By Dr. Kim Ehrhardt, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment
With the further unpacking of the Common Core State Standards, the demand for academic rigor will be even stronger. My concern is that we are all equipped to create the kind of rigorous learning environment that’s needed. It is important that we implement the Common Core Standards with fidelity. Teachers can cover the content, but not at the level of thinking that is demanded for the content. If we fail to make the necessary transformation, students will be getting the same learning experience they were getting in the past. Rigor requires rigor—if we want to develop rigorous learning and thinking for our students, then we have to be more rigorous in our teaching!
An important tool for helping us reach that goal will be our concerted efforts with the concept of “academic press.” This practice refers to a determined effort to meet high expectations. It defines an attitude of academic focus, an academic sense of responsibility, intensity and urgency to achieve. Academic press provides constructive feedback, refuses half-hearted efforts, holds students accountable and provides assistance when needed. High expectations coupled with strong support produce the desired outcome.
Another important tool to achieve academic rigor is the use of differentiated instructional techniques. Effective teachers who employ the principles of differentiation are able to engage all students in the classroom. They tend to be more flexible and use a variety of instructional methods to build skills and encourage critical thinking. They design classwork that is relevant to students’ lives that captures their interests. Using these techniques that go beyond pure recall, these teachers employ active, experiential and cooperative learning methods as well as discussion and debate. Research indicates that eighty percent of questions asked in elementary and secondary classrooms demand only quick recall of facts or other short answers. Asking questions that spur critical thinking encourages broader participation, as there are fewer right/wrong answers.
Quality of instruction has been shown to improve students’ sense of belonging to a school as well as boosting academic achievement. One critic of the educational system has noted: “We still teach our kids to think as if at the end of their education there is a job in the factory. The factory is closed, and the future is for those who know how to effectively communicate, collaborate, think critically and innovate.”
A final ingredient when preparing staff to teach with increased academic rigor is their active engagement with high quality staff development opportunities. In our district we have been involved directly with such educational trailblazers as Eric Jenson, Michael Schmoker, Thomas Guskey, Anthony Muhammad, Sharroky Hollie and Marcia Tate. Their work with us has created powerful learning experiences that advance quality learning for all students. It is important that we increase the number of staff participating in these powerful learning experiences so that rigor becomes more natural in all of our classrooms.
Our work with the Professional Learning Community creates a kind of glue that binds all of the different efforts together with a singular focus on student learning, using results to make decisions and the recognition of the power of a collective culture.