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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Four R's: Rigor in Twenty-First-Century Schools

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

In my next several blog entries, I will highlight how we at Envision Schools interpret and use the new four R's of education: rigor, relationships, relevance, and results. Broadly, we define these principles as follows:

Rigor

We employ a rigorous project-learning college-preparatory curriculum that sets high expectations for everyone, and we give our students the skills and motivation to meet them.

Relationships

Our schools are small, personalized learning environments. Class sizes are also small, and teams of teachers and peers provide students with academic and social guidance.

Relevance

Education must have meaning every day. Our faculty creates curriculum around current events, personal backgrounds, and historical realities while emphasizing competency in twenty-first-century skills.

Results

We focus on the results of student learning using multiple indicators so our teachers can adjust their practices and our schools can offer personalized support to students.

Each of these principles drives very specific structures and systems within our schools. Today, I will discuss one aspect of how we define and use the concept of rigor to prepare students for college success.

High Expectation for All Students, aka No Tracking

All Envision Schools students take the required courses for freshman admission to both the University of California and California State University systems. Of course, not all students enter ninth grade academically prepared for these high-expectation courses, so our teachers need to differentiate and scaffold their curriculum using project learning.

We also use the Northwest Evaluation Association's Measures of Academic Progress to identify students who will require specific interventions in reading, language, or math to accelerate their learning. By not tracking students and by having heterogeneous classrooms, we have systemized our belief that all students can achieve success in college. Schools and teachers often say that all kids can go to college, but when they don't place students in academically rigorous courses, both the teachers and the students naturally lower their expectations.

Frequently, people are reticent to include all students in college-prep courses. Such people have asked us the following questions about our doing so:

  • Will you dumb down the curriculum?
  • Is it fair to put so much pressure on students who are not prepared? Can't we prepare them in remedial classes and then have them take college-prep courses?
  • Isn't all this difficult for the teacher?

In answer to the final question, yes, it is difficult; however, by effectively using active, project-learning, student-centered teaching practices, our teachers can meet the various needs of our students. In addition, we believe human dynamics help accelerate learning for previously underachieving students while simultaneously challenging the academically prepared learners.

Underachieving students often do not really know what teachers expect of students in academically rigorous courses. They believe it is not much more than what teachers had expected of them in less rigorous courses. And they don't realize that other students have to work much harder in and out of class. Although this realization can be very frustrating to low-achieving students at first, it also can inspire them to work toward the standards set by their peers.

In addition, the already high-achieving students will push their teachers to create challenging and fast-paced lessons and projects. Without these demanding voices, a teacher just might lower his or her expectations for students. That's much less likely to happen in a class with well-prepared students, and so teachers learn to keep high standards for all the kids.

In California, only 35 percent of students graduate taking the required UC and CSU courses. The percentages are much lower for poor students and African American and Latino students. At Envision Schools, 100 percent of students graduate taking the required courses. It is possible.

A Working Definition of Rigor

Often, our students will say, "The work at this school is not hard." At first, we were alarmed and disappointed when we heard this; we thought we were pushing students to new heights. But when we probe them for more information, they usually respond by saying, "The work isn't hard, but it is very challenging. In my old school, we had to do lots of boring work sheets or textbook learning. That is hard. Here at Envision Schools, my teachers challenge me to think."

At Envision Schools, we believe that rigor does not mean simply taking college-prep, honors, or Advanced Placement courses. We believe curriculum becomes rigorous when students are pushed not only to know information but also to apply and demonstrate their understanding of that information. We believe that requiring students to reflect on and analyze their thinking and learning might be the most challenging task you can require of a teenager.

Finally, in a rigorous school, students not only learn, do, and reflect, they also master such twenty-first-century skills as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, project management, and written and oral communication. Then, we regularly assess students in all their courses on those skills as well as their knowledge acquisition, application of knowledge, metacognition, and college-level work habits, such as punctuality.

Using project learning and well-defined performance assessment (for example, portfolio tasks), we are able to challenge our students simultaneously in all the aspects of learning. We think that this is a very rigorous expectation. Tell us what you think about rigor in the classroom.

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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