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Education 2020 Series – Part II:  Rigor

Rigor:  An End That Ignores the Means

Rigor is a catch phase in education. Rigor is touted by business and conservatives as preparation for college and/or the ‘working world.’ The application of rigor is often interpreted by educators as ‘making the students work hard.’ The argument is a continuation of the belief by conservatives that all the problems in the world are the fault of the individual. Schools would be great if only the students worked harder.

The irony is that the definition of rigor doesn’t match the conservative use of the word. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary uses the following words to define ‘rigor.’

…severity, unyielding or inflexible, strictness, austerity, an act or instance severity or cruelty, a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable, strict precision: exactness…”

All of these words indicate that rigor is a cruel and inflexible education system that ignores everything we have learned about best practices in teaching. 

Emphasis on Test Performance

My son is in the seventh grade in the gifted and talented education (GT or GATE) program of his school district. This his third year in the GT program and he is no stranger to a heavy homework load. Prior to joining the GT program, he attended a public charter school run by a Turkish Islamic group. In that school, he was also subject to rigor in the form of hours of homework designed to facilitate high test scores on standardized test required by the State of Nevada.

The purpose of rigor at the public charter school was two-fold. First, the public charter school administration used the high test scores as a shield to protect it from scrutiny by the school district and those test scores created an image of quality education for the school. Second, rigor was used to wash out all but the best academic performers in order to retain only college-bound students. The school has been in operation for 18 years; however, since they have had a K-12 program, the school graduates less than 25% of the students that were at the school in seventh grade. The rest of the students presumably move to other schools, which allows the charter school to brag about its 100% college-bound rates.

This week I attended my son’s “Parent Open House” His instructors pointed out their elaborate ‘agenda’ boards that covered the curriculum each day of that week. The agenda detailed in-class activities as well as assigned homework. They listed the multiple websites that are primarily established for one-way communication from instructor to student. Students are expected to constantly monitor the information provided and bear the burden of being aware of all requirements made by every instructor from every class.

Corporate Job Standards For Children?

It was a display of organization of information that any middle manager or corporate executive would envy. No student could possibly say that they didn’t know what was required of them. In the corporate world, we call these type of complicated objectives “Job Standards.”

Job Standards in the working world are used by managers to set expectations, then allow the manager to judge an employee’s performance. It sounds great, but Job Standards fail to provide mentoring for the employee, nor do they identify the shortcomings of the manager. If an employee has not been given the necessary training or resources, Job Standards create a situation to punish the employee. If the manager is partially, or completely at fault for an employee not achieving the expectations set down in the Job Standards, the employee potentially will be penalized.

Like corporate job standards, the concept of rigor in education create a system designed to produce results regardless of the objectives are realistic or not. It puts all the pressure on the victim of rigor and absolves the one who inflicts the rigor. If the student succeeds, the instructor and school can claim victory. If the student fails, it is the fault of the student.

To Mentor Students Or Throw Them In the Deep Water?

Instead of following an educational model that is based on mentoring the student, rigor is the educational model that follows the conservative concept of ‘sink or swim,’ and if the student sinks, it’s their fault. The fact that students are overwhelmed by the hours of homework and the confused by all the information coming at them from multiple instructors is acknowledged as a fact of life, not a problem. Counselors are sympathetic but cite the problem as the student’s need to adjust, not the school overreaching.

This is not to suggest that students need to be coddled, or that a challenging curriculum is wrong….let me say that again…this is not to suggest that students need to be coddled, or that a challenging curriculum is wrong;

This is not to suggest that students need to be coddled, or that a challenging curriculum is wrong…

…however, the conservative belief that education is simply a matter of demanding a heavy workload and establishing Job Standards for students is not appropriate. Twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-olds are not corporate employees, nor should they be subject to extended periods of excessive heavy workloads. 

The Ugly Side of Educational Rigor

It should also be noted that educational rigor benefits specific groups. Students from wealthy families have more resources for tutors, computers, etc. to help them cope with the heavy workload and digital format. Students from Caucasian or Asian families also tend to have an advantage as their cultural background has established decades of high educational expectations. This means that the students from poorer economic situations and other minorities will not have the same support and become more at-risk under the rigor model.

The failure of the rigor model is that it de-emphasizes a mentoring model and focuses on a ‘sink or swim’ model. Not only is rigor wrong for the pedagogy used in our schools, but it also is biased towards certain socioeconomic and ethnic groups. It will only be a matter of time before there is enough research to prove that schools that employ ‘rigor’ in the curriculum are discriminating against certain ethnic groups.