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Illinois School Board Journal
May/June 2007

Rigor, relevance and relationships equal high school reform

by Willard R. Daggett

Willard R. Daggett is president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, based in Rexford, New York. Daggett will be a featured speaker at the High School Challenge conference, June 14-15, 2007, in Bloomington, Illinois.

While federal and state No Child Left Behind legislation spurred education reform in elementary and middle schools, the push for reform is now extending to the upper grades. Many districts are turning their focus to what happens at the high school level and wondering just what will make a difference.

Recognizing that all students need a "rigorous and relevant" curriculum to prepare them adequately for the future is the first step in school reform and has been the theme championed by the International Center for Leadership in Education since 1990.

Numerous organizations throughout the country, including the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have picked up on that theme in the past few years.

The Gates Foundation expanded the "rigor and relevance" theme to include relationships, effectively updating the traditional idea of the "three Rs" of education.

While school districts across the country increasingly use the words "rigor and relevance," those terms are seldom defined. At the International Center, "rigor and relevance" are more than catchy words; they are part of a framework for how to organize curriculum and instruction.

Defining 'rigor'

Rigor refers to academic rigor, learning in which students demonstrate a thorough, in-depth mastery of challenging tasks to develop cognitive skills through reflective thought, analysis, problem solving, evaluation or creativity. It is the quality of thinking, not the quantity, that defines academic rigor, and rigorous learning can occur at any school grade and in any subject.

Educators are cautioned not to rely on dictionary definitions of rigor when trying to modify instructional practice to meet community expectations for increasing rigor. One of the dictionary synonyms for rigor is the phrase "difficult." Just because something is difficult does not mean that it meets the test of sophisticated cognitive skills and reflective thought. It is possible to present students with very specific esoteric questions that are difficult, but which still require only simple recall of knowledge. Likewise, merely adding to the length of assignments may make it more burdensome and difficult, but this is not what is expected in rigor.

Another textbook definition of rigor is "rigid," as in rigor mortis. Some teachers may falsely try to instill rigor by becoming rigid in the due dates for homework or acceptable work, for instance. This inflexibility may or may not lead to improved student performance, but it certainly is not what is meant by increased rigor.

Defining 'relevance'

Relevance refers to learning in which students apply core knowledge, concepts or skills to solve real-world problems. Relevant learning is interdisciplinary and contextual. Student work can range from routine to complex at any school grade and in any subject. Relevant learning is created, for example, through authentic problems or tasks, simulation, service learning, connecting concepts to current issues and teaching others.

We all know of students who did extremely well academically but who seemed to be dysfunctional in the world beyond school. They seem to lack relevant skills or the ability to apply them for the real world. Rigor without relevance can enable a student to be successful in school, but to fail once they no longer have that structure and guidance.

The why of the 'three Rs'

To help educators better understand these concepts, the International Center created a Rigor/Relevance Framework™ in 1997, based on two dimensions of higher standards and student achievement: knowledge and application.

A continuum of knowledge, known as "Bloom's Taxonomy," describes the increasingly complex ways in which we think. In defining rigor in this framework, we use a "Knowledge Taxonomy," which is based on Bloom's six levels of complexity:

1. Awareness

2. Comprehension

3. Application

4. Analysis

5. Synthesis

6. Evaluation

The low end of this continuum levels one and two and, to a degree, level three involves acquiring knowledge and being able to recall or locate such knowledge in a simple manner. Just as a computer completes a word search in a word processing program, a competent person at this end of the continuum can scan through thousands of bits of information in the brain to locate desired knowledge.

At the higher end (levels three through six), the "Knowledge Taxonomy" labels the more complex ways in which individuals use knowledge. At this end of the continuum, knowledge is fully integrated into one's mind, and individuals can do much more than locate information. They can take several pieces of knowledge and combine them in both logical and creative ways.

Assimilation of knowledge is a good way to describe the high level of the thinking continuum. Assimilation is often referred to as a "higher order" thinking skill: at this level, the student can solve multi-step problems and create unique work and solutions.

A second continuum is known as the "Application Model." The five levels of this action continuum are:

1. Knowledge in one discipline

2. Apply knowledge in discipline

3. Apply knowledge across disciplines

4. Apply knowledge to real-world predictable situations

5. Apply knowledge to real-world unpredictable situations

The Application Model describes how knowledge is put to use based on the levels of relevance. While the low end is knowledge acquired for its own sake, the high end signifies action: using the knowledge to solve complex real-world problems and to create projects, designs and other works for use in real-world situations.

When instruction moves to high relevance, it is generally defined as "real-world," meaning the students' work is similar to that done by adults outside of school. Working at this level, students are more likely to be motivated to engage in learning since it is easier to see the purpose for learning.

High-relevance learning also helps students retain their learning beyond the end of a chapter or completion of a test. Moving to higher relevance begins with an integrative approach including two or more disciplines, such as math and science, or history and language arts.

The how of the 'three Rs'

Once people have agreed to the need for rigor and relevance, the difficult work begins. How do we do it?

The International Center has had the privilege to watch some of the nation's highest performing schools deliver a rigorous and relevant curriculum to all students. In that process, we have learned some extremely important lessons.

The first is to begin with the end in mind, for which it is essential to define your desired outcomes. We have created the "Learning Criteria to Support Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships" to assist schools in this critical step.

While the primary purpose for developing the Learning Criteria was to establish an objective process to identify successful high schools, the greatest benefit of these criteria and one that applies to all schools is the use of a data-driven system to measure student learning and to gauge progress in school improvement beyond standardized test results. The Learning Criteria is an innovative and positive approach for schools to implement changes that will result in rigorous and relevant learning for all students.

The Learning Criteria is intended to serve as the lens through which educators evaluate their performance in key areas. Using this lens to measure success can help a school become more mission-driven and goal-focused.

High performing schools that have worked with the Learning Criteria report that identifying data indicators has helped them specify what they believe is the true purpose of their school and what the school and community want students to know and be able to do in many aspects of life. State testing requirements are viewed as just one necessary component of this process, rather than the driving force behind it.

A school can use the Learning Criteria to identify and evaluate areas of agreement and create a sense of ownership within the school community, as well as responsibility for the direction in which the school will proceed, or its vision. Local accountability and control both allow for this process to occur and help to maintain the vision.

Regardless of its focus, a school should have data indicators in each of the four categories below, and at least one indicator in each category should apply to the entire student population:

1. Core Academic Learning: Achievement in the core subjects of English language arts, mathematics, science, and others identified by the school

2. Stretch Learning: Demonstration of rigorous and relevant learning beyond minimum requirements, such as participation and achievement in higher level courses or specialized courses

3. Student Engagement: The extent to which students (a) are motivated and committed to learning, (b) have a sense of belonging and accomplishment, and (c) have relationships with adults, peers and parents who support learning

4. Personal Skill Development: (a) Measures of personal, social, service, and leadership skills and (b) demonstrations of positive behaviors and attitudes

The specific data indicators used will vary among schools based on state requirements and schools' philosophies, focus and curricula. To identify success, all data indicators must be quantifiable in the following categories:

How schools introduce the criteria to faculty and the school community will vary depending on a school's size and organization, its leadership structures and the extent to which the faculty is receptive to change.

Criteria must move beyond simple data collection to reflect on the indicators that are consistent with the school's goals and focus. It is important to note that once indicators are selected, not all of them will have data readily available, so the process may require additional data analysis or collection.

Districts committed to school reform must focus on the importance of instruction and continuous reflection about practices, programs and policies. Assessing and reflecting about the core academic learning of each and every student is necessary to drive school improvement.

But if we only evaluate the core academic learning of all students, we are not capturing the whole picture of what we should be doing. We must question basic assumptions of how we stretch our students to go beyond the minimum academic requirements. We must assess how we assist students with the personal skills needed for future success.

Unless we understand the importance of student engagement and address how we can keep students motivated and focused on learning, it is not possible for each and every student to achieve core academic learning, stretch learning or personal skills development.

Student aspirations survey

One important criterion when identifying successful practices is the level of engagement and connectivity that the students have and feel toward their schools. Trying to gauge this is difficult because of the highly subjective and transparent nature of human emotion. The first impression that one gets when walking into a school, although impossible to substantiate, is often highly accurate. Almost immediately one can tell if students are engaged and highly connected to their school, or if something is missing.

Highly successful schools understand this and diligently attempt to measure student engagement and connectivity by analyzing factors such as graduation rates; attendance rates; availability of and enrollment in Advanced Placement courses; student involvement in co-curricular activities and athletics; and the number and types of disciplinary infractions that occur at school. These schools create and implement programs to build student engagement and develop positive school climate. Then they invest time and resources to get a sense of how students perceive their school through surveys designed specifically to measure those factors. Schools then use this information to revisit their mission and goals or to adjust programming.

The "My Voice Student Aspiration Survey," designed by Russell Quaglia of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, measures engagement and connectivity by assessing student aspirations through "Eight Conditions that Make a Difference": (1) Belonging, (2) Heroes, (3) Sense of Accomplishment, (4) Fun and Excitement, (5) Curiosity and Creativity, (6) Spirit of Adventure, (7) Leadership and Responsibility, (8) and Confidence to Take Action.

The survey asks students to respond to questions about each of the eight conditions with answers that range from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree" to measure students' perceptions of their school environment. The data provide insight into what motivates students to achieve and learn, and how students believe their schools are meeting those objectives.

After analyzing the results of more than 40,000 surveys, representing a diverse population of students from more than 50 schools in 10 states, the insight is startling.

According to Quaglia, one of the survey's most revealing statements is: "I am proud of my school." Response to this statement indicates student engagement and connection to the school, the very essential ingredient to achievement. Sadly, only 49 percent of the students surveyed agreed with this statement. How can students be invested in their education if they are not proud of their schools?

Equally disturbing are the perceptions that students share about teachers: 44 percent agree that their teachers care about students' problems and feelings; 49 percent agree that teachers care about them as individuals; and 31.7 percent believe that teachers make school an exciting place to learn.

Of course, few educators would agree with these low percentages, but these are the students' perceptions. How can schools change this situation? How do educators communicate to students that they care about them and want to help them achieve their greatest aspirations?

Two common factors associated with student disengagement are boredom and a lack of connection to curriculum and instruction. Disturbingly, 46 percent of students believe school is boring, and only 39.7 percent believe that their classes help them to understand what is happening in everyday life. Can rigorous and relevant classes change this perception? What do schools and teachers need to do make education more practical and applicable to real-world situations?

The "My Voice Student Aspiration Survey" also found significant differences in perceptions about education by gender and racial background. Throughout the survey, males scored consistently lower than females regarding the eight conditions, especially in the areas of academic achievement and effort. Females care more about the grades they receive than males and are more eager to share this information with friends. Somewhat surprisingly, surveys show that African-American and Hispanic students report more than white students that:

  1. They enjoy being at school
  2. That their classes help them to understand what is happening in their everyday life
  3. Tests are an important part of education
  4. They put forth their best effort at school
  5. They learn new things that are interesting to them at school

The one area that showed great consistency in all student population groups was the parent category. Of all students surveyed, 93.9 percent believed that their parents cared about their education, and 90.6 percent believed that their parents thought going to college was important. Just 60.9 percent believe that their parents felt comfortable talking with their teachers, and only 37.4 percent agreed that teachers let their parents know what they do well.

Across the board, schools that significantly score above the mean percentages on the survey share common factors, including:

If student perception is to change, then schools must be willing to closely evaluate their structures to ensure that these factors exist. Such factors engage students in learning and help them feel connected to their school.

The result is a school that speaks with a voice that is shared by students and faculty alike. Schools that are successful at creating a shared voice will become proven models of success.

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