly in NCLB circles. I believe that teachers in public schools today feel so constrained and quashed politically that they don't believe they can truly make a difference any more... and that perhaps is the greatest travesty of all in today's classroom."
I support Jeff's approaches to education and agree that teaching in public schools is about how things look to others, not about how things are. Real teaching and real learning can happen only when authentic, caring administrators recognize and support authentic, caring teachers. Today's schools often bully and oppress teachers. One overarching and systemically detrimental lesson we are successfully modeling daily for students is that power=oppression. This is not the message I want to teach tomorrow's leaders.

Yes, there is much bad press about the internet and an aura of fear is created by stories of internet predators. Intrerestingly, the "predators" captured by the media are fools that are lead to believe that some newsperson or police officer is a child. These predators become prey in the effort to protect or children.
What does get lost is the technological wealth of the 21st century, with the nearly instantaneous access to information. Children need to be guided in filtering true information from false, misleading, distracting information. When children and adults are taught to think critically and to search for source material, the internet can be like a library of encyclopedias.

This opinion piece creates two issues for me when thinking about high school curriculum. The first, and I think, the most important, is that students graduating from high schools across our country are often unable to hold an intelligent well articulated conversation. In my experience, even many of the top achievers are at a loss to communicate their ideas. I am addressing both communication in written and spoken form. I believe it is very important for us to take a close look at incorporating communication skills into the entire 7-12 curriculum. The occasional public speaking course is not close to being enough.

Along with incorporating communication into high school curriculum, schools need to be much more demanding of mastery in these same skills by teachers.

My second concern is education regarding multiple cultures, perspectives and ways of knowing. This curriculum needs to go beyond basic diversity issues and challenge how students know what they think they know. It is vital that Americans invest in becoming worldly.

Part of being worldly is being multilingual. Beginning the study of languages in Kindergarten and continuing that through high school will help in all areas of citizenship.

There absolutely needs to be a continued focus on reading and math. Our citizenry in general is not skilled enough in these basic areas.

I agree with the article by Ken Kay and G. Thomas Houlihan! I worked in the real world before I became a teacher and I also have training in critical thinking and comercial applications of my subject matter.

Under the NCLB/Virginial Standards I found that I had so much material to cover that I barely covered the requirements (and I taught at an accademically high achieving school.) The critical thinking and application skills I have to offer were forced out by time constraints. For the last two years of teaching I felt anxiety if I took time to enrich the content I was teaching. Every minute I spent not teaching content on the test was a minute that I could not spend teaching more content that would be on the test.

Before we start adding more criteria for teachers to include in their lessons, we need to look at the time factor. Critical thinking activities and applications take extra time because the content must be taught before it can be analyzed or applied. We need to look at our "mile wide and inch deep" curriculums. The countries we are comparing ourselves to teach much less content in greater depth in a given school year. The USA seems to define rigor as covering a lot of material in a very short time. It is not going to work in the 21st century.

After twenty years of working in public schools 8-12 it is without question that verbal communication skills needs to be a top priority within the schools. Kids need practice with being able to state their positions and feeling verbally. It is essential to master dialouge prior to writing! I have taught hundreds of students who are afraid to talk in front of a group, interact comfortably with one or more other students and additionally can not discuss their work. This is needed to be a succussful working citizen. There needs to be more emphasis on speaking and organizing thought. Schools are intended for places to practice with safety and support. Thus, thee instructional leader sets up the environment for conversation and engagement. "Quiet kids quiet minds"

But, the question becomes, how can we be heard with all the racket "education reform" is making? In the name of educational reform, my school has designated classes new numbers to eliminate the stigma of being scheduled into a lower-level class. We have not raised the standards in those classes. We have not researched how we can make these students proficient in basic 21st Century skills, instead we have changed the names to satisfy government regulations. We have also implemented a governmentally-manditory performance-based proficiency assessment. We have not asked the students to do anything more than they had done in the past, besides uploading work to prove they have done it. We have not increased expectation, or asked students to practice what is considered "rigor." We have merely created a folder in a computer system in which all students will store their work. They don't even get to decide what goes into their portfolios, they just follow a teacher to a computer lab and enter their material. One of the responders said it best, we are not asking students to research and critically assess world issues, understanding, arguments.
Sadly, my students have less time to learn how to become life-long learners than ever before. The only rigor I see coming down from our government initiatives is the kind that we see in corpses. It is the halting of the life of education while schools and districts fugure out how to "demonstrate" how we implement the increasing demands of government in the quickest ways possible.

I read about lack of time and lack of resources and the need to do other things than are being done. What it will take to create the learning environment that leads to 21st century skills and to critical thinking and problem solving abities and to proficiencies in making oneself understood in the real world, is teaching what needs to be taught. This may go against the current trend, the NCLB ideals, the so-called standards movement. Teachers are at the front. We must all stand up for what we believe to be effective and necessary teaching and stop blaming outside forces. The mandates of NCLB will pass just like the calls for greater rigor and accountability of the past have passed (hark back to 1983 and "A Nation At Risk"). The standards that will mean something are the standards we set as educators. The students await and some are actually eager to learn and more are learning than the popular media would have us believe. NCLB is just another ripple in the educational timeline. It is not a reform and it is not a magic bullet. It is a conjured up cure for a conjured up problem.

When my district removes "Character Development" from the pre-algebra curriculum and puts back the "Ratios and Proportions" it replaced, then, I will believe it is time to, perhaps, think about "rigor" or "mastery of core subjects" in the curriculum. Till then, most administrative problems(read: parent phone calls) will continue to be solved by diluting substance and populating the "honor roll".

For more information and real-world examples of the relationship between 21st Century Skills and High School Reform, please see the Spring 2006 edition of Cable in the Classroom's "Threshold" magazine, produced in partnership with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Every article is available free online at: www.ciconline.org/threshold.

I teach composition I and II to the college freshmen who graduate from the high schools in America. These students cannot read, much less write - and I'm talking about freshman in regular comp classes: NOT remedial students! What's worse than their illiteracy is their confidence that they already know everything they need to know: their k-12 education hasn't taught them otherwise. What's even worse is that they actually passed their high school classes without ever having read a book (by their own admission) and without having been held accountable for turning in their work (also by their own admission). I know the students tell the truth: before I began teaching college, I taught high school English, and I knew the majority of my co-workers failed to uphold standards of work and responsibility in their classrooms. I witnessed the same accountability problems when my three children and their friends went through school. The only way to prepare our students for life - and then the 21st century will take care of itself - is to uphold academic standards in K-12 that allow only those who actually do their work to pass their classes. Moreover, we have to quit pretending that every single student in America is capable of academics: many of the students we receive in college are not only unprepared - they're misplaced. These students are better suited for vocational training and they would actually feel better about themselves in the long run if they can choose a vocational program, because they would be successful at what they're doing. No new pedagogy or test, etc. will fix this problem. Technology will not fix this problem. A kid who can't read a book won't be able to communicate well, through speaking or writing. Old fashioned accountability will go a long way toward fixing our educational problems - and that accountability begins with the individual teacher in the individual classroom. Of course, many of these issues require readjustment of parental involvement and expectations as well . . . .

"Redefine" whatever, but here is the absolute minimum that ed professionals ought to accept as we seek to strengthen the process of secondary education in the USA.

1. Nothing less than a major in the subject a teacher is required to teach.

2. NO "pop psych" or socio-psychobabble allowed to displace ANY part of the course as described in the syllabus.

3. The building administrative corps shall maintain orderliness and decorum in the hallways and locker areas at ALL times. Classes are difficult to start OR keep on task if the halls are "bedlam" either between OR during classes. And NO excuses or silly orders to teachers to leave their rooms/students and control the halls. Doing so is unwise and dangerous(consider lab classes). If the administrative corps is unable to maintain order, part or all of it should, quickly, seek other employement.

4. Recruiting and assigning teachers according to academic, as opposed to extracurricular(coaching), concerns.

Of course there are other concerns, but action on these four, alone, would enable our profession to do wonderful things. There is not a lot of trendy theory in this set of recommendations. No scholarly papers are cited. But I think it makes sense to restate, here, what hundreds of teachers in diverse subjects told me over the years.

At some point and time along this educational continuum everyone is accountable and has to uphold their part: students, teachers, administrators, parents and the associated communities.
Education that is fair and equitable, thorough and efficient for all students at any cost should be our mantra. We as a people can do anything we so choose (to put our energies and efforts) to do. Why do we always get so sidetracked and confused that we loose our educational way?
Let's not kid ourselves, education for all by all is an expensive proposition and also basic and critical to our country's survival as well as our way of life. Our current morass in Iraq and a few other places is a testament to the fact that we cannot just muscle our way to achieve our objectives. And if we continue on this course, what cost in resources and human carnage will be sufficient?...but I digress.
Countries like China, India, Japan and others are heavily investing in their most precious resources…their children, mainly through education. Our mindset and intention should be to do the same.
We have to take our collective heads out of the sand and seriously look at the landscape around us. The world is indeed becoming flatter. We will have to be able to compete or the obvious consequences will become our new way of life.
True, there is no one size fits all and every educational situation is somewhat different than the next, but we have to stop being so narrow minded and shortsighted in our thinking. If you seriously think about it, we have no choice but to educate all of our children…no matter what it takes.

I have long been convinced that our high school graduates are well behind high school graduates in other countries in math, science, and communication skills. But I am a bit surprised to read that they are behind students in other countries in problem solving. Although I am not particulary impressed with the amount of problem-solving activities in U.S. schools, I have been even less impressed with the problem solving capabilities of foreign high school students. I have taught both in the U.S. and overseas, and have hosted international exchange students. I would be interested in the source of the statistics related to comparing problem-solving abilities in high school students country by country.

I am responding to some of Carey Savage's comments.

One comment said that China, India, and Japan are investing heavily in their children. I think it would be worthwhile to compare the money spent per child by the governments in these countries and compare these expenses to the amount spent in the U.S. I suspect the per-child government expenses in these countries would be minimal compared to that of the U.S.

I have taught school two years in Norway and four years in Korea; have lived in France two years; have hosted (in the U.S.) students from Japan, Germany, France, and Brazil; and spent an entire summer in India visiting schools and studying their education system.

My observations are as follows: China, Korea, and Japan have a common culture based upon an old religion that valued education very highly. Parents insure that homework assignments are completed and are personally ashamed if their children do not excel in school. In Korea, some high school students have been required to sleep in the hall of their apartment building the next night after bringing home a bad report.
Both in Korea and Japan, the students, starting as young as grade 3, attend private schools in the evenings and on weekends, at their parents' expense, in addition to public schools.
In Korea parents often pay as much as $50 per hour to have their kids tutored outside regular school hours.

In many parts of Europe, the schools do not include sports, band, drivers' education, drama, and the many counselors and compensatory educators who work with small groups.
Their students with behavior or other special education needs are not integrated into the regular classrooms. There are separate schools for the college bound, regular education, vocational training, and special education.

The parents pay for their child's membership in community sports clubs, musical instruction, theatrical productions, drivers' education, and, in many cases, computer instruction. The cost of the public school systems usually do not include football stadiums, sporting events, coaches, and the many counselors and small-group special teachers that can be found in U.S. public schools.

In many parts of Europe and Asia, secondary and college students just listen to the instructor. There is almost discussion or student questions. Students memorize, learn by rote,and spend many hours each night studying. They take math classes in high school that U.S. students do not take until college. But, in my experience, they are not better at problem solving that U.S. students. I gave 16-year old Japanese exchange students a multi-step problem from a U.S. 8th grade math book. Despite having done well in calculus, trigonometry, etc. they were at a loss.

College students in many countries only hear the opinions of their professors and of their state-run media. They are often clueless of when it comes to other points of view.

In India, the 15 percent in the upper castes get the best education (frequently in private schools). I attended rural schools that had no chairs or desks. Kids just sat on the floor and listened to the teacher. The schools were used in the mornings for the younger students and in the afternoons for the older students. Few girls attended...they were required to stay home for chores or baby sitting.

Personally, I think that our educational system in the United States is unchallenging. But would parents want their children to give up basketball practice, after-school jobs, Boy Scouts, television and computer games, etc. to do homework?

Would U.S. parents permit their students to be placed in "vocational" and "special education" schools?

Would U.S. parents want their children to attend a school that had no sports, band, drama classes, or driver's education?

Would U.S. parents want their children to attend a school where students could not question the political opinions of their instructors?

Our public education system attempts satisfy the public. But with so many varied tasks placed upon them, the public schools often do many of these tasks poorly. A charter school may be an answer in cases where interested, like-minded parents can define the school's mission. But I am not convinced that most U.S. parents are willing to give up those functions of the U.S. public schools that are supposed to create a "fair", "well-rounded" educational system. Nor, it seems to me, are most parents willing to take responsibility for their childrens' attitude towards education.

I just read the article. I am concerned that "rigor" is the precursor of "rigamortis" which unfortunately has beset education under NCLB.

My question is: "Is there a misspelling of the word? Shouldn't the first letter be a "v" instead so we have "vigor" in education? I would rather be "vigorous" than "rigorous" in the classroom. Students respond positively to a "vigorous" education. It's much more fun teaching in a vigorous manner.

Parents would be pleased to see a lively child learning than have the same lively child become staid, stoic, and suffer from "RIGORmortis" and dislike school.

I'm just revisiting this post after my initial comment and I really enjoy what I've been reading. The comment on "vigor" is very well taken. My own pedagogy of facilitation--validation--motivation--collaboration all seem to echo in other voices.

I'm perturbed by the focus on NCLB Standards (elsewhere) and how we may transform curriculum through technology, bringing students first (and then perhaps educators and yes, even administrators) into the 21st Century.

Unfortunately, the stunning overwhelming approval for DOPA (and who could afford to vote against it with elections around the corner?), means that the direction of control and politics surrounding online communication has taken a definite turn for the wrong. I did read today of an alternative (and sane) bill countermanding DOPA and offering some realistic solutions.

I helped Congressman Wu's office with the drafting of legislation which prevents porn sites from buying up lapsed kid-site domains. I hoped to include further legislation which would create the .sex and .xxx domain to create virtual red light districts, making it easier and more rational to filter. This legislation originally (I found later) was thought of by none other than Senator Leibowitz in 2000.

There are political reasons why this further legislation has not happened and I won't go into detail here. What I will do is invite all educators to visit Tapped In, a global educator's collaborative. I volunteer on Helpdesk there and have since it began in 1997. If anyone would care to host a Calendared event there, please contact me and I can arrange it.

The topic does not have to be one of this subject. Indeed, I am looking for guest speakers in the areas of Math, Science, Collaboration, Virtual Conferences, and other topics.


Jeff Cooper
Tapped In Helpdesk
Education Technology Support Consultant

Our schools do not need sports teams. It is one of mant frills that make us feel good. Should sports be cut? No. They make us feel good and there is nothing wrong with feeling good. It's a bit costly, but most frills are. We do need clean, safe classrooms, reasonably nutritious school lunches. We do not need a library in every school building. In my town there are at least five libraries within three miles of each other. There is a public library that is always just scratching by, a University library, an elementary school library,a middle school library and an intermediate school library. The middle and intermediate school libraries are less than five minutes walk from each other in adjoining buildings. Oop, I forgot the high school library! That one is about fifteen minutes walk from the intermediate school library. Yikes! I guess we do need all those libraries. There'd be too many books for any one.

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Recent Comments

  • Bob Frangione, Art Teacher: Our schools do not need sports teams. It is one read more
  • Jeff Cooper: I'm just revisiting this post after my initial comment and read more
  • Kathy/Retired Teacher: I just read the article. I am concerned that "rigor" read more
  • charles bryan: I am responding to some of Carey Savage's comments. One read more
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