Five Myths about Rigor and the Common Core

bblackburnby Barbara Blackburn

Rigor is one of the most discussed topics in education today, especially given the emphasis on meeting the challenging Common Core State Standards. But there is much debate over what rigor is and is not.

Let’s look at five myths of rigor that will be familiar to many middle grades educators, then at a concrete definition of the actual meaning.

Myth One: Lots of homework is a sign of rigor.

For many people the best indicator of rigor is homework. Some teachers pride themselves on the amount of homework they expect from their students, and there are parents who judge teachers by homework quantity.

Realistically, all homework is not equally useful. Some of it is just busywork, assigned by teachers because principals or parents expect it. For some students, doing more homework than necessary leads to burnout. When that occurs, students are less likely to complete homework and may become discouraged about any kind of learning activity, in or out of school. In the Common Core, you’ll notice the focus is on depth, not coverage, which extends to homework.

Myth Two: Rigor means doing more.

No More Homework“Doing more” often means doing more low-level activities, frequent repetitions of things that students have already learned or can learn with little investment of time. Such narrow and rigid approaches to learning do not define a rigorous classroom.

Students learn in many different ways. Just as instruction must vary to meet the individual needs of students, so must homework. Rigorous and challenging learning experiences will vary with the student. Their design will vary, as will their duration. Ultimately, it is the quality of the assignment that makes a difference in terms of rigor.

Again you’ll notice throughout the Common Core State Standards that the focus is on high-quality, in-depth assignments, rather than simply assigning more problems.

Myth Three: Rigor is not for everyone.

Some teachers think the only way to assure success for everyone is to lower standards and lessen rigor. This may mask a hidden belief that some students can’t really learn at high levels.

You may have heard of the Pygmalion Effect–students live up to or down to our expectations of them. It’s true. Each student can complete rigorous work at high levels, whether they are advanced or a student with special needs. As I said in Myth Two, “rigorous” is different for different learners.

The Common Core standards reinforce this notion when they speak of preparing each student, not just some students, for college and careers.  I know from my own experience as a teacher of struggling students who came reading far below their grade level that any teacher can be rigorous, and any student can reach higher levels with the right support.

Myth Four: Providing support means lessening rigor.

Men On Scaffolding Working on a BrainIn America, we believe in rugged individualism. We are to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do things on our own. Working in teams or accepting help is often seen as a sign of weakness. Supporting students so that they can learn at high levels is central to the definition of rigor. As teachers design lessons for the Common Core that move students toward college and career-ready work, they must provide scaffolding to support them as they learn. The Core calls on teachers as well as students to respond to higher expectations.

Myth Five: Resources equal rigor.

Recently, I’ve heard a common refrain. “If we buy this program, or textbook, or technology, then we would be rigorous.” This is particularly true with resources claiming to match the Common Core.

Some of these resources are much better than others, so the old saying “Buyer Beware” is particularly pertinent. The right resources can certainly help increase the rigor in your classroom. However, raising the level of rigor for your students is not dependent on the resources you have.

Think about the resources you have now. How can you use them more effectively? Do you use a textbook that includes true-false tests? Often, they are not rigorous because students can guess the answer. However, add one step for more rigor. Ask students to rewrite all false answers into true statements, requiring students to demonstrate true understanding.

It’s not the resources; it’s how you use them that makes a difference.

True Rigor

Despite its reputation, the word rigor does not have to be a negative in your classroom.

True instructional rigor is “creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2012).”

Notice we are talking about four distinct aspects of the classroom: environment, expectations, support, and demonstration of learning.

• An environment that supports rigor focuses on risk-taking, since working at higher levels requires that students take a risk. How do we do this? By reinforcing progress, effort, and grit, or persistence.

• Next, having high expectations means increasing wait time, using positive encouragement to coach students to continue with their work rather than shutting down, and insisting that students provide high quality responses to higher-order questions.

• Support must balance these high expectations, since learning to learn at higher levels requires assistance while moving there. This can include modeling, use of graphic organizers, or chunking information.

• Finally, students must demonstrate learning at high levels. This includes providing work that is quality, rather than just completed at a minimum level. Teachers should provide rubrics and other tools to help students understand what “good” looks like.

A Final Noterigor-2nd-ed

Moving beyond the myths of rigor to incorporate true instructional rigor in the classroom is critical, especially in light of the Common Core State Standards. The standards are rigorous, yet we must match the rigor of those standards with our instruction. Having a thorough understanding of rigor allows us to match the standards with appropriately rigorous instruction and assessment.

Barbara Blackburn is a best-selling author of 14 books, including Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word.  A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. She’s on Twitter @BarbBlackburn.


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5 Responses

  1. rosie says:

    Common core is not helping, it is harming children, they do not all learn the same. We parents and grandparents see the stress and frustration caused by common core, the math is insane. It has to be stopped in all schools before more harm is done to the children.

    • Sandra Lai says:

      I live in a very conservative community with some parents very adamantly opposed to Common Core. But having worked as an aide at the school, I’m actually pretty impressed with the idea behind it. For example, “rigor” is about teachers designing their lessons with higher expectations. A 1st grade teacher I aided last year would design a whole lesson around a number, 21 for example. She wanted them to go beyond just writing or spelling it or just counting to the number. She asked students to represent 21 in a drawing. The teacher drew two ten blocks and one individual unit block next to it and another student showed tally marks, and so on. She told them to “add one” or to “take away” one and then asked them “how many” did they have now. She asked them to think in terms of money and asked them would they rather have less or more. She encouraged them to help a struggling classmate, and by the end of the school year these mostly 6-year-olds were adding and subtracting in the hundreds and counting in multiples of 2s and 5s and 10s; she showed them how easy multiplication could be, and how much quicker they could sum things up if they knew their multiples. This teacher’s ability to show how math works and how to use it in other applications was impressive. Every week each student was also sent home with a math game that they could play with by themselves or with others. This year I was helping 5th graders with fractions and using her techniques, I felt I was able to help them achieve a more rigorous understanding of it and we are now adding and subtracting, multiplying, and even dividing fractions.

  2. DuWayne Krause says:

    It is so true that lots of homework, lots of busy work is not rigor. Rigor is getting kids to understand and perform at a high level, not mindlessly doing repetitions of low level work. Rosie, Common Core is the greatest development to ever happen to American math education. The United States is so far behind the rest of the world in math education that we are pathetic. Why is it that the rest of the world can do this stuff and American kids can’t. Common Core is about so much more than teaching facts, it is about teaching understanding of how math works and how to use it in real life. Common Core is about developing the ability to think, rather than the traditional American way of regurgitating low level information.

  3. Debra Ware says:

    Barbara, your comments and observations are really on target and ever teacher and parent needs to hear this, especially parents of struggling students. DuWayne, where is the evidence behind your statements? The CCSS have not been subjected to any real research trials and their implementation is severely under-funded on overly ambitious timelines setting up students, teachers and schools for failure.

  4. My comment to Julia reflects the ideas above. I have taught rigor to teachers of regular and special needs students

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