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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 08/20/2010

Where’s the rigor in U.S. schools?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Justin Snider, who teaches undergraduate writing at Columbia University and writes for The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Justin Snider
A quarter-century ago, the nation was transfixed by this question: " Where’s the beef?"

Now, the question we should be asking ourselves about our nation’s schools is this: " Where’s the rigor?" Or, "Where’s the academic beef?"

Concerns about the lack of rigor in U.S. schools were renewed recently, when new data were published on how prepared – or not – U.S. high school students are for college. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Stephanie Banchero said, “New data show that fewer than 25% of 2010 graduates who took the ACT college-entrance exam possessed the academic skills necessary to pass entry-level [college] courses.”

The story, as reported by many outlets, was that the average ACT score has fallen slightly since 2007. But the real story – and the one that Banchero focused on – is that the vast majority of our high school graduates aren’t ready for college or a career. And this holds true even when they follow a supposedly “rigorous” course of study, taking four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies.

It turns out that much of what U.S. schools offer is “rigorous” in name only. Said differently, a distinct lack of academic rigor is de rigueur.

Banchero quotes Susan Traiman, public policy director for the Business Roundtable, as calling the disconnect between the ACT results and supposedly rigorous coursework “false advertising” by high schools.

Part of the problem with talk about “rigor” is that no one really seems to know or agree on what the word means. Governors boast of the rigors of their K-12 educational systems, while every principal proclaims his or her school “rigorous.” The Common Core Standards, meanwhile, “include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills.”

Fuzziness on what exactly constitutes “academic rigor” led my colleagues and I at the Hechinger Institute, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to explore the concept two years ago.

We asked dozens of people – from politicians and policymakers to parents, students and teachers – to define the concept. We asked leading neuroscientists to explain what goes on in the brain when someone engages in rigorous learning. We looked at curricula that claim to be rigorous and asked whether they truly are. We also looked at what other countries do to offer their students a more rigorous education than the one most U.S. students receive. Our findings are accessible here.

It’s now the year 2010, but our schools often feel stuck where they were in the 1980s.

Where’s the progress?

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card,” have been largely flat for the last few decades. High school graduates who head off to higher education turn out to be unready for the rigors of college much of the time. Alarming numbers of students need remediation, which is a nice way of saying they didn’t learn things in their K-12 careers that they could or should have.

(Note that I’m not assigning blame here to specific groups – teachers, parents, students, administrators, politicians – but rather pointing out that our system in many ways isn’t working. We’re all culpable, to varying degrees, for the failure.)

I invite everyone to read, or reread, the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report, "A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform." Here’s an excerpt: “More and more young people emerge from high school ready neither for college nor for work. This predicament becomes more acute as the knowledge base continues its rapid expansion, the number of traditional jobs shrinks, and new jobs demand greater sophistication and preparation.”

How well these two sentences capture our predicament in 2010!

That they were originally written in 1983 should scare us. The diagnosis of America’s educational woes in A Nation At Risk is as relevant today as it was when first published nearly three decades ago. The report quotes Paul Copperman as saying, “Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”

If this were true of those coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s – Generation X – it’s even truer of today’s young people. The alarm bells have been repeatedly sounded by the Obama administration, which has articulated a goal of having the U.S. reclaim first place in the world for the percentage of our population aged 25-34 with postsecondary degrees or certificates by the year 2020.

Where do we stand now? In 12th place.

Where did we stand in 1991? In third place.

In the 1970s, it was said that the United States was No. 1.

There are, of course, reasons for the lack of rigor in U.S. schools. A leading one is that there’s often a tension between keeping standards high vs. dropout rates low.

It’s hard but not impossible to have both — to have our academic “beef” and eat it, too. There’s even evidence to suggest that higher standards and tougher, more meaningful work can lower the dropout rate. In fact, a 2006 study of dropouts, “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” found that two-thirds of dropouts say they would’ve worked harder if more had been demanded of them.

Asking too little of our students does them a great disservice — something that even President George W. Bush acknowledged, saying that we as a nation must move beyond the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” the status quo in education that has prevailed for far too long.


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 20, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Curriculum, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  a nation at risk, academic rigor, common standards, curriculum and schools, hechinger report, justin snider, national standards, standards and curriculum  
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Next: As he heads to college, a freshman looks back


It is impossible to implement a rigorous academic program as long as social promotion policies dominate K-12 instruction. It used to be that social promotion ended once students entered high school. However, now with the obsession over getting students their diplomas in four years, the integrity of high school courses are compromised as well. In the past two years, school dropout rates have included students who get the IEP diplomas, students who may go to prison and get their GED, and even students who don't manage to finish their requirements in four years. There is a lot of pressure to get the kids out with their "cohort" regardless of how little they do. As long as the prevailing attitude of politicians and policy makers is to find as many ways to make public schools look bad, rigor will continue to be the main casualty.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | August 20, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

ITA with buckbuck11's comment. Rigorous courses ARE offered in our high schools. In addition to Advanced Placement, International Baccaulaureate and Honors Courses that most high schools offer, the internet has provided students with a variety of rigorous course options - even if they are not offered at their home schools. The students that choose to take the courses and display the work ethic needed to succeed in those courses do amazingly well.

The problem is that our country has sold us a bill of goods that confuses the idea of college being assessible to all students with college being an extension of high school for all students.

Because of that, more students are applying and being admitted that are not college ready. It's not because the resources were not available to them to help them get ready. The problem is that college admissions is no longer seen as a privilege for academic success - but more of a right, with no effort.

This sense of entitlement has reduced our collegiate system to Grades 13-16.

Posted by: eduthought21 | August 20, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

The ACT results simply reflect the reality that all people are not equally smart!!!

People (including virtually all liberals and smost conservatives) tend to forget that IQ-type intelligence is not evenly distributed amongst all people. Instead there is a bell curve distribution with only about 25% of the general population having IQs of over 115.

In order for students to be capable of handling rigorous college work the students need to have IQs of over 115 (some would even say over 120). Only about 25% of the population have IQs of over 115. Therefore the ACT is doing a great job of recognizing the cohort of students who are truly ready for rigorous college work!

Psychology Professor Douglas Detterman of Case Western University has published papers proving that the SAT and the ACT are essentially just IQ tests with politically correct euphemistic names.

The education establishment in this country is mostly Marxist/Boasian in their core philosophy (i.e. they believe that all social classes and all ethnoracial groups have EQUAL innate IQ levels). The education establishment hates the fact that IQ is a strongly heritable mental trait (i.e. that most variation in IQ is due to genetic differences, NOT environmental/cultural differences). The education establishment hates the fact that higher IQs are much more common amongst students of higher socioeconomic class and amongst Whites and Asians. In other words, the education establishment has a very big problem with accepting reality.

Posted by: rifraf | August 20, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Snider writes, "Fuzziness on what exactly constitutes 'academic rigor' led my colleagues and I at the Hechinger Institute, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to explore the concept two years ago."

This grammatical mistake, from a teacher of undergraduate writing at a top university, makes his commentary even more depressing. Or maybe it's just I.

Posted by: tinyb | August 20, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Tinyb is absolutely right about Snider's grammatical error. Wasn't there a saying about not remarking on the speck in your neighbor's eye, while ignoring the log in your own?
If Mr. Snider were more rigorous about using correct English grammar, maybe his students would actually have the skills they need to pursue college studies.

Posted by: jrsposter | August 20, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Rifraf, I disagree with your analysis. I believe that you, and those with whom you draw support, are misled and disregard pertinent confounders. The lower socioeconomic groups are more apt to be exposed to teratongenic agents, high levels of stress, illness, neighborhood and family disorder, etc. These groups are also less apt to have proper prenatal care, adequate time between pregnancies, breastfed, optimal nutrition,
resources to visit libraries, museums, etc. all of which can contribute to school success and the perception of higher IQ.

Poverty is stressful. Insecurity is stressful. Cyclic and generational......

Span J Psychol. 2008 May;11(1):3-15.

Cognitive performance and morning levels of salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase in children reporting high vs. low daily stress perception.
Maldonado EF, Fernandez FJ, Trianes MV, Wesnes K, Petrini O, Zangara A, Enguix A, Ambrosetti L.

Department of Psychobiology and Methodology of the Behavioral Sciences, Universidad de Málaga, Spain.

The aim of the present study was to assess the effects of daily stress perception on cognitive performance and morning basal salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase levels in healthy children aged 9-12. Participants were classified by whether they had low daily perceived stress (LPS, n = 27) or a high daily perceived stress (HPS, n = 26) using the Children Daily Stress Inventory (CDSI). Salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase were measured at awakening and 30 minutes later. Cognitive performance was assessed using the Cognitive Drug Research assessment system. The HPS group exhibited significantly poorer scores on speed of memory (p < .05) and continuity of attention (p < .05) relative to the LPS group. The HPS group also showed significantly lower morning cortisol levels at awakening and at +30 minutes measures in comparison with the LPS group (p < .05), and mean morning cortisol levels were negatively correlated with speed of memory (p < .05) in the 53 participants. No significant differences were observed between both groups in alpha-amylase levels. These findings suggest that daily perceived stress in children may impoverish cognitive performance via its modulating effects on the HPA axis activity.

Posted by: shadwell1 | August 20, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Is this new? I think you could have said the same thing about the majority of my fellow freshmen classmates in 1960.

Posted by: billatcrea | August 20, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse


Do these latest statistics take into account that the US has ever greater numbers of immigrants with myriads of language levels (can skew testing and IQ numbers), and is pushing pre-college-level classes on EVERYONE regardless of academic aptitude, various learning differences,and/or IQ level, lack of readiness, what-have you?

Also,the great emphasis on mainstreaming students with all kinds of disabilities, regardless of how democratic one wishes to be, probably interferes with a high level of rigor in some classes.

Many other factors as well......this article does not give anything near a complete picture.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 20, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

I urge everyone to read the letters sent to Diane Ravitch in response to her latest book. They are mostly from teachers and parents around the country. So many of their stories are heartbreaking.
Here is the real world in education. Read it and think. Then ACT!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | August 20, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Lo Esencial en un profesor , es la palabra capacidad, Su convencimiento de Referencia Con un su alumno.Transmitir El Mensaje, Que llegue al Estudiante , es Algo Muy Complejo y realmente lo mas profesional efectivo.Ser ESTAR sable y, Vivir Trabajo Su párrafo , en Vez de Vivir de Trabajo su, canalizar Los conocimientos Buscando en dibujar imágenes de El MODO DE HACER Valer tu Personalidad en lucha Constante Con El Alumno , al Llevar Cual Que heno al Conocimiento de los Límites , traspasados Los Cuales La Educación pierde SUS valores.Cuando UNO Pone Su tarea pendiente Valer , Su Capacidad de Trabajo , debe de Saber Que Los triunfos de organismos europeos de normalización Alumnos En Su Vida Privada , a instancia de parte de los Mismos sí lo Deben a EL .

Posted by: andrade0340 | August 20, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

At best statistics can show correlation; causation is much more complex to identify. If you want 'rigor' you must be willing to accept that some students will fail, but in the current education environment which exults self-esteem and equity versus achievement we must dilute rigor so that students can 'feel good.'

Rigor starts with expectations: clear, consistent, and appropriately challenging. These are not just 'An 'A' is 96%,' but extend down to how a student heads their paper through justifying their responses to every question.

Rigor requires support from your school. If students don't do their homework but that's your expectation, the school must support your consequences for not doing homework. For example, if students are to meet at lunch/after school/Saturday, the school support staff must assist in this, along with the consequences of those who fail to participate.

Rigor requires persistence. I must convince a student that I will be on them 'like a cheap suit' until they achieve. The hope is doing the work is a better alternative then having your teacher bug you 24-7!

These aspects of rigor you cannot capture easily in statistics; like the author of 'Teach Like A Champion' you must observe classrooms/teachers that are rigorous and identify their specific characteristics. Many teachers roll their eyes at data because data only measures outcomes: we want to see what was DONE to get the outcomes, which requires much more rigorous (no pun) investigation.

Posted by: pdfordiii | August 21, 2010 12:13 AM | Report abuse

Rigor means not passing students along when they haven't mastered their current level's concepts, skills, and content. It means teaching within a student's Zone of Proximal Development, even if that means grouping students by readiness. At the same time, it means communicating to every student that he or she can move along within the subject curriculum at a respectable pace, with effort. And it means providing outside help in order to make that happen.

Posted by: jane100000 | August 21, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

"The vast majority of our high school graduates aren’t ready for college or a career."

So what does that say for those who don't even graduate high school?

Millions of students, each year, are falling into the absolute abyss of the dropout economy. And it's important to remember that most leave school for reasons other than failing grades.

We're failing them. And ourselves.

Can we cast our nets both deep and wide? Can we increase the academic rigors of high school while maintaining a hold on those at risk of becoming dropouts? Absolutely. But doing so means embracing educational options that are as diverse as our students — giving them as many paths to success as possible.

They need it. And we do, too.


Posted by: NoDropouts | August 21, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Has anyone yet made the connection to the fact that student scores are not increasing, and the fact that we push mixed-ability classes? I teach both core and elective classes. My elective classes are extremely rigorous (even brutally so), because the students in them have leveled themselves--the brightest, hardest-working students take them. The core classes are far less rigorous, because with more rigor, more students fail, which is frowned on by my district. So those students who could hand more rigorous classes are short-changed because they are in class with students who can't handle as much "rigor." Please give me classrooms filled with students of roughly equal skills and abilities, so I can challenge each group to their greatest potential, rather than making me teach to the middle.

Posted by: pattipeg1 | August 22, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Jane expresses some very interesting concepts above.

So how could all of what she says become common practice in our schools? Would such practice really require outside help or could teachers be trained to successfully manage classrooms in this manner? Why, in a class of twenty students, does the teacher present one lesson to the entire group? Do they all learn at exactly the same pace or are some capable of going faster while others simply need more time to master the skill or concept?

Jane needs to explain how this can happen. It would be very helpful if all teachers operated in this manner.

Posted by: phoss1 | August 22, 2010 7:26 PM | Report abuse

Paul, I've read with great interest your descriptions of how you create differentiated lessons for your students, though I'm not sure that many teachers could do that as well. But, in the classroom I envision, it wouldn't be necessary because students would be grouped by readiness to benefit from a whole-class type of instruction (or at most, two groups). Of course, in the perfect classroom, every student has a lesson designed for her/his exact level of readiness/interest/preferred method of learning. But schools by their nature are not this ideal world; they are a compromise that is supposed to give each child enough instruction that s/he can grasp and benefit from, so that s/he progresses acceptably in knowledge and skills. By outside help I meant only tutoring for students who need it in order to stay caught up with the whole class.

Posted by: jane100000 | August 23, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

phoss1 and jane

We should teach one lesson to the entire group, for this reason: that is what they will encounter in the college classroom. I never had one professor who "differentiated" instruction, and everyone had to keep up with the same instruction. This is the foremost reason that our high school students are not prepared for college. Most high school courses are not designed, nor taught, or carry the expectations as the courses our students will experience in college. Simply, our students are not prepared for the university because we do not prepare them for the university.

Posted by: demathis | August 23, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

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