George Lucas Educational Foundation

College Readiness, Part One: Redefining Rigor at Envision Schools

December 9, 2008

I have been thinking a lot about Envision Schools's impact recently and what we hope will be different because of our schools.

As an organization, we are driven by our mission to transform the lives of each of our students by preparing them for success in college and in life -- especially those who will be the first in their family to attend and graduate from college. Preparing students for citizenship and success in the twenty-first-century workplace requires that we rethink the outcomes students need to achieve.

Tony Wagner is codirector of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In his recent article "Rigor Redefined," published in Educational Leadership, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's magazine, makes the claim that "to teach and test the skills that our students need, we must first redefine excellent instruction." This is where the work of Envision Schools began.

Traditionally, the goals of secondary schools in the United States were based on a definition of rigor that assumed courses were hard or challenging because they covered a vast amount of content or prepared students for high-stakes examinations such as Advanced Placement tests. For a long time, the notion has been that if students can take and pass these "difficult" classes, they will be ready for college and a career.

And, in fact, colleges and universities give extra consideration to these courses in the admissions process. However, studies continue to reveal that such admission practices are slowly changing, and it is no longer evident that a student's success in challenging courses or on AP examinations indicates a greater likelihood for success in college or life.

At Envision Schools, we agree with Wagner; we believe we need to rethink academic rigor and to define new twenty-first-century outcomes for students. To accomplish this mission, we needed to design our schools to support this new vision for teaching and learning, because a transformation like this cannot happen in piecemeal fashion. With this in mind, we developed the Envision Schools model based on the principles of rigor, relationships, relevance, and results.

However, merely redefining our outcomes and vision for teaching and learning is not enough. If we are to fundamentally transform our schools so that they truly support our students' learning, all of the schools' systems must change. This includes their framework for leadership, governance, and accountability; the scope and design of professional learning for teachers and faculty; the methods and assessment systems used to evaluate student performance; and the manner in which we evaluate, assess, and provide feedback to teachers on their performance.

Two seemingly disparate inputs have recently influenced my views on the actual and potential impact of our school design and model. The first is a conversation with the Envision Schools board and the second is the article I referenced above. At our recent Envision Schools board retreat, the board asked, "What is Envision Schools's secret sauce? Why do you believe our students will be successful in college and life?" I have been reflecting on how to answer these questions clearly. Wagner's article gave me the framework to do it.

What do you think about this approach? Please share your thoughts, and read part two of this blog entry.

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  • 9-12 High School

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