When my students would furrow their brows and tell me, “You do too much,” I knew it was code for, “you are working us too hard.” My students deserved teachers who would push them to their highest potential, so when they lamented that they were working too hard, I was confident that they unsuspectingly loved being challenged, and that I was doing my job well. Right?
Maybe they were not being challenged as much as I thought. A large percentage of students feel that school is just too easy, according to survey results that were recently released from the Center for American Progress’s analysis of student background surveys from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Specifically, 29 percent of eighth-grade math students nationwide claimed their schoolwork is often or always too easy. Not even two-thirds of that same demographic reported feeling like they are always or almost always learning in math class. These survey results become even more alarming when we consider that our students are competing in a global economy and currently do not fair very well in international comparisons.
The time for preparing our students for the workforce is now, as Tennessee and 45 other states head in a new direction with the Common Core State Standards. The standards are designed to be more rigorous than current education standards and are reflective of the challenging skills and knowledge that are needed to excel in college and the workforce.
There is that buzzword: rigor. “Make sure the work is rigorous,” my principal would remind us as teachers. “Take those drawings off the wall. They are proof that your students completed a lesson that wasn’t rigorous.” This was a good suggestion, yet when the teachers asked him to describe a rigorous alternative, he could not answer. Neither the teachers nor the principal could delineate the term “rigor.” Lori Ungemah, Assistant Professor of English at The New Community College at CUNY, recently wrote a blog post relating academic rigor to yoga. She beautifully states, “[Students] need to know our job is to push them, and their job is to be pushed.” Think back to any daunting task you have ever attempted (yoga, maybe?). What if you had given up when things got difficult and seemingly impossible? What if you never knew how or when to advance or take the next step? Even worse, what if you never attempted this task because you never had access to appropriate resources, individuals with expertise, or critical friends to believe in your efforts?
The new Common Core State Standards are going to be a difficult endeavor for nearly all involved. For teachers, lesson planning and supporting students will take on a different meaning. For students, learning will be all about the journey and process, as opposed to simply getting “the right answer.” Parents will need to be supportive when they witness their students struggling with homework. It will be even more imperative for school leaders to create a positive school culture that supports and nurtures the rigorous learning process. Most everyone can empathize with struggle and failure – especially when trying new endeavors. The alternative would be asking our incredibly bright and capable students in Tennessee to give up when the going gets tough, and we know they deserve better than that. When we expect more of our students, they will achieve more.