As the debate over education in the United States wages on, educators, parents, students and administrators continue to receive mixed messages about best practices for today’s youth and the schools they inhabit. In the wake of NCLB, and the new Common Core Standards, the rules of education are constantly changing. With incentives for schools aptly named “Race to the Top”, it is no wonder that education can sometimes feel like a competition. And in order for educators and schools to stay in the game, they must fight hard.
Walk in to most classrooms in America today and you will find teachers working extremely hard to make connections and engage students. You will see teachers trying to motivate children in ways like never before. Educators are indeed fighting hard. But take a closer look at the students. For it is here where you should see the hardest work being done. Teachers should not be working harder than the children in their charge. Yet, in many classrooms across America, it is in fact the teacher who expends most of the energy.
To best understand the reason for this uneven balance, we must take a look at rigor in our classrooms. Rigor is best defined as instruction, schoolwork, learning experiences, and educational expectations that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging. In order to expose students to rigor, teachers need to impart knowledge and concepts that are complex so that students question and think critically and deeply about the subject matter. In this way students acquire skills that can then be applied in educational and real world contexts. Also, content that is rigorous must be equitable – that is every student, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or English proficiency should be held to the same academic standards. Rigorous curriculum must not be confused with difficult curriculum. Lessons that are simply “hard” may result in disengagement, and frustration, whereas rigorous learning experiences motivate and give students a sense of accomplishment as they overcome a learning challenge. Rigor exists to help students learn to think, to work hard, and to fail, because it is in this failure that students learn about persistence, consequences and grit. In short, rigor prepares students for real life.
If the goal of education is to prepare students for real life, why then are most teachers finding it difficult to incorporate rigorous curriculum on a daily basis? Why instead are teachers working harder than students?
Let’s Start With Two…
Reason #1: Educators in the US are required to spend endless hours preparing students for standardized tests year after year. Children across the country are becoming very skilled at test taking, while real learning, rigor, is being compromised. Motivation and engagement are difficult to achieve during test prep instruction. Very little outside the box thinking coincides with standardized test preparation. The result – disengaged students, and exhausted teachers fighting relentlessly to motivate and keep learners on task.
Reason #2: Teachers today are required to provide their districts with evidence of student academic growth. Unfortunately the evidence is not always used to measure student growth, but rather to gauge teacher competency. Hence, for today’s teachers, much is riding on student outcomes. This means that teachers spend much of their time pre and post testing students throughout the year. And in order to achieve substantial growth, educators often end up teaching to a test just to “prove” that students are making progress. However, the gains students make are not necessarily gains that will prepare them for the future workforce they will soon inhabit. Instead of instilling students with the ability to problem solve, collaborate, and create (rigor), teachers are working extremely hard to ensure that the students in their charge do well on post tests. So teachers create study guides. Said study guides often have actual test questions and answers. After all, data matters. Numbers “prove” growth do they not? But what is the cost when grades become the priority, not the process of learning? Why should the process(rigor) matter when that cannot be quantified in a grade book? Thus little or no critical thinking is required of students. They have very little ownership of the learning and how it relates to the real world. And should a student perform poorly, teachers are often guilted into giving second chances. After all, student growth is tied to teacher performance. The result – tired teachers, and bored students.
How can this kind of education be considered a fair playing field? Where other countries like Finland and Korea understand that rigor is a prerequisite for success in life, children in America are being given a very different message. Here students learn that preparing for high stakes testing continues to be a priority. They erroneously believe that being fed information and spitting it back on a quiz or test equates to rigor. This kind of education is definitely not fair to anyone. Yes, teachers today are fighting very hard to stay in the game, however it is high time for the rules to change. The time to put students on that playing field seems long overdue.