Realizing Rigor at Your School

By Christine Mason
May 2013, Volume 36, Issue 9

With the onslaught of the Common Core State Standards and increasing expectations for academic achievement, principals, teachers, and other educators are rushing to be ready for the new assessments. Some districts are at the forefront with implementation of the Common Core, leaving some principals and teachers better prepared than others.

Whether you fall into the “ahead of the curve” camp or not, focusing on rigor may help improve instruction in your school, as well as student readiness for the new Common Core assessments. Under the Common Core, teachers are expected to add more rigor into their classrooms. Yet, in many instances, rigor has not been adequately defined and may not be understood.

Author Barbara Blackburn defines rigor as, “creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.”

Far too often, teachers associate rigor with making tasks more difficult. However, rigor is not a matter of increasing the level of difficulty—it is more about teachers fostering a deeper understanding for students. Adding more rigor to classrooms will ideally make them more alive, more exciting, and more relevant. Why? Because in rigorous classrooms, teachers make an intentional effort to:

  1. Go beyond the ordinary. They look beyond the mundane and the boring to foster a deeper level of student understanding. It is one thing for students to know that George Washington, for example, was the father of our country; it is another for students to contemplate what it must have been like to lead a country before modern communications and respond to the needs of colonists hundreds of miles away.
  2. Consider the relevance to the student. Teachers can shift the responsibility for learning to students, giving them guidance and structuring expectations so that (on occasion) students make decisions about teaming with their classmates or working individually, which topics to pursue in more depth, and how to spend their instructional time. Students can be given opportunities to demonstrate how they want to pursue their own learning and how they want to demonstrate what they know. For example, students may want to learn by conducting a survey, reading, or doing internet research. Individual students or their collaborative teams may then demonstrate their learning by developing an online project, creating a multimedia project, delivering a presentation, or preparing a written report.
  3. Seek deep levels of student engagement. In rigorous classrooms, there is not only a focus on critical thinking and deep conceptual understanding, there is also an atmosphere of serious learning. Students who are more intense about their learning will ask probing questions. With rigor, students will be inquisitive. They will want to know why, and they will be engaged in problem-solving. With deep engagement, instructional pacing and timing is in sync with students and their learning.
  4. Expect students to participate in designing criteria for some assignments. Teachers can design feedback and evaluation criteria for assignments—or, instead, teachers can work with students, so that the students help to both design evaluation rubrics and also gain skills in evaluating their own knowledge, progress, and needs. Sometimes, the system that is the most immediately efficient is not the most effective. It may be easier for teachers when planning lessons to also design the rubrics to evaluate an assignment. However, students who are involved in designing the criteria for certain assignments end up knowing more about expectations. The thought students put into designing the criteria may help them understand more about how to approach the tasks to demonstrate highest levels of understanding.
  5. Create a culture that fosters reflection, where teachers co-create with students and guide students’ self-evaluation. In a classroom with high expectations, learning is tracked not only with formalized assessments, but with student reflections. Teachers can have students keep logs where they record their observations of their progress and needs. Or, they have students lead parent-teacher conferences in which they share work samples that demonstrate their progress over time and ask for recommendations to further their own learning. Students who are skilled at realistically evaluating their own progress and needs, and are actively engaged in structuring their own learning are likely to be operating in what researcher Lev Vygotsky termed the “zone.” For them learning is meaningful, challenging, and worthwhile.

Realizing rigor in your school means focusing on the quality of instruction rather than quantity, writes Blackburn. By adding rigor, teachers can personalize instruction for individual success.

“Rigor is for every student you teach,” writes Blackburn. “[T]he heart of rigor is learning… it is about growth and success, not failure.”

NAESP now offers a Roadmap to Rigor workshop. In it, participants learn about a “rigor rubric” that describes rigor’s four basic tenets: metacognition, deep learning, higher order thinking, and problem solving. Contact Pam Willis ( for more information on the workshop.

Christine Mason is Associate Executive Director of Research and Development at NAESP.

Copyright © 2013 National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy.

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