© Tony Wagner, 2006 (first published in Education Week, January 11, 2006)

Rigor, it seems, is the new reform de jour. As a nation, we appear to have come to a consensus that all children deserve a “challenging and rigorous” education. The problem is: we have no common agreement about what is “rigor.” Is it rigorous to require all students to take a “college prep” curriculum, including advanced math? Are high school Advanced Placement courses the new standard for rigor, as many are now suggesting?

I recently had an opportunity to explore these and related questions in depth with a remarkable group of educators. As a follow up to an Education Week Commentary I wrote in 2002 where I introduced the idea of the “New 3 R’s” of Rigor, Relevance, and Respectful Relationships, a group of principals in Kona, Hawaii, led by Complex Area Superintendent Art Souza, challenged me to help them think about what the New 3 R’s actually look like in the classroom. They wanted to begin by creating a rubric for assessing rigor at all grade levels.

We began our discussions with a ½ day retreat where we explored basic questions about rigor: what are teachers doing in a rigorous classroom; what are students doing in a rigorous classroom; what does rigorous student work look like at different grade levels? The more we discussed these questions, the more we realized how difficult our task was. Rigor in the classroom, we began to see, was invariably tied to the larger question of what society will demand of students when they graduate—what it means to be an educated adult and how the skills needed for work, citizenship, and continuous learning have changed fundamentally in the last quarter century.

By the end of the first afternoon, we’d constructed a basic rubric that we thought was ready to pilot. For the next several days, we conducted learning walks in each of the six principals’ schools, K-12. At the end of our 2 hour visits in each school, we debriefed every class we’d visited in terms of whether we thought the class was high, medium, or low rigor and why. Discussions were frustrating, at first, because there was no agreement among the group about the levels of rigor they’d observed. This lack of agreement led us to revise our classroom observation tool following each school visit.

After a remarkable two days of work together, the group had calibrated their classroom assessments to the point where there was now frequent alignment among the group about the level of rigor in the classes we observed, as well as discussions about what each principal might say to the teacher to create a more challenging class. Along the way, we had substantially modified our rigor rubric, as well. We began to realize that rigor has less to do what how demanding the material is that the teacher covers than with what competencies students have mastered as a result of a lesson. We were able to agree on this assessment because, in our journey, we had gone from having initially created a series of teacher-centered observations to consensus on a set of questions that we would ask students, chosen at random, to determine not only the level of rigor in the class, but also to what extent there was evidence of the other two R’s of Relevance and Respectful Relationships—essential elements in motivating students to want to achieve rigor. The seven questions that emerged from this work are the following:

  1. What is the purpose of this lesson?
  2. Why is this important to learn?
  3. In what ways am I challenged to think in this lesson?
  4. How will I apply, assess, or communicate what I’ve learned?
  5. How will I know how good my work is and how I can improve it?
  6. Do I feel respected by other students in this class?
  7. Do I feel respected by the teacher in this class?

Discussing these questions with students led us to see all courses we’d visited in a new light—especially the Advanced Placement classes. In virtually all of the AP courses we observed (and in the ones I have seen in numerous districts,) teachers were covering more academic content at a faster pace, but the primary competency students were being asked to master was the ability to memorize copious amounts of information for the test. Teachers’ questions to students tended to be almost entirely factual recall. In our opinion, not a single one of the AP classes we saw was sufficiently rigorous to prepare students for work, citizenship, and continuous learning in today’s world. In fact, there was a stronger purpose to the lesson, much more thinking being done by students, and assessments that required more analysis in several of the non-AP courses.

We concluded our three days with a discussion of what this new understanding of rigor meant for the superintendent, the principals, and their work together. In order for rigorous teaching to become more than “a random act of excellence,” these leaders began to realize that their work had to change, both at the building level, and as a group concerned with students’ experiences, K-12. Meetings at every level had to be more than just for “housekeeping.” The principal’s or superintendent’s meetings are his or her “classroom” and must be models of rigor. And so the group committed to replicating the discussions of what is rigor with their faculty and to a new way of working together. Instead of meeting occasionally for a quick catch-up over breakfast, as had been the case, Art and his principals now meet for a half day a month in one another’s schools on a rotating basis, to conduct learning walks and to present and discuss real case studies related to strengthening rigorous instruction in their schools. They are becoming what we at the Change Leadership Group in our newly published book, Change Leadership: A Practical Guide for Transforming Our Schools, call a Leadership Practice Community—a “community of practice” whose goal is to help one another become better change leaders.

While inspired by the work of these leaders, the experience leaves me with some troubling questions related to rigor. When the principals later reflected on our time together, they realized that the real power of the work came from their having to think through, for themselves, what rigor is—instead of someone giving them the answer. Their insight leads me to wonder what might happen if the seven questions above were not only applied to every class, but to every adult meeting or professional development program? Could they be used as a transparent set of standards for planning and assessing both adult and student learning across a district? Would this lead to more rigorous meetings? And if educators were routinely asked in their work to really think—analyze data, assess research, and solve problems together—would students then be more likely to learn these same competencies? If such a connection exists—and I think it does—then how do we create an education reform strategy that relies less on mindless mandated compliance and computer-scored, test-based accountability and more on the development of educators’ collaborative problem-solving and reasoning skills?

The low levels of rigor we observed in the Advanced Placement classes raises additional questions. The main trouble with these courses was not poor teaching, but rather with the tests for which students were being prepped. Developing more skillful teaching and instructional leadership by focusing on the seven questions above is important work, but it will not solve the problem of bad tests that require much more memorization than thinking. What happens to our students and to our society if Advanced Placement tests and the traditional “college prep” curriculum are enthroned as the new standard for rigor?

There is no question that all students must now graduate high school “college-ready,” as the skills for work, college and active and informed citizenship have converged. But I am deeply troubled by how we currently define and assess what college-ready means—not only what is tested but also what courses students must take to be college-eligible. I am also alarmed by the lack of alignment between what is required to get into college versus what’s needed to stay in college and succeed as an adult. Consider one example: we know that advanced math requirements are one of the most significant contributors to increasing numbers of high school students dropping out; why, then, should all students have to take these courses for admission to a four-year college, instead of classes which teach more widely used math skills like statistics and probability? Math teachers say that research shows students who take advanced math are more likely to succeed in college, but the research suggests only an association—not cause and effect. We could require all students to take any difficult subject—say four years of Greek—and likely get the same research result.

We must also ask what competences essential for adult success are not being taught because there is currently no college entrance requirement or national test for them. Imagine, for a moment, that you were accused of a serious crime that you did not commit, and you were on trial for your life. How confident would you be of getting a fair trial if the members of your jury had merely met the intellectual standards of our “college-prep” courses as they exist today? Certainly they would know how to memorize information and perform on multiple choice and short answer tests. But would your jurors know how to analyze an argument, weigh evidence, recognize bias (their own and others), distinguish fact from opinion, and be able to balance the sometimes competing principles of justice and mercy? Could they listen with both a critical mind and a compassionate heart and communicate clearly what they understand? Would they know how to work with others to seek the truth?

What would it mean to graduate all high school students both college-ready and “jury-ready?” Might these turn out to be one and the same goal? Increasingly in our schools, what gets taught is only what gets tested. Shouldn’t we, then, start designing rigorous tests for citizenship as well as for college? Many politicians will ask again, as they did in the 1990’s, whether we can afford to develop these more expensive, qualitative assessments. But perhaps the real question is: can we afford not to?