You are here


The Road to Rigor

Raising the bar across the curriculum has become serious business.

In a major address on educational policy last March, President Barack Obama underscored his priorities for the pending reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. "We will end what has become a race to the bottom in our schools, and instead spur a race to the top by encouraging better standards and assessments," he promised. "This is an area where we're being outpaced by other nations. They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not."

While the president didn't invoke the "R" word, his description of the problems of—and solutions to—student achievement in American schools hews closely to the definition of rigor that a growing number of schools, districts and states have begun to embrace over the past decade as they strengthen K12 curricula and assessments, provide the appropriate professional development, and find ways to pay for it—all with the ultimate goal of making high school graduates ready for college and the workplace in the 21st century.

"Rigor is the students' having the background and knowledge to go to the next level," declares Michael Grego, chancellor of the public schools division for the Florida Department of Education. Grego is in the process of implementing a recent Florida law requiring all high school students to complete three high-level math courses as well as three yearlong science courses, including two labs.

Superintendent Jerry Weast, who led the Montgomery County (Md.) Public School District for the past 12 years before retiring this summer, says that his focus on rigor over the past decade meant preparing all of the district's students for the 21stcentury challenges they would face after graduating. "Colleges and the workforce both had higher entry requirements [10 years ago] than our graduation requirements," Weast says of his first days on the job, adding that his previous visits to Israel and Japan revealed a rigor he hadn't seen in this country. "So the floor for us became work- and college-readiness."

Daria Hall, director of K12 policy development for the Education Trust, which advocates narrowing the achievement gap in American schools, adds that even the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which created of Chief State School Officers, which created the emerging Common Core State Standards, are following a similar blueprint when it comes to increasing rigor. "There was feedback from postsecondary institutions and from the workforce, and they took inspiration from other high performing countries," Hall explains.

But Obama's concerns over rigor and the promise of the Common Core State Standards come against a backdrop of sobering data questioning whether earlier efforts to increase rigor have made a difference. efforts to increase rigor have made a difference. In June, the City University of New York released information on the performance of recent high school graduates at the city's public colleges. More than half of the students from 46 of the 70 high schools that had received an "A" rating on the city's latest progress report needed remedial courses when they attended CUNY.

A recent federal study of 34,000 high school transcripts conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, meanwhile, indicated that 13 percent of high school graduates followed a rigoroussounding curriculum in 2009, compared to 5 percent in 1990. But achievement levels in math and reading for 17-year-olds had not increased, states the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Danbury High School's Extreme Makeover

In the Danbury (Conn.) Public Schools, former Danbury High School Principal Robert Rossi, who resigned in July, says that when he arrived two years ago, making the curriculum stronger was at the top of his to-do list. "Forty-two percent of our college-bound students were taking lower-level courses," he remembers, adding that students—almost 40 percent of whom were minorities—were divided among five tracks, the bottom three of which were not college preparatory. "There was a course called ‘Record Keeping' taught in the business department giving math credit to kids that they felt couldn't take algebra. My first year at Danbury, I gave out diplomas to kids who did not have algebra."

Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools' teachers undergo professional development training.

Rossi also calculated that only 10 percent of Danbury High students were taking the school's most advanced courses and spent most of that first year making big changes. "We de-tracked the school and got rid of the lower-level courses," he explains. While there are still wellsubscribed honors and AP courses, the minimum academic diet for Danbury's 3,000 students now includes three years of math, starting with algebra, three years of science, and four years of English.

"There's been a complete redesign with a rewritten curriculum in 17 core courses," Rossi continues. "And there's a guaranteed set of standards, benchmarks and assessments (including a common final) for each course," which he insists do not vary from classroom to classroom.

Last fall, Rossi also launched the Freshman Academy for the 700 incoming ninthgraders. The academy has its own principal as well as seven teaching teams, each of which covers all the subjects. Besides dealing only with those students throughout the year, the teaching teams meet for an entire period four days a week and once a week with others teaching the same subject. Rossi reports that the academy's first year made a positive difference for at-risk students, despite Danbury High's new course requirements.

Whereas 49 percent of the students received an F on their eighth-grade report card and 24 percent had multiple F's, Rossi reports that those numbers dropped to 24 percent and 13 percent, respectively, during their freshman year at Danbury High.

Raising the Bar in Montgomery County

Weast pursued a larger-scale and longerrunning overhaul, and with some impressive results, at the 145,000-student Montgomery County district, which has a "majority minority" population and 48,000 students in free and reduced-price lunch programs. A decade ago, he used National Student Clearinghouse data to track 34,000 former Montgomery County students who had recently graduated college, with an eye to discovering how they had performed in their K12 careers.

Weast found that everything from achieving certain reading scores in second grade, to taking algebra in freshman year, to earning a score of 3 or better on AP exams correlated strongly with the college success of those students. He went about making improvements with those guideposts in mind.

"That meant a whole new set of curricular materials, a whole new set of metrics to measure success, and a whole new culture of expectations for teachers and administrators," Weast says, noting that when it came to setting the bar higher in his district, "It wasn't with state or federal standards. We've gone way beyond. We've adopted a much harder curriculum and a higher level of standards than even the Common Core."

"Our entire math department had to change, and that called for a massive retraining of our workforce and a redesign of the math curriculum," Weast continues, adding that students needed to understand math concepts better in elementary and middle school to perform well in the algebra and geometry courses they would face in high school.

What followed was a battery of face-to-face and Web-based trainings to develop the necessary skill sets in math for teachers. "We reconfigured the budget and repurposed money for math coaches," Weast remembers, adding that faculty in all subject areas have bought into the changes, literally. "Our employees have voted to give up raises to keep these programs going. That's where engagement pays off."

There are plenty of other indications that the district's attempts to increase rigor are paying off. While students must take algebra by freshman year (many take it in eighth grade), the number successfully completing the course has jumped from 71 percent in 2001 to 79 percent in the ninth grade in 2011, and rose from 43 percent to 68 percent in the eighth.

Whereas in 2003, 60 percent of the district's ninth-graders went on to graduate, that number steadily increased to 86 percent last year, the highest among the largest school districts in the country, says Weast. College scholarships for those graduates, meanwhile, have risen over the past four years from a total of $150 million to $264 million. In June, Newsweek magazine ranked eight of the district's 26 high schools among the top 500 in the country. Along the way, Weast adds, the district has received an inflow of students who had previously attended private schools.

Getting Outside Help

Whereas the rigor-raising efforts in Montgomery Country are largely homegrown, a number of districts nationwide have tapped outside organizations for expertise and training. In Texas, the Dallas Independent School District has worked since 2005 on a curriculum overhaul in all core subjects with the Institute of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. That collaboration involves multiple training sessions every year for Dallas curriculum developers and lead teachers held in Pittsburgh as well as Institute of Learning-led trainings held in Dallas.

Camille Malone, the district's math coordinator, says that the newfound rigor in math classes is not built on more memorization and harder tests but around "practicing the habit of thinking as a mathematician, seeing data, making conjectures and drawing conclusions." She adds, "The rigor actually comes not from giving students more work or more difficult work, but from having them think, dialogue with one another, and know what needs to be done."

Over the past three years, the Dallas district has rolled out new algebra I (using Texas Instruments), algebra II and geometry courses—and redesigned its middle school math—to stress problemsolving and hands-on activities. Several times a month, students in each math class undertake a project—from building launchers out of PVC pipe to studying the parabolas of missiles to measuring the acceleration of toy racing cars in hallways.

Malone has spent stimulus funds to buy equipment such as weight gauges and motion detectors and has provided training for teachers on using them for particular projects. "We got pushback from principals who thought that we should be teaching to the test," Malone recalls. "Teachers would say, ‘What was wrong with the textbook?' We were out in the hall measuring acceleration in feet per second, and the students did well on the state test, having developed the concept behind the problems."

At Danbury (Conn.) High School, social studies teacher Louwenta Lewis, on right, and special ed teacher Lisa Carriero, standing on left, teach freshman World Studies as part of the school's rewritten curriculum with a focus on rigor.

Malone notes that in the 2008-2009 school year, the first year of the new algebra I course, Dallas students gained a whopping 29 points on the state math exam over the previous year.

Across the country, there's also a growing push for rigor in the English curriculum, says author and consultant Carol Jago, who recently published the second edition of With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students. Jago, also a former educator, reports that at the International Reading Association conference last May, "speaker after speaker talked about how the difficulty of texts has plummeted over the past 15 years. We have stopped teaching anything that's long, that's old, that's difficult and that makes [students] college ready."

The solution, Jago argues, lies in providing more challenging texts, and not just classics from Homer and Shakespeare but works by contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "Teachers have defaulted to the idea of young adult literature and easy-reading texts instead of ones that students wouldn't do on their own," Jago observes, and in her workshops she challenges educators "to help students see that they can read [more complicated literature], but with work."

Professional Development in Southfield

At the Southfield (Mich.) Public Schools, Associate Superintendent for Instruction Lynda Wood credits expanded professional development with implementing a more rigorous curriculum. "In science and math, we wanted kids to hypothesize, and in English we wanted them to take on deep literary works, dissect them, and apply them to a context," she says.

In 2006, Michigan had implemented a new set of high school graduation standards that included algebra II and geometry and three yearlong science courses. But Wood realized that the district's 8,400 students differed in their abilities to master the new curriculum. Neither of the district's high schools met annual yearly progress (AYP) requirements for the 2006-2007 academic year.

Four years ago, Wood turned to ASCD (the former Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), based in Alexandria, Va., and its model of differentiated instruction, which adjusts materials and activities to the learning needs of various students. As an ASCD district, Southfield offers summer professional development institutes and in-school workshops, which are led by ASCD consultants, for K12 teachers. Last year, Wood deployed federal stimulus funds to turn five of the district's teachers into full-time coaches who visited classrooms and offered feedback and guidance on how the teachers in those classrooms could better reach all of their students, from asking questions differently to probing more deeply for answers. "Teachers [in turn] got a deeper understanding of what engages students," Wood says, including how to provide scaffolding for those students to negotiate advanced curriculum and concepts.

"It doesn't matter where a child is on the continuum, he or she can still be stretched," adds Judy Zimny, ASCD's chief program development officer. "When I reflect back on my years as a principal, even the best teachers become so much more resourceful when they have the right kind of coaching."

The Southfield district is trying to increase the knowledge and methods base of teachers in other ways. Almost a third of the district's 500 teachers are enrolled in the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' Take One! Program, a precursor to National Board certification. Last year, both Southfield High School and Southfield-Lathrup High School made AYP.

Author Carol Jago, a former educator for 30 years, confers with Santa Monica High School students about their analysis of a piece of literature. Rigorous teaching, Jago says, entails more than assigning and assessing challenging work.

Florida's New Law

When it comes to raising rigor and supporting teachers in the process, states also are picking up speed. The Education Trust's Daria Hall notes that Georgia has created an online repository of model lessons, pacing guides, and assignments for teaching more advanced material. "That's one state that recognized that teachers needed support rather than just going home and all developing their own lesson plans for the next day," Hall says.

The state of Florida, meanwhile, has pushed rigor in a variety of forms over the past five years, from expanding International Baccalaureate programs to expanding dual-enrollment programs, in which high school students can take college courses.

Under a 2007 law, Florida schools also offer dozens of industrial certification programs—with industry-created assessments— in areas such as engineering, biotechnology and managing software. This can give graduates a running start in college or launch them successfully into the workforce right after high school.

But the state's most sweeping rigorrelated reform centers on a law passed with bipartisan support and enacted over the past school year that requires every high school to phase in courses for all students in algebra II and geometry, as well as three years of science, including biology, chemistry or physics, and a third equally rigorous science course, including such subjects as environmental science, AP science courses and dual enrollment courses in the sciences.

As the new requirements come into the curriculum, specific end-of-course exams designed at the state level will replace the more generic Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in science and math. The upgraded courses must be in place by 2013 and even apply to students with special learning needs (see sidebar on p. 52).

"The new law eliminates placing students in courses that would not prepare them for success at the next level or that a university might not recognize," says Mary Jane Tappen, deputy chancellor for K12 curriculum and student services at the Florida DOE. "We would be at fault if we graduated students without the advantage of these courses."

Tappen adds that the DOE is placing a premium on keeping the quality of the new curriculum consistent around the state. "There's very clear communication down the line about the new requirements, end-of-course exams, lessons and models of how to teach them," she says. "Biology might look different in different parts of the state without that specific guidance."

Local summer workshops for teachers and the addition of STEM coaches to the state's regional staff development offices are aimed at helping teachers master new content, and the state is waiving fees for any university courses that teachers take in their subject areas.

Tappen and other rigor proponents around the country believe that the thorough overhaul of courses, standardized end-of-course exams, and more-serious professional development sessions have put them on the right road to producing courses that are rigorous in more than name only. And Weast says that results in his district, including higher scores on AP exams and other standardized tests, don't lie. "If you don't believe it can happen," Weast summarizes, "you have an expectation problem."