Friday, September 28, 2012

So What Exactly Is “Academic Rigor?”

By Dr. Kim Ehrhardt, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment
The School District of Janesville

Over the past several years, The School District of Janesville Administration has talked about focusing more explicit efforts toward increasing academic rigor.  We want more students taking advanced placement courses, adhering to college prep curricula, enrolling in more math and science classes and being career and college ready.  Moreover, students, their teachers and school leaders have their collective feet held to the fire of high stakes accountability.
For the foreseeable future, the academic bar will only be raised higher as we implement the new Wisconsin Waiver for Education—a comprehensive state plan for improving teaching and student learning.  Couple the waiver with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English, Math and Next Generation Science (which will determine the content of the new assessments that will arrive in the spring of 2015); our district vision appears to mirror the state and national agenda for K-12 education.
The title of this article asks the question, so what do we mean by academic rigor anyway?  For those of you who know me, I am always asking folks to clearly define what their intent is before we get into the detail of a program or initiative.  Therefore, I believe that at its core the notion of teaching academic rigor is about helping kids to learn how to think for themselves.  Academic rigor has four main components:  first, teaching students how to create their own meaning out of what they are learning; next, teaching students how to organize information so they can create their own mental picture (schema) of what this information means; third, teaching students how to integrate the skills and information into a whole set of processes; and then finally (and perhaps the most important), teaching students how to apply what they’ve learned to new or novel situations.  Those “ah-ha” moments are where kids think critically, create and innovate! 
I believe this is the same kind of intellectual discipline that educational, industrial and political leaders are calling absolutely necessary if the United States is to compete economically with the rest of the world. 
The next statement/question I often get from educators when the topic of rigor comes up goes something like, “All of this is well and fine,  Dr. Ehrhardt, but many of our students already struggle academically to meet minimal or basic expectations, so how do you expect them to reach these high standards?”    I know that the make-up of our student population has changed; some are English language learners; others may have cognitive, social or emotional disabilities that inhibit learning; others may come from families where the parents have little time or desire to monitor their children’s learning.  Also, resources are more scarce than before and class sizes are higher.  All of this is true and represents our current status, but we “do know” what to do to level the playing field and to reach the goal of supporting struggling students with academic rigor and raising standards for all of our students.
The district focus on Evidence-Based Leadership or what educational research has defined as “best practice,” high-yield strategies creates a road map or formula to help us reach the target.  The first response (that the literature tells us must occur) is that every classroom teacher must know each of his or her students well and know how to analyze the relevant student learning data available to better meet the needs of all students and especially struggling students.  The data retreats at our elementary schools, middle school grade level data meetings, and the collaborative efforts with Project Redesign at the high school are positive initiatives toward making sure we know what makes each of our students “tick.”

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