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Don’t Rely on Rigor and Relevance

Political and Economic Context

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, public schools have felt mounting pressure to increase the levels of instructional rigor and academic success for all students. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, signed into law in 2002, has forced states to reevaluate their standards and assessment programs according to federal criteria, and adjust to the adequate yearly progress (AYP) provision of NCLB. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and now the Race to the Top funding has brought additional federal carrot and stick measures to induce states to follow federal guidelines and initiatives. Over the last few months, state legislatures have raced to approve needed changes to qualify for federal dollars. Forty states and the District of Colombia made the federal deadline of January 19 to enable them to access federal funds.

Concurrently, concerns about the growing Achievement Gap, especially with respect to underperforming African-American and Latino sub-groups have come to the national consciousness. Traditionally liberal voices have begun supporting traditionally conservative, anti-public school proposals such as charter schools, open enrollment, vouchers, and teacher accountability-via-assessment. The Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Education support these initiatives. The National Education Association is reeling.

For example, the ARRA funds are to be used to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap through “shared commitment and responsibility.” What is this process defined by the federal government?

  • Adopting rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments
  • Establishing data systems and using data for improvement
  • Increasing teacher effectiveness and equitable distribution of effective teachers
  • Turning around the lowest-performing schools
  • Improving results for all students, including early childhood learning, extended learning time, use of technology, preparation for college, and school modernization http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=204335,00.html

In other words, more and more governmental accountability and less autonomy for school districts, administrators, and teachers.

School districts are failing during the current economic downturn. Deep in debt, districts are enacting furlough days with the consent of powerless teacher unions. Compromises are made to ensure some sort of survival. Districts and teachers are devolving more control to states and the federal government for money to keep afloat. Public education is in crisis mode.

Academic Context

As a precursor to this crisis mode, the in vogue educational leadership trend was the Rigor and Relevance Movement. Popularized over the last decade by Bill Daggett and the International Center for Leadership in Education, with concurrent support from the Institute of Education Sciences (the federal research agency) arm of the U.S. Department of Education, the movement has swept the nation. Largely as a result of historical timing, the Rigor and Relevance (and now, relationships) Movement has become the de facto solution to the ills of public education. Administrators and teachers throughout the United States are using the Rigor and Relevance quadrants to analyze instructional effectiveness.

A Few Working Definitions

Although the movement is pervasive, it is not monolithic. No one holds the trademark on the terms rigor and relevance. In fact, rigor is variously defined. Some define rigor in terms of end-goals, such as high standards or high expectations. Others define rigor as a set of competences as measured by high stakes assessments. Some cross-over adherents from the Essential Schools movement have defined the term as the mastery of educational concepts. Often, the term is defined in terms of process-goals. Instructional methodologies are featured prominently in discussions about rigor. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a favorite, as well as any instructional strategies that elicit critical thinking, deep understanding, exploration, and research.

The usage of relevance also varies. Relevance for students refers to interdisciplinary and contextual learning situations directly connected to real-world problems ranging from routine to complex. Relevance for teachers and administrators implies establishing a vision and mission, and moving forward on school improvement and change initiatives that have purpose and are focused on the agreed-upon needs of that particular school and student population.” http://rebel6.blogspot.com/2010/01/3-rs-not-just-for-students.html David Britten January 3, 2010. So, relevance refers to real-world applications, as well as to the needs and interests of student and school cultures.

Critique of the Rigor and Relevance Movement

As is frequently the case, any educational reform movement produces nuggets that can and should be mined by thoughtful public school stakeholders. However, the harder-to-mine gold often remains, as the placer (surface-level) gold is depleted.

Rigor

Much of what passes for rigor is arbitrary, subjective, and contrived.  For example, proponents of rigor usually align themselves with those who advocate standards-based education. Such standards beg the question on many fronts. Why don’t states all agree on the same standards, if there is such a broad educational consensus as to what they should be? What happens when the consensus changes? Which standards are most/least important? Do standards really reflect broader educational priorities, such as can the student read, write, do math, and think well? What prerequisites are necessary to demonstrate mastery of the standards? Why are certain standards appropriate at certain grade levels? Who decided that a standard is a standard and for what reasons?

Rigor that is not arbitrary, subjective, and contrived consists of instructional content and strategies determined through direct diagnostic and formative assessments of individual students, not arbitrary “Below Basic,” “Basic”, “Proficient,” or “Advanced” categorizations derived from annual standards-based assessments. Although we teach subject matter (content), we also teach children. Rigorous  teachers find out what students need and differentiate instruction to match those needs. Students experience success by successive approximation. Teachers challenge students just enough to help students take risks, but not too much to overwhelm them. Success builds upon success.

Relevance

Much of the renewed interest in relevance has developed from panic-attack reactions to the highly publicized Achievement Gap. Well-intentioned, teacher-induced guilt brings the “it must be my fault that I am not meeting student needs” response. Teachers rush to develop “real-world” career applications to lessons on primary numbers. Teachers ditch archaic Shakespeare for analyses of current hip hop songs. Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time establishing a motivational framework to convince students to memorize the scientific method or key elements from the Periodic Table of Elements. Teachers drop rules of classroom decorum to be culturally sensitive to students who have the proclivity to engage in impulsive outbursts.

Perhaps another view of relevance should be considered. Renowned reading researcher, Anita Archer, categorizes the Achievement Gap as largely a misnomer. She says what we really have is a “literacy gap.” I tend to agree. Until we address this fundamental issue, issues such as instructional strategies to establish relevance are futile. In fact, content literacy should be the true means of attaining educational and personal relevance. Relevance becomes a by-product of educational success, not a series of instructional strategies designed by well-intentioned educators.

The writer of this article, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula: Teaching Grammar and MechanicsTeaching Essay StrategiesTeaching Reading Strategies, and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or specialized training.

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