The Rigors of High School Rigor

For years now, we have been talking about the need to focus on improved rigor in secondary instruction.  Rigor has long been a core component of the Gates Foundation redesign philosophy, and many reformers have signed onto the notion that if secondary (and postsecondary) education is as important as it is in today’s economy and today’s society, and we are going to push more kids to acquire that education, we need to make a diploma or a degree as worthwhile as possible.

The urban legend is that kids drop out of high school because high school is too hard.  The data, though, finds that simply is not the case.  Students drop out because they don’t see the point.  They drop out because they don’t see how school aligns with their goals or their dreams.  And, yes, they drop out because they don’t feel stimulated or pushed during their secondary school experience.
So what can we do to make high school a little more relevant and a little more rigorous?  A new report from the National Governors Association (hat tip to Eduwonk, of course), offers a glimpse of some of the promising practice coming out of states like Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.  The full policy brief can be found here — www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0810IMPROVEINSTRUCTION.PDF.  
The great takeaway?  Three specific policy recommendations for boosting consistent rigor in our high schools:
1.  Align courses with challenging academic standards (while offering more consistent course expectations)
2.  Include end-of-course exams in a comprehensive assessment system
3.  Provide teachers extended professional development that integrates with both instruction and assessment
These sorts of policy briefs are important to forwarding the dialogue on education reform because they both point to promising practice while informing us on that with good intentions, yet limited impact.  Pilots such as the NGA’s demonstrate the need for strong research methodology, the demand for implementation fidelity, and the strength to admit when such efforts don’t work out as intended.  As a result, NGA shows us the need to get teachers more enthused for professional development opportunities and to better see the value of PD crosswalked with instructional improvements.  And it shows us the constant struggle of both data collection and the construction of effective assessment systems.
More than anything, though, it speaks to the growing need for the trifecta of stronger academic standards, effective assessment systems to measure students against those standards, and the knowledgebase to use those student assessments to improve instruction, achievement, and teacher development.
At the end of the day, the question is not what is in the Policy Brief or the outcomes in the three specific states.  The real question we must ask is what we do with this sort of data.  How do we take these lessons learned and apply them to similar reform efforts occurring in the remaining 47 states?  What are we doing to continue efforts in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania and to improve the fidelity of implementation?  What do we do to ultimately make all high schools — regardless of demographic, graduation rate, or college-going rate — more rigorous?

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