When instruction is academically rigorous, students actively explore, research and solve complex problems to develop a deep understanding of core academic concepts that reflect college readiness standards. Increasing rigor does not mean more and longer homework assignments, rather, it means time and opportunity for students to develop and apply habits of mind as they navigate sophisticated and reflective learning experiences. Students with strong habits of mind weigh evidence, consider varying viewpoints, see connections, identify patterns, evaluate outcomes, speculate on possibilities and assess value. They find creative paths to resolve problems when they don’t immediately know the answer. Through an academically rigorous program students not only gain knowledge and skills to achieve at high levels, they also gain ways of thinking and doing that prepare them for college, work and citizenship.
In small schools teachers, students, families and administrators function as a learning community and academic rigor is reflected in how everyone thinks about, plans and is involved with instruction. Key characteristics of small schools’ structure and culture—such as collaboration, personalized environment, shared mission, vision and values, and on-going professional development—are informed by and support the rigorous academic mission of the school.
Strategies to achieve rigorous academic instruction include:
- Set high expectations for all students. Academically rigorous schools treat all students as if they are college bound. The school eliminates low-level, remedial-type sections of core classes to send the message that students cannot just get by doing unchallenging work. The academically rigorous school provides students with opportunities to earn dual credits by taking college-level classes, and opens those classes to all students. Students are required to take the SAT and ACT, so that college is an option for everyone. But academically rigorous schools do not just raise the bar, they also provide the supports necessary to ensure that all students can meet more stringent course and graduation requirements.
- Depth over breadth. Schools can demand rigorous intellectual work from students only if they give up the goal of superficially covering as much content as possible. Not only are course catalogs scaled back, but topic lists within courses also are pruned to achieve focus and depth. Effective schools enable students to develop a deep understanding of complex issues by selecting broad topics that act as a framework for many related ideas. Students study and explore these ideas from multiple perspectives and build an understanding of their interconnectedness while also building an understanding of core academic concepts.
- Cross-curricular integration. Integrating curriculum across content areas develops skills and knowledge while expanding students’ ability to understand conceptual relationships, and think creatively and critically. When concepts and ideas from different courses are brought into meaningful association, students draw their own conclusions and exert a power over their knowledge that motivates them to learn. Cross-curricular integration assumes a holistic, real-world approach to learning. Using common, broad concepts to frame specific subject-area content is representative of how we generalize, analyze and compare ideas in day-to-day life and work. Through cross-curricular integration students develop durable skills and knowledge; they gain what they need for a lifetime of decision-making and problem solving in a way that departmentalized subject matter cannot. The success of cross-curricular integration requires a school-wide commitment. Interdepartmental teams of teachers need time and space to collaborate and plan together.
- Curriculum mapping. Curriculum maps document the topics and skills that have been planned, taught and learned, helping teachers determine interventions and next steps. Curriculum maps help groups of teachers compare what has been covered in other grades, revealing repetition and gaps in the curriculum across disciplines, and highlighting strengths and weaknesses in aligning curriculum with district and state standards. Curriculum maps are useful in organizing and planning cross-curricular integration because they outline areas of thematic overlap across disciplines. Curriculum mapping fosters and supports collaboration among teachers, and promotes more effective instruction.
- Stated outcomes, built-in supports. Clear expectations define what students should know and be able to do. The bar for achievement is set according to the standards of the community—the knowledge and skills that colleges expect of high school graduates and that employers expect in a globally competitive workforce. While all students are expected to achieve at high levels, school staff, parents and community members acknowledge that some students will need more help than others to reach their goals. By focusing on powerful teaching and learning, schools meet students where they are and help them bridge any gap to higher achievement. Rubrics, exhibitions and portfolios are examples of authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do. The process of defining these assessment practices involves school staff, students, parents and community members in an ongoing dialogue to understand, unpack and articulate standards in ways that have tangible meaning to everyone.
Review this element on the Oregon Small Schools Initiative School Change Rubric Self-Assessment Tool.