Educational rigor

Academic performance is about as far from students’ and educators’ minds in July as thoughts of skiing, but in preparing for the school year ahead, now might be the most appropriate time to consider how to ask more of our children in their educational pursuits. As it turns out, many students feel they are not being adequately challenged – that is a complaint that should be addressed and corrected.

The Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank, released a report this week that asked whether schools challenge students. The findings were not encouraging. Among them, researchers learned that, “Many schools are not challenging students, and large percentages of students report that their schoolwork is ‘too easy.’” That conclusion, and others in the report, is based on an analysis of data gathered in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known informally as the nation’s report card. This assessment is conducted every two years, and includes a student survey component – data that is increasingly believed to be indicative and reflective of teacher effectiveness. The report found that 29 percent of eighth-grade math students across the country feel their work is too easy. That does not bode well for actualizing the high achievement that American schools must encourage in order for their graduates to be competitive in global job and innovation markets.

The report’s other findings include complaints that students do not spend classroom time “engaged in rigorous learning activities,” or even learning at all. They often do not understand what their teachers are asking of them, and are not adequately learning technology and science curriculum. What is worse, though not surprising, is that each of these findings was compounded for students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

The data in the report suggest that there is much more schools can be asking of their students, and much more they ought to be providing. If students themselves are reporting that they are not sufficiently challenged, there is a suggestion that education dollars, as well as time in the classroom, can be better spent – and to greater result. While there certainly exists a spectrum of both capability and opportunity, the report indicates that, by and large, students can, should and want to do more. Curriculums and standards should reflect that desire and capacity.

Crafting standards with an eye toward what is possible as opposed to what is acceptable could be one way of responding to students’ concerns. Doing so could do more to ignite a passion for learning, achievement and innovation in students than an academic culture oriented toward meeting minimum benchmarks.

If students know they can do more and better work, schools can and should give them the opportunity. There is only good to come from the effort.

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