Education Opinion

Conversations About Rigor

By LeaderTalk Contributor — February 19, 2009 3 min read
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A couple of months ago I wrote a post introducing a dilemma that my colleagues and I have been struggling to solve. The dilemma essentially is “How do leaders ensure that teachers are implementing best practices at a rigorous level in their classrooms?”

This year we launched a major literacy initiative (really just a major expansion of an existing initiative) and along with that we introduced “Literacy Commitments” to increase the use of literacy skills across the curriculum. Nearly all of our middle schools and high schools have a Literacy Coach assigned to their campus and this person is charged with increasing adult capacity for using literacy skills in their classrooms. This does not mean that all teachers will become reading teachers, but that all teachers will employ effective strategies that improve students’ abilities to read, write, speak, listen, and think about the academic content of each class. How do we read and write about science? What is the language of mathematics and how do we speak it? What are the common “academic vocabulary” words that are universal and used across the curriculum?

The campus literacy coaches work one-on-one with individual teachers and in small groups with departments or Professional Learning Communities, and they use coaching methods to help teachers improve their use of strategies to increase literacy in all content areas. The expectations for this coaching are that we should see an increase in the use of literacy strategies in the classrooms and eventually an improvement in student academic achievement. No specific strategies are prescribed by the district to any campus, but all faculty and staff were provided with a booklet describing (with examples) ten research-based “best practices” that they could use. In most cases, the administrators allowed teacher teams on their campuses to review the materials and to select one or two strategies that were appropriate for their content area that they could all agree to implement during the school year.

After visiting a few campuses we realized that we were seeing an increase in the use of the “best practices,” but I had a recurring, nagging thought running through my head about what we were observing. Was it rigorous use of a strategy if the teacher was just using an overhead to lead the students through it while they copied everything onto their papers? Was it rigorous use if the primary method of instruction was still just lecture and note-taking? Unable to shake the feeling that what we were seeing was base-level compliance I shared my doubts with colleagues and we engaged in many in-depth conversations around the issue. In the end we realized that all of the “best practices” could be used in multiple ways across a continuum that on one end was more passive, teacher-centered, and less rigorous and on the other end was more engaging, student-centered and highly rigorous.

We are now in the final stages of sharing an evolving “tool” with our campus leaders that we hope will be a catalyst for professional conversations on our campuses around the concept of what rigor looks, feels, and sounds like in the classroom. The danger of course is that the tool we created will become just another checklist for administrators to use in walkthroughs, but we are hoping that our message to campus leadership is very clear: This “Rigor Continuum” should be used as a talking point to engage teachers in a discussion around the nature of engaging, rigorous, and effective facilitation of learning. The power in the tool comes from the conversations and not from the tool itself.

Feel free to download and use our current “draft” of this continuum, and feel free to make changes in order to fit the needs of your campus or district. You may already have some other strategies that you are using in your work to improve the depth and quality of student learning in your classrooms. If so, please share those strategies in the comments on this post.

Regardless of what tools, checklists, or rubrics we use in our work, we must always remember that all of them are less effective than the professional conversations around effective facilitation of learning.

Stephanie Sandifer
Change Agency

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.