• August 2011

Are You Enchanted By Rigor?

By Peter Noonan
Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services
Fairfax County Public Schools

What is rigor? As a leader, are you encouraging it? These are the questions that we encourage our principals and teachers to ask in the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) system—the largest in the Baltimore-Washington and Northern Virginia Metropolitan Area, with more than 170,000 students.

Running such a big ship, much less trying to change its direction, is not easy. But it is possible. We begin by developing a strategy, explaining our position as clearly as possible to our constituents—and then we do everything possible to get buy in.

Our goal, of course, is to educate every one of our students to the highest level, so that they will go on have successful college careers and professional careers.

How do we do that? The same way that you build your business—with sheer determination, the best teachers (aka: employees), and a laser-beam focus on rigor.

Why? Because a rigorous curriculum is the key to keeping everyone working hard, staying on their toes, and finding new ways to be effective.

For a business leader, that would translate into a rigorous business plan and strategy to roll it out. I know that can’t be easy, just as change is challenging for a giant education system. But that’s where rigor comes into play for the leaders guiding the business ship. We need to stay on top of our game so that we can keep those working with us on the path to success.

Below you’ll find information about how we define rigor and roll it out in FCPS. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this topic. My contact information is posted below.

The Realities of Rigor

1. Defining Rigor: First, I want to begin by making sure that we are using a common definition. For the leadership team at FCPS, academic rigor is defined as the set of standards we set for our students and the expectations we have for our students and ourselves. Much more than ensuring that the course content is of sufficient difficulty to differentiate it from standard-level K-12 work, rigor includes our basic philosophy of learning. We expect our students to demonstrate not only content mastery, but applied skills and critical thinking about the disciplines being taught. Rigor also means that we expect much from ourselves, our colleagues, and our institutions of learning.

2. Outlining the Components: How are we going to hit the high mark? By agreeing on the essential components of rigor in the classroom, which to us in the Instructional Services Department include content acquisition, critical thinking, relevance, integration, application of concepts, and long-term retention. Perhaps most importantly, we must ensure that each student and educator assumes personal responsibility for accomplishing these goals.

3. How are we going to get there? Because rigor must be demanding, relevant, engaging, challenging, adaptive, and address different learning styles, we need a plan. Below is the outline for the steps FCPS is taking so that each educator in every school works toward the same goal.

4. Here’s what we know: Students taking advanced academic courses are more likely to be accepted into post-high school education (rigor), according to the AP Report to the Nation. Further, the U.S. Department of Education project, Answers in the Toolbox, shows that access to classes teaching higher-level thinking skills is a stronger predictor of student success than are socioeconomic factors and grade point averages.

5. Here’s what we believe: We must take the most positive qualities of the advanced academic classroom—rigor, relevance, and relationships—and replicate this environment in all FCPS classrooms, including the general education program.

6. Here’s how we are going to accomplish our mission: For all of our students to achieve success after high school, we need to engage in the following three best practices, as outlined in Ron Ferguson’s groundbreaking 2008 work, Toward Excellence with Equity.

Following are the three steps we need to take to accomplish our goals:

  • Characteristics of Schools: Schools must provide a healthy and safe learning environment, distributed leadership among the staff and administrators, a focused and aligned curriculum, effective instruction, and strong assessments to ensure all students are learning.
  • Conditions of Classroom Learning: For students to learn best, the curriculum needs to be feasible, relevant, and enjoyable. In addition, there needs to be strong adult support, as well as authentic peer support.
  • Student Engagement: It follows that if students are truly going to engage in the learning process, they must trust their teachers and the school, and they need to be willing and able to cooperate. They also need to be diligent in their leaning and have ambitious goals set by their teachers, parents, and by themselves. And ultimately, they must get satisfaction from knowing they are working hard.

This is just the beginning. I realize that having high standards and being rigorous is a complicated endeavor. But I know that if we all work together, share ideas, and continue to have an open discussion about what it takes to hit this mark, we’ll all be successful.

I invite you to send me an email with your thoughts: peter.noonan@fcps.edu.

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