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Becoming a Great High School

by Tim R. Westerberg

Table of Contents

Chapter 3. Strategy 1: Developing Clear Instructional Goals

Approaching instruction with clear instructional goals, or to borrow a phrase popularized by Stephen Covey, beginning with the end in mind, not only makes intuitive sense but is well supported by research. In his 35 years of meta-analysis on research in education, Robert Marzano (2003) identifies a guaranteed and viable curriculum as one of 11 factors with a proven track record of increasing student achievement. Marzano (2003) defines a guaranteed and viable curriculum as one in which

  1. Clear guidance is given to teachers regarding the content to be addressed in specific courses, at specific grade levels.
  2. Individual teachers do not have the option to disregard or replace content that has been assigned to a specific course or grade level.
  3. The content articulated in the curriculum for a given course or grade level can be adequately addressed in the time available. (pp. 25–30)

From an operational standpoint, educators and administrators can specify the content to be covered by setting clear, doable instructional goals at the classroom, school, and district level.

Rick Stiggins (2008) argues that clear academic standards or learning goals form an essential structural foundation for a balanced assessment system. According to Stiggins, learning goals best serve the information needs of all stakeholders, including students, when they are

  • Centered on the truly important learnings of the field of study
  • Clearly and completely integrated into learning progressions within and across all grades
  • Precisely defined so that all educators can interpret them consistently
  • Created within the developmental reach of the students who are to master them
  • Designed to be manageable given the teacher's available resources and students' ability to learn
  • Thoroughly mastered by the designated teachers (p. 6)

Instruction and assessment in high schools that move from good to great are guided by learning goals that meet these criteria.

Fighting Curriculum Anarchy

In contrast to the instructional clarity described above, Jerald Craig (2003) calls the following actions curriculum anarchy. He says

Decisions about what to teach in each grade are left up to schools, many of which pass the choice on to teachers. The result is an uneven hodgepodge of instructional aims and subject matter, with content and expectations varying sharply from classroom to classroom and from school to school. [This is] curriculum anarchy. (p. 13)

Hodgepodge and curriculum anarchy are very dramatic words to use to describe what is going on in today's classrooms; however, this language accurately reflects the lack of instructional clarity evident in most high schools in this country. Consider the following examples from the well-respected suburban high school in Colorado where I served as principal for 20 years.

At Littleton High School we offered a class titled "Contemporary Political and Economic Issues," which was a one-semester, senior-level social studies course required for graduation. In other words, our social studies department convinced the board of education that the content of this class was so important to our students, so critical to the preservation of the American way of life, so essential to democracy in the free world (I can use dramatic language, too) that students could not leave school without it. Three individuals taught the course, all of whom were truly excellent teachers in every sense.

I asked them one day, "What is it about Contemporary Political and Economic Issues that is guaranteed across all three teachers? What are the six or eight big-picture outcomes that are constant for all students, regardless of which teacher the computer assigns them?" Their answer was "Nothing." They went on to explain that they had tried over the years to identify common instructional goals and performance standards but couldn't agree. They agreed that the course was very different depending on which teacher taught it. So, we told students and parents that there were things about Contemporary Political and Economic Issues that were so important students could not graduate without them, but as a staff we didn't know what they were? That's nuts! This was an example of curriculum anarchy. The teachers later recommended removing the course from the list of courses required for graduation.

A second example from Littleton's math department drives the point home. A parent called me to express her concerns about the grade her 9th-grade son had received during his first semester in Honors Advanced Algebra. He received a B. She said it wasn't the B she was complaining about (although I suspected that at some level it was) but rather the inconsistency of the school's grading practices. Her son finished the semester with a 91 percent and received a B. His friend, who had taken the same course but from the teacher across the hall, also had a 91 percent but received an A. One teacher had a policy of awarding As for students who received 92 percent and above, while the other teacher gave As to students who achieved 90 percent and above.

The parent said, "That's not fair." I agreed. The parent responded, "You ought to have a common grading scale at that school so that a student who receives 91 percent earns the same grade from all teachers. I don't care if it's an A or a B, but it ought to be the same." I said "No." "No?" she questioned.

Every teacher, counselor, administrator, and most students, know that a 91 isn't a 91 just because of a common schoolwide grading policy. I can make a 91 percent so difficult that no one gets an A or so easy that everyone gets one. Any semblance of consistency and fairness in grading comes about only when teachers are meeting at least twice a month to identify clear course- or grade-level instructional goals and clear standards or criteria for what success looks like.

A common grading scale, based in some form on the traditional 100-point scale, is subjectivity masquerading as objectivity. It may fool parents, but those inside the schools know better.

I rejected the parent's proposed solution of a common grading scale because it would have let us off the hook by hiding the problem. Instead, I told her that those two teachers would begin working to address the aforementioned issues within the next week. First, they would begin the discussion with just the two of them, and then with the other members of the mathematics department. I told her that I would be monitoring their progress. Did that process guarantee that outcomes and standards would be exactly the same across all teachers of the same course? No, but it got us a lot closer to that goal than our adopting a schoolwide grading system would have.

Corbett and Huebner (2007) provide the following definition for curriculum coherence based on their study of high-achieving high schools. They say

Coherence means that courses follow one another in a logical sequence. It means school teams have discussed and agreed what content should be covered in each course, how it generally should be taught, and how well students should be expected to learn it. (p. 20)

Will your school have curriculum coherence or curriculum anarchy? This is the first decision that any school wanting to become a great school has to make.

Challenging a Been There, Done That Attitude

When we begin discussing the merits of a guaranteed curriculum, many educators and administrators will react with one or more of three dismissive responses.

The first response is a been-there, done-that response. I will hear many teachers or administrators say things like, "The district made us do that curriculum mapping stuff (or some similar activity) two years ago." In today's standard-based world you have probably been there, but have you really done that? Here is the distinction.

Doug Reeves (2008) uses his research on the degree of implementation of school reform efforts to highlight what he calls "the myth of linearity." This belief, one that Reeves argues is accepted by most would-be education reformers, is that greater implementation leads to greater student achievement in a linear fashion. That is, if we implement a particular research-based reform a little, we will see a little improvement in student achievement. If we implement the reform to a moderate degree, we can expect a moderate increase in student achievement, and if we invest in extensive implementation, we will be rewarded with a substantial increase in achievement.

Unfortunately, this is a myth. Instead, Reeves's research shows that the relationship between degree of implementation and student achievement is nonlinear. In other words, we shouldn't expect to see any change in student achievement until we get to extensive implementation. The good news, Reeves says, is that something akin to a guaranteed and viable curriculum (i.e., instructional goals, performance standards, aligned curricula, and assessments) exists in almost every school district. The bad news is that the degree of implementation in the vast majority of cases is far short of extensive (i.e., some teachers implement some items in some departments or new teachers use a certain technique but veteran teachers do not). Curricular implementation that is not extensive produces flat student achievement trends and creates reform fatigue among teachers and administrators. Deep implementation of a few things in the curriculum beats superficial implementation of many things. A guaranteed and viable curriculum—you've been there, but have you done that extensively?

Moving Beyond Using State Standards as the Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum

The second dismissive response that inevitably crops up in any discussion on focusing instruction and assessment squarely on a set of collaboratively developed instructional goals is, "We have state standards, so we don't have to create our own guaranteed and viable curriculum." Opponents will also say, "The state has already given us one, thank you very much." State standards alone do not constitute a guaranteed and viable curriculum. State standards documents typically include

  1. Too many standards
  2. Standards that are not of equal importance
  3. Standards that lack unidimensionality
  4. Standards that allow for vastly different expectations for students that vary between teachers

Too Many Standards Are Included

In many states, there are simply too many standards to serve as a viable curriculum. If the curriculum isn't viable, individual teachers have to decide what to leave out, and guaranteed standards go out the window. Researchers at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) examined national and state standards documents and identified 200 standards and 3,093 benchmarks in 14 subject areas. They estimated that to teach all those standards and benchmarks would require 71 percent more instructional time than is currently available, which would necessitate the equivalent of a K–21 or K–22 school system (Marzano & Haystead, 2008). Although a few parents might approve, we would no doubt be hard pressed to convince taxpayers and students to forestall high school graduation until age 28.

Cynthia Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of ACT's education division, commented on the problem of state curricula that include too many standards. She said

State learning standards are often too wide and not deep enough. [High school teachers] are trying to cover too much ground—more ground than colleges deem necessary—in the limited time they have with students. (Olson, 2007, p. 20)

Few teachers would argue with Schmeiser. Too many standards spoil the schools.

All Standards Are Not Equally Important

I asked thousands of teachers and other educators in workshops I have conducted the following question: "Are all of your state standards of equal importance, as measured either by their usefulness to students after high school or by the emphasis they receive on your state assessment?" I have yet to receive my first affirmative response.

During a presentation to middle and high school teachers and administrators in Breckinridge, Colorado, Willard Daggett (2007) asked conference participants which of the following sets of outcomes are most important to graduates after high school:

  1. Knowledge in one discipline
  2. Application within one discipline
  3. Application across disciplines
  4. Application to real-world predictable situations
  5. Application to real-world unpredictable situations

Of course, everyone chose the outcomes for answers 4 and 5.

Next, he asked, "Which of the sets of outcomes are emphasized most on your state tests?" Predictably, nearly everyone in attendance picked the set containing outcomes 1 and 2. State standards and tests, Daggett says, are the beginning, not the end of a coherent curriculum.

ACT's 2005–06 National Curriculum study showed that college instructors largely disapproved of their state's academic content standards. Two-thirds of those who responded said their state standards prepared students "poorly" or "very poorly" for college-level work. High school teachers, on the other hand, felt differently, with a majority responding that their state standards prepared students "well" or "very well" for college-level work (Marklein, 2007). Not all state standards are of equal importance, and what students get tested on may not be what is most important.

Resources are available to those educators and administrators who want to align their learning goals to college-readiness standards. The American Diploma Project (see outlines English and math standards that students should know when they graduate from high school. The Association of American Universities' Understanding University Success study (see documents the knowledge and skills that students are expected to have for entry-level university courses in six academic subject areas. David Conley (2005) provides readers with a thorough discussion of what he calls "college knowledge."

All Standards Are Not Unidimensional

A third problem with using existing state standards is what Robert Marzano (2006) calls a lack of unidimensionality. State standards and benchmarks typically mix multiple dimensions (i.e., information and skills) in a single statement which must be "unpacked" to be useful for instructional and assessment purposes. For example, Marzano cites the following 5th-grade benchmark from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics: Develop fluency in adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers (p. 15).

This benchmark actually encompasses four different mental processes or dimensions, one each for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Subject-matter experts need to analyze benchmarks such as this one to identify its separate dimensions as well as to "delete content that is not considered essential, delete content that is not amenable to classroom assessment, and combine content that is highly related" (Marzano & Haystead, 2008, pp. 12–13).

The Same Set of Standards Allows for Different Expectations

The final problem with using state standards as the guaranteed and viable curriculum is that without considerable further definition, the same state standard can be taught and assessed in a different way by different teachers. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo (2007–08) demonstrates the reality of vastly different expectations with six different assessment examples of the same 7th-grade New Jersey state math standard: Understand and use percents in a variety of situations.

  1. What is 50 percent of 20?
  2. What is 67 percent of 81?
  3. Shawn got 7 correct out of 10 possible answers on his science test. What percentage of questions did he answer correctly?
  4. J. J. Redick was on pace to set a college basketball record in career free throw percentage. Going into the NCAA tournament in 2004, he made 97 of 104 free throw attempts. What percent of free throws had he made?
  5. Using the previous example, in the first tournament game, Redick missed his first five free throws. How far did his percentage drop from right before the tournament game to right after missing those free throws?
  6. J. J. Redick and Chris Paul were competing for the best free throw percentage. Redick made 94 percent of his first 103 shots, whereas Paul made 47 of 51 shots.
    1. Which one had a better shooting percentage?
    2. In the next game, Redick made only 2 of 10 shots, and Paul made 7 of 10 shots. What are their overall shooting percentages? Who is the better shooter?
    3. Jason argued that if J. J. and Chris each made their next 10 shots, their shooting percentages would go up the same amount. Is this true? Why or why not? Describe in detail how you arrived at your answers. (p. 44)

Obviously, teaching to the same state standard does not guarantee consistency.

Balancing the Art and Science of Teaching

Teachers will also use the you're-taking-all-of-the-creativity-out-of-teaching argument. This response will include arguments such as

  • "Establishing a guaranteed and viable curriculum is an attack on academic freedom."
  • "Thanks for taking the art out of teaching."
  • "So, if it's October 17th, you want us all to be on page 86, right?"

Clarifying learning goals through a guaranteed and viable curriculum does not need to lead to "scripted" teaching. Robert Marzano (2007) devotes several paragraphs in The Art and Science of Teaching to establish the position that teaching is both an art and a science. He emphatically states, "I strongly believe that there is not (nor will there ever be) a formula for effective teaching" (p. 4). A guaranteed and viable curriculum identifies the "what" of teaching, not the "how." How a particular learning goal will be taught will always require considerable judgment on the part of teachers (the art of teaching), within the guidelines provided by the research on best practices (the science of teaching).

The academic freedom argument is an example of the logical error "appealing to emotion." Freedom of inquiry for students and faculty must be safeguarded, but that inquiry needs to be focused on the learning goals that the school or district has collaboratively determined to be most important. A fellow principal occasionally found it necessary to remind members of his very talented faculty that "you're not self-employed." As a high school principal confronted with the you're-taking-the-creativity-out-of-teaching argument, I occasionally resurrected the prophecy, "We'll never be as good as we can be, or as good as we need to be, as long as the ruling metaphor of the American high school is 'A collection of educational entrepreneurs held together by a common parking lot.'" Reactions to my witticism were mixed.

Michael Fullan (2008) makes an important distinction with regard to this particular dismissive response when he asserts that what we must be about is "the pursuit of precision, not prescription" (p. 82). Teachers in highly effective schools know precisely what they are after.

Using Professional Learning Communities to Establish Clear Learning Goals

After educators and leaders have established the importance of focusing instruction and assessment around clear learning goals by developing a guaranteed and viable curriculum, the question becomes, "How are high schools getting it done?" There are different approaches that have common elements which can help you arrive at the same goal.

Using Common Outcomes

Rick and Becky DuFour advocate for what they call the team learning process (DuFour & DuFour, 2004). Although sometimes difficult to put into practice because of structural, cultural, and leadership barriers, the process itself is really quite straightforward and easy to understand. It is as follows:

  1. Clarify 8 to 10 essential common outcomes per semester by course or content area
  2. Develop at least four common assessments per year
  3. Establish specific measurable standards or goals (i.e., SMART goals)
  4. Analyze results
  5. Identify and implement improvement strategies

The process makes intuitive sense: decide where you're going, establish performance goals, periodically assess students to gauge their progress via those outcomes and goals, look at the results, and do something different in your instructional goals if the results aren't to your liking.

In addition to its simple elegance, what gives this process credibility is the fact that its creators have walked the talk. Becky DuFour used the process with positive results in her elementary school in Virginia and won state and national recognition for her school's implementation of the professional learning community model. Rick DuFour implemented the team learning process while serving as principal at Adlai Stevenson High School outside of Chicago. The teacher collaboration model is still in place there and has helped the staff at Stevenson progress from being just another good suburban high school to becoming an outstanding school. Ninety-six percent of the students at this large and diverse school go to college (Honawar, 2008).

As a speaker at the New Century School Summit in Colorado, Mike Schmoker (2007) said the model proposed by the DuFours is potentially so powerful that if high schools in this country did nothing more than implement that model, we would move to the top of the pack on international assessments for student achievement. Elsewhere, Schmoker describes the success that Johnson City High School in New York had while implementing such a model (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005). The school increased the number of students passing the Regents Exam from 47 percent to 93 percent in one year using the process below. The teachers at Johnson City

  • Divided essential math skills and knowledge from the Regents Exam into four quarters
  • Designed quarterly common assessments for these topics
  • Met regularly to prepare, test, and refine lessons and strategies
  • Used assessment results to adjust instruction

The Johnson City High School process represents just a slight variation on the DuFour theme. They used different approaches with common elements to arrive at a common goal.

Developing Power Standards and Essential Tasks

Littleton High School in Colorado provides another example of educators and leaders who joined their efforts together to identify learning goals at the building, department, and course level. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the faculty at Littleton High School began to make the conceptual shift from a focus on seat time (i.e., Carnegie units) to what is known today as standards-based education [formerly known as performance-based education] (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2004; Westerberg, 2007). The initiative was named Direction 2000 and it identified 19 performance-based graduation requirements and corresponding performance assessments on which all students were expected to demonstrate mastery. The ground-breaking initiative was met with political opposition from a conservative "back-to-basics" parent group before it was fully implemented. But, rather than abandon using performance instead of time as the measure of achievement, the faculty modified the original concept to accommodate a more traditional vision of schooling. Today, learning goals and performance standards are presented and used in power standards and essential tasks.

Writer and researcher Douglas Reeves introduced the concept of using power standards as a method of identifying schoolwide learning goals to the staff at Littleton through a series of presentations to the faculty and administration. In a nutshell, Reeves's argument, as briefly outlined earlier in this chapter, is that schools attempt to cover too many standards and are not doing a good job of teaching any of them. Instead of this frantic attempt at coverage, Reeves recommends that educators identify a smaller number of standards that are especially powerful because of their endurance (i.e., the standard is valuable beyond a single test date), leverage (i.e., the standard is useful in multiple disciplines), and facility for preparing students for the next level of learning (Reeves, 2001). The problem of trying to cover too much material in one school year had an immediate emotional appeal for teachers.

In a yearlong collaborative process that included all of the teachers, administrators, parents, and students at Littleton, the school community identified and later adopted four schoolwide learning goals (or power standards) that the faculty agreed were too important to leave to chance: nonfiction writing, information literacy, citizenship and work habits, and thinking and reasoning. The staff focused on implementing these standards over several years and devoted two to three years to define, clarify, and train faculty members on how to teach and assess each power standard. For example, every teacher at Littleton High School is expected to provide instruction in the writing process in every class every semester using the school's adopted common language and rubric.

The expectations for these power standards at Littleton go well beyond just including a few open-ended questions on a test and giving students grades. Teachers are expected to teach the writing process which includes direct instruction, feedback, peer editing, and revision. Professional development time is used to examine student writing and survey results at both the department level and in cross-disciplinary teams. For students, having this level of direct instruction on nonfiction writing in multiple disciplines using a common language and a common rubric 50, 60, or even 70 times in their high school career is quite powerful!

Contrast that approach with what typically occurs in many American high schools. For almost 100 years at Littleton High School, the de facto posture regarding writing was based on an assumption (or perhaps hope) that students would develop their writing skills as they passed through the curriculum, regardless of the courses they chose and the teachers to whom they were assigned. The elephant in the room at most high schools is that that assumption and similar assumptions about other important knowledge and skills are not valid. Some students are fortunate and determined enough to graduate as strong writers. Others, we know, are not.

Michael Fullan (2008) says, "Successful organizations are 'all over' the practices that are known to make a difference" (p. 77). Highly effective schools leave nothing important to chance. Instead, they are very deliberate about what is essential for students to know and be able to do.

You may not agree with the particular power standards chosen by the Littleton High School community. That's OK. Faculty members there don't care unless you join the staff. In that case, you need to get on board with what constitutes a schoolwide guaranteed curriculum. The goals that are ultimately selected are not as important as the fact that they are collaboratively developed, based on local performance data, and used to advance the school's or district's mission.

The essential tasks that are identified by staff members at Littleton High School constitute, in part, the guaranteed and viable curriculum at the department or course level. For example, the science department has identified article critique and experimental design as essential tasks. Teachers in the science department feel that in our scientific and technological world, our economic, social, and political systems cannot function effectively unless ordinary citizens are able to critically evaluate a science-related article in publications like Newsweek or the Denver Post. Likewise, obtaining a thorough understanding of the experimental design process is too central to what scientists do to leave the development of that understanding to chance. Another example comes from the physical education department, where all teachers have committed to focus on cardiovascular fitness as defined by departmentwide performance standards.

Many education experts identify essential standards differently. The DuFours (2004) call them "outcomes," Schmoker refers to them as "essential knowledge and skills," Wiggins and McTighe (2007) label them "understandings," Marzano (2006) prefers "measurement topics," the National Association of Secondary School Principals (2004) uses the term "essential learnings," Reeves (2001) talks about "power standards," and Littleton High School uses a combination of power standards and essential tasks (Westerberg, 2007). Although there are some important differences in these conceptualizations, they can all be used to identify learning goals that serve as the focus for all aspects of instructional planning and implementation. It does not matter what you call them, but it does matter that you identify, articulate, and operationalize them.

Developing Learning Goals at the Classroom Level

We are ready to move now from the big picture learning goals at the course and grade level to setting specific unit objectives at the classroom level. Sometimes, schoolwide learning goals can be readily used as objectives for individual units of instruction. Other times, these goals need to be further broken down or "unpacked" to fit a teacher's approach for a particular set of skills or knowledge. Depending on the characteristics and parameters of a particular learning process the degree of covariance among the elements within the larger goal will dictate how much work teachers must do to move from the guaranteed and viable curriculum to unit objectives.

The following is an example of a learning goal identified by a school district as one of eight major outcomes for second-semester 7th-grade geography: Students understand the relationship between topography, natural resources, and culture. This goal could also serve as the primary objective for a two-week unit of instruction. In another example, the following power standard, Students write and speak effectively for a variety of purposes and audiences using proper conventions, is probably too encompassing and multidimensional to serve effectively as an individual unit objective.

In either case, a well-supported argument exists for beginning the unit design process by establishing clear learning objectives or goals and communicating them to students early and often. Robert Marzano (2007) reports increases in student achievement ranging from 16 to 41 percentile points in his review of research results on goal setting. In the largest of these studies, when students know what they are supposed to be learning, their performance, on average, increased by 21 percentile points. "Instructional goals narrow what students focus on" (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001, p. 94).

Distinguishing Between Learning Activities and Learning Goals

In my visits to high school classrooms, often in highly-acclaimed schools, I frequently find that students know what they are responsible for doing, but not what they are supposed to be learning. If I ask a student, "What are you supposed to be learning by doing _____ (the activity at hand)," he or she responds with a frustrated "I don't know. She just told us to read the chapter and answer the questions at the end." Wrong answer!

There is an important distinction between learning activities and learning goals. "Completing a science lab on osmosis" is not a learning goal nor are "preparing and presenting a report on cocaine," "solving the problems at the end of chapter 7," or "writing an essay." These are learning activities. Learning goals state what students will understand or be able to do as a result of engaging in one or more well-constructed learning activities. Examples of learning goals are as follows: Understand the relationship among topography, natural resources, and culture, Know the states and their capitals, Revise an essay to improve word choice, and Engage in a series of drills to improve dribbling skills. Marzano (2007) and Wiggins and McTighe (2007) provide more detailed discussions of the distinction between activities and learning goals.

When teachers solely focus on learning activities, this promotes a check-it-off mentality for students. You will hear them say things like, "When is this due?" "How many sources do I have to have?" "How many points is this worth?" "Can I get extra credit for wearing a costume?" or "Just tell me what to do so I can check it off." Many parents witness the check-it-off mentality on a regular basis. When our youngest daughter was in 7th grade, we asked her if she really understood anything she was copying out of her science book and into her notebook. She responded, "I don't care. I just have to get something down so the teacher can check it off." As a 9th grade student, this same daughter was assigned a book to read in her language arts class. The single criterion for getting an A seemed to be that the book had to be at least 200 pages in length. One copy of her favorite book, Seabiscuit, was 198 pages in length. Borders had another version of the book with different print and 212 pages. This was yet another item to check off.

Our youngest son had summer assignments between his sophomore and junior years in high school in preparation for entering the International Baccalaureate program at his school. The assignments included reading two novels for language arts; completing worksheets in Spanish, chemistry, math, and biology; and reading the first nine chapters in a history book. He was given no guidance regarding what to read or look for as he completed his assignments. He completed the assignments in a mindless fashion, but his teachers checked it off the next fall. Assignments without clear learning goals do not promote learning and amount to no more than busy work for students. Learning goals should help students focus on what is to be learned.

A focus on learning goals rather than performance goals (e.g., scoring proficient on the state test) has been shown to increase student motivation (Jalongo, 2007; Newell & Van Ryzin, 2007). Newell and Van Ryzin (2007) say

A 'learning' or 'mastery' goal orientation represents a desire to achieve purely for the purpose of obtaining knowledge and increasing skill. A 'performance' or 'ego' goal orientation, on the other hand, represents a focus on appearances rather than on real learning. The perceived goal orientation of a school can significantly affect a student's own goal orientation. Students who perceive that their school exhibits a 'learning' goal orientation seek challenges, show persistence in the face of adversity, use more effective learning strategies, have more positive attitudes, and are more cognitively engaged in learning." (p. 467)

The findings of Newell and Van Ryzin have profound implications for today's test- and performance-driven high schools. It's no wonder students show a lack of interest, engagement, and persistence when the implied or expressed purpose of school is limited to obtaining a certain score on a test. Raising test scores is a necessary and important leadership responsibility, but it is not the purpose of schooling. We must communicate more important goals to students than just raising test scores when they ask, "Why go to school?"

Allowing students to personalize learning goals also enhances student motivation (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Steffen Saifer and Rhonda Barton (2007) provide an example of how one teacher combined culture and chemistry in a molecular modeling project by asking students to investigate how their molecules might affect their culture or community. Several Chinese students studied the impact of the Opium Wars on their culture, and one black student studied high levels of lactose intolerance among members of the black community.

In Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, Pitler and colleagues direct readers to software programs that assist students in personalizing learning goals. The programs help students construct graphic organizers to visually represent the relationship between unit goals and students' individual interests (Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, & Malenoski, 2007).

The Principal's Role in Developing a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum

Kim Marshall (2006) and other leading researchers and authors in the context of standards-based education (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005; Schmoker, 2006; Umphrey, 2008) raised the question about the principal's role in developing curriculum several years ago. Marshall's question presupposes that principals are not able to do everything they might like to do to improve teaching and learning in their school; therefore, they have to make choices. Marshall asks readers to pick the three activities that will have the greatest impact on teaching and learning from the following seven options: (1) traditional supervision and evaluation process, (2) walkthroughs, (3) mini-observations with follow-up conversations, (4) quick "drive-by" visits, (5) collecting teachers' lesson plans, (6) requiring teams of teachers to submit common curriculum unit plans with follow-up discussions, and (7) helping teams of teachers analyze and use the results of interim assessments. Marshall's recommendations, based on research results, suggest that I may have wasted at least 10 years of my career.

That last statement is admittedly an exaggeration. In retrospect, however, it seems that I must have spent a decade of my 26 years as a principal in my basement writing lengthy summative evaluation reports as part of the teacher supervision and evaluation process. As I suspected all along, this was definitely not one of those activities on Marshall's list of recommendations. For new and veteran teachers whose continued employment in the district was in question, the process served a legal purpose. For veteran teachers in good standing, however, the process was mostly a game. I pretended to have gained a complete understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and they pretended to be truly enlightened by my observations and recommendations.

Principals who strive to build instruction and learning on a foundation of clearly defined instructional goals should spend their time devoted to instructional leadership or leadership for learning. They also need to be focused on meeting with teams of teachers, reviewing and clarifying learning goals, examining the formative assessments that teachers use to monitor student progress, and asking questions about teachers' intervention plans for struggling students. Principals also need to make time to ask teachers, "What are you trying to accomplish?" "How are the kids doing?" "How do you know when students are not mastering a specific skill?" and "What are you doing to help them improve?"

These are far different foci than that which has occupied high school principals in the past. Notice the emphasis on working mostly with teams of teachers rather than with individuals. For most of my career, my work to improve instruction and learning was a private affair between the teacher and me. These one-on-one sessions unintentionally reinforced the old mental model of teachers working in isolation. Marshall (2008) offers time-management strategies for busy principals who wish to shift their instructional leadership work toward more productive activities. These strategies include adapting a number of mindsets:

  • I have a laser-like focus on student achievement and a strategic plan for the year.
  • My staff members know exactly what is expected of them in terms of classroom instruction and discipline.
  • I have an effective personal planning system for each year, month, week, and day.
  • All of my key teams (e.g., leadership, grade-level) are scheduled to meet on a regular basis.
  • I have a foolproof system for writing things down, prioritizing and following up.
  • I have highly competent people in key roles and delegate maximum responsibility to them.
  • I visit 3–5 classrooms a day and give face-to face feedback to each teacher within 24 hours.
  • I have effective strategies for preventing or deflecting time-wasting crises and activities.
  • I take care of myself, including family, health, exercise, sleep, and vacations.
  • I regularly evaluate progress toward my goals and work on continuous improvement.

Of course, this new learning leader role for principals assumes that principals know good instruction when they see it. Doug Reeves reminds us that this necessary precondition is not always in place (2008, April). He says

To fulfill their instructional leadership role, school administrators have been exhorted to monitor instruction more closely with walk-throughs and other supervisory techniques. But administrators can walk marathons through classrooms of a school and accomplish nothing if they do not begin with a clear conception of what effective instruction looks like. (p. 92)

Having a clear concept of what effective instruction looks like is the subject of the next chapter of this book. The question at this point is, "How are principals spending their time?" Instructional leadership is a precious thing to lose.

Increase the Rigor or Succumb to Rigor Mortis

By closely examining students' required thinking for each unit learning goal, we have a window of opportunity to look into an issue that has become a mantra of school reform in districts across the country—increase the rigor of the curriculum.

Increasing Rigor by Increasing Quality

In newspapers and education publications, there are many accounts from districts and states across the country that are adding quantity to the curriculum and then boasting of having increased rigor. Increasing the number of courses or credits required for graduation, especially in math and science, and encouraging all students to take college-prep courses (or courses with college-prep titles) has become the favorite battle cry among politicians and education reformers alike in the fight against ignorance. For example, since 2001, 33 states have enacted policies that in some way alter graduation requirements, with several of those alterations increasing the number of courses or units required in core areas (Recent State Policies, 2007). Colorado is among several states with pending legislation to increase credit-based graduation requirements. Since 2001, 11 states have decided to begin requiring students to complete a college-prep course sequence (Toch, Jerald, & Dillon, 2007). Similar activities at the district level far outnumber the cases of "increased rigor" as reported by the states.

The results of the quantity approach to defining rigor have been almost universally disappointing, particularly for poor and minority students. Education Week (Kennedy-Manzo, 2007) and the Los Angeles Times (Landsberg, 2007) recently published articles based on two federal reports which concluded that although high school students are completing a more challenging core curriculum than they were 15 years ago, the scores for seniors in math and reading remain flat or have declined.

In Education Week, Kay and Houlihan (2006) note that despite a focus on increasing traditional metrics (e.g., graduation requirements), U.S. students perform poorly not only on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) but on tests involving international comparisons as well. The Chicago Public Schools increased its graduation requirements in 1997, but a 2005 Chicago Tribune article reported that between 60 and 90 percent of college freshmen failed college placement tests (Toch, Jerald, & Dillon, 2007). Jay Mathews (2006) of the Washington Post described a case where "course-label inflation," (i.e., courses that promise more than they deliver) had been particularly harmful to low-income and minority students in Texas when it was time for them to take the required state exam. The College Board has begun an audit of every AP course in the nation in response to concerns that the recent dramatic increase in the number of students taking AP courses may be resulting in more quantity than quality. This audit will help to ensure college leaders that there has been no decrease in the rigor of the program (de Vise, 2007).

The results from the tendency to align rigor with quantity is best summed up by Nel Noddings (2007) from Stanford University. She describes the current effort to increase rigor in schools as a form of mental drudgery that focuses on a few discrete skills and is devoid of intellectual content. Noddings and others call for a new definition of rigor that centers on increasing the quality of the educational experience and develops intellectual habits of mind.

Education writers and researchers are building a consensus around a new definition of rigor that has more to do with quality than with quantity. Noddings (2007) defines rigor as designing work in which students are "asked to identify for themselves the important points in every unit of study, construct their own summaries, attempt problems that have no obvious solutions, engage in interpretation, and evaluate conflicting expectations and points of view" (p. 32). Washor and Mojkowski (2006–07) envision rigor as a learning environment that involves "deep immersion in a subject over time, with learners using sophisticated texts, tools, and language in real-world settings. In such settings, students encounter complex, messy problems for which tools and solutions may not be readily apparent or available" (p. 85). These authors also describe rigorous work as reflective, interactive for students, and open for peer and public scrutiny and opportunities for practitioners to act as mentors. Daniel Baron (2007) offers the following definition for more consideration on rigor:

Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, and personally or emotionally challenging. In rigorous schools, students are evaluated by how they apply their understanding of content in new and unique situations. (p. 50)

Common themes that run through these and other definitions and descriptions of rigor include problem solving, critical thinking, reflection, ownership, communication, creativity, complexity, breadth and depth, and connections. When we look at rigor based on these definitions, it has very little to do with the quantity of work we assign to students. Instead, it has a great deal to do with the quality of the work we ask students to do and the types of assessments we use to monitor and evaluate student progress.

Creating Rigorous Curricula and Instruction

School or district leaders who are interested in creating curricula and instruction that reflect true rigor can begin to re-evaluate what they are doing by engaging in the following six-step process:

  • Begin the conversation with teachers and administrators at the school or district level.
  • Identify and analyze available frameworks and models on rigor.
  • Test selected frameworks and models for the best fit for the school or district.
  • Adapt existing frameworks and models to create a framework for use throughout the school or district.
  • Use the adopted framework or model to analyze and modify existing units of instruction.
  • Provide systemic support for framework or model.

1. Begin the conversation. I often begin my conversations about rigor by adapting a quote by Mark Twain: "Everybody talks about rigor but nobody does anything about it." There are precious few schools and district leaders who are having conversations that are aimed at arriving at a common understanding of rigor.

The first step in creating rigor is to begin the conversation. Faculty and district members can start by using any number of common protocols and identifying and sharing their definitions for rigor. During these conversations, it will soon become evident that each participant defines rigor differently and there will be common themes among the definitions. One tool recommended in Breaking Ranks II is the School Academic Rigor & Support Self-Assessment tool. It uses a discrepancy model format, which allows school stakeholders to compare desired and actual levels of 70 interdependent rigor and support characteristics and then analyze results using planning tools that accompany the survey.

2. Identify and analyze available frameworks and models. Several conceptual frameworks and models are available to extend and deepen the conversation beyond the awareness level. Grubb and Oakes (2007) offer the following seven conceptions of rigor that provide an excellent foundation for school communities who want to define or describe rigor in their curriculum:

  • Rigor as student effort (i.e., more hours of homework equals increased rigor)
  • Test-based rigor (i.e., international comparisons, high school exit exams)
  • Content-based rigor (i.e., all students must pursue a college-prep program or take an AP class)
  • Rigor as breadth versus depth
  • Rigor as levels of sophistication (i.e., from decoding to comprehension to analytic judgments about texts)
  • Rigor as application and transfer
  • Rigor as intellectual breadth (i.e., the well-rounded student) (pp. 12–15)

Grubb and Oakes point out that the standards-based approach to school reform has been almost exclusively focused on test- and content-based rigor. They argue that this focus has very little potential for preparing youth for the economic, civic, and intellectual demands of the 21st century. Instead, they urge us to consider conceptions four through seven as foundations for increasing rigor in our schools.

Willard Daggett, from the International Center for Leadership in Education, offers what he calls a Rigor/Relevance framework as a tool for examining curriculum, instruction, and assessment (Rigor/Relevance Framework, n.d.). The framework consists of four quadrants (acquisition, application, assimilation, and adaptation) that include instructional and assessment strategies that are particularly effective in eliciting high levels of student performance. The quadrants are created by plotting five points from an application model on the horizontal axis and six points from Bloom's Taxonomy on the vertical axis of a grid.

Another model I have found useful in helping teachers plan for rigor is Robert Marzano's (2007) comprehensive framework of effective teaching. This framework is presented in the form of 10 instructional design questions. Design question 4 (What will I do to help students generate and test hypotheses about new knowledge?) specifically addresses the issue of rigor. Some of the strategies listed for generating and testing hypotheses include teaching students how to effectively support a claim, engage in experimental inquiry, solve problems, make decisions, and investigate learning tasks. Activities like these address the common themes that run through the more enlightened definitions and descriptions of rigor just presented. The Education Trust also has a model for evaluating rigor called Standards in Practice (SIP). SIP is a six-step professional development model that focuses on increasing instructional rigor.

External benchmarks can be important resources in helping educators evaluate the rigor of local instruction. For example, Byram Hills High School in Armonk, New York, uses the Intel Science Talent Search competition as a model for instilling rigor into teaching and learning. This competition is a rich learning experience that includes many of the descriptors of rigorous instruction outlined here. Each year, nearly a quarter of the sophomore class at Byram Hills signs up to do research (Berger, 2007).

The content and performance standards from programs such as Intel, International Baccalaureate, and High Schools That Work can be used to calibrate the level of rigor for instruction.

3. Test selected frameworks and models. At this point, it is a good idea to try out a few frameworks and models to give teachers a feel for how they work when they are applied to sample units of instruction. During this period, you are looking for a good fit between the framework and your school's or district's philosophy and belief systems. Rigor will not move from the conference room to the classroom unless teachers believe that the framework helps to increase rigor in the classroom.

4. Adapt existing frameworks and models for use throughout the school or district. After you have tested a few frameworks, you are now ready to adopt a local framework or model to guide the ongoing examination of curricular and instructional rigor at the school or district level. It is seldom that school leaders will adopt an existing framework or model as a whole. Key players, however, will pick parts of an existing framework or model that align with the school's or district's belief systems and add any elements they believe are missing. The adopted framework or model must be written and widely disseminated and discussed.

The Adams 50 School District in Westminster, Colorado, has developed a working definition of rigor, along with supporting statements that describe what rigorous teaching and rigorous learning look like in practice. The Adams model, shown in Figure 3.1, reflects characteristics of several of the aforementioned frameworks and models.

Figure 3.1. Rigor Definitions from the Adams 50 School District

Administrators' Definition of Rigor

Rigor is an expectation that students will demonstrate success with consistent high standards for academic achievement and behavioral excellence through multiple, relevant learning opportunities.

Teachers' Definition of Rigor

Academic rigor is the quality or action that requires an individual to challenge oneself to persevere in order to increase one's complexity of knowledge and thinking and perform at a higher level.



How do we know rigorous learning when we see it?

  • Students are focused on performance targets and know how to achieve them
  • Know and demonstrate an understanding of expectations, objectives, and standards
  • Students can articulate purpose of learning
  • Students know why it's important to learn goals
  • More student-to-student talk
  • Engaged in authentic work
  • Self-motivated
  • On task
  • Ownership and responsibility for own learning
  • Classroom is interactive
  • Interaction with content through questioning, dialogue, cooperative learning, research
  • Persistence and resilience = risk taking
  • Ask questions and apply knowledge and higher–level thinking
  • Challenged to think
  • Extracurricular challenges as well as classes
  • Reflection of learning experience through projects, journaling, and talking
  • Expression of new insights on own progress
  • System access to high-level course work with support
  • New level of performance
  • Application of knowledge transferring to other situations

What does rigorous teaching look like?

  • Clearly communicating learning objective and expectations of performance proficiency
  • Insists on reaching the learning goal
  • Expectations and belief in each student's success
  • ALWAYS challenging students' thinking
  • Moving students toward being lifelong independent learners
  • Building student capacity
  • All students can participate and contribute to the classroom learning
  • Engage the student actively and authentically
  • Appropriate balance of knowledge/skill/application
  • Higher-level questioning
  • Progressive questioning (What's next …?)
  • Evidence of reflection, self-evaluation, analyzing
  • Ongoing assessment to increase complexity of learning
  • Evidence of a classroom environment that leads from teacher-directed to learner-directed
  • Good collaboration (Teacher to Student, Teacher to Teacher, Student to Student)
  • Relevancy
  • Documented topics, skills, planned order
  • Materials need to fit the challenge (appropriate materials; evidence of thoughtful planning to lead to learning goals)
  • Teaching Learning Cycle effectively (Curriculum, instruction, assessment, evaluation)
  • In-depth study of essential learnings
  • Cross-curricular integration

Source: Adams 50 School District, Westminster, CO. Reprinted with permission.

5. Use the adopted framework or model to analyze and modify existing units of instruction. Teachers can gain a deep understanding of and fidelity for a new framework or model when they use the framework to analyze and modify existing units of instruction. At the elementary level, implementing a new framework can be done in grade-level teams, and at the secondary level, course or department teams may be more appropriate. For example, the assignments in Figures 3.2 and 3.3 could be compared with regard to rigor by using a newly adopted framework or model. This kind of collaborative work fits perfectly with the professional learning community (PLC) model supported by research (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005; National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2004; Schmoker, 2006) and with increasing popularity in schools.

Figure 3.2. Sample Assignment Using Rigor

This project requires that you find information, write a report, make a display, and give an oral presentation.

Select a state that you would enjoy studying. Find information about your state that will help us understand what it is like to live there. You might include the state symbols, the flag, the geography, the way people make their living, or the animals that live there.

Write a report that describes your state. Make a poster that displays important information that you will use as you present your information to the class.

On your assigned day, you will present your information. Be sure to practice and speak clearly to the class. You should also wear something that symbolizes the state. (You may bring food that is typical of the state to share with the class for five extra credit points.)

You will be evaluated as follows:

  • Information
    • Important information
    • Recorded on note cards

15 points

  • Report
    • Well-organized
    • Typed

30 points

  • Display
    • Colorful and creative

20 points

  • Oral presentation
    • Organized
    • Good eye-contact, loud voice
    • Dressed in clothes that symbolize the state

20 points

Extra Credit?

5 points

TOTAL _____________ out of 90

Source: D. Pickering, Littleton, CO. Reprinted with permission.

Figure 3.3. Sample Assignment Using Rigor with Rubrics

Exploring Topography, Natural Resources, and Culture

  1. Select a state or country that interests you.
  2. During our computer lab time, find at least two Internet sites that have information about your state and country.
  3. Find specific information about that state or country that describes its topography, natural resources, and culture.
  4. Through a written or oral report with accompanying visuals or a graphic representation with written explanations, explain how specific aspects of the topography and natural resources influence the culture of the area.
    The goal of this assignment is to make connections between topography, natural resources, and culture. The major connections we have been studying have been focused on how topography and natural resources influence culture, but you might find ways that culture can influence topography and natural resources.
  5. On the day that the project is due, you will have two responsibilities. First, you will spend time at your desk and explain the connections to your classmates who are "making the rounds" through the projects. Second, when it is your turn to make the rounds, you will try to learn about connections from five other states or countries that your classmates will be explaining.

Figure 3.3 (Continued). Sample Assignment Using Rigor with Rubrics

Figure 3.3 (Continued). Sample Assignment Using Rigor with Rubrics

Source: D. Pickering, Littleton, CO. Reprinted with permission.

6. Ensure that the system supports the framework or model. A study of national policy and research organizations by the National Alliance of High Schools (Housman, Muller, & Chait, 2006) identified the following four themes with regard to strategies for increasing academic rigor:

  • Raising graduation requirements
  • Ensuring access to quality course content and instruction
  • Aligning course content and assessments with the skills necessary for higher education and employment
  • Institutionalizing additional support for students at risk (pp. 2–5)

The approach to rigor that I have described thus far has focused on aligning curriculum and instruction with the 21st century demands of higher education and employment. However, care must be taken to ensure that rigor is not unintentionally sabotaged by other parts of the system. For example, increasing rigor without providing additional support for at-risk students could be a prescription for disaster. As is true with most significant school improvement efforts, thinking about the whole system is necessary.

Purposeful conversations about defining rigor need to be happening in every school and district in the country. This conversation isn't just a high school conversation. The notion that developing intellectual habits of mind can begin in high school is naive at best. Research and common sense tell us that rigorous learning experiences are good for students at all levels. Without these conversations and a willingness to use a structured process to act on the shared understandings reached through them, millions more American students each year will display the disturbing signs of educational rigor mortis and the life of education will be gone from them forever.

* * *

Establishing and communicating clear instructional goals and using state standards as a beginning point is the antidote to curriculum anarchy. It is also the first step in becoming a great high school. Highly effective high schools are very precise about what they intend to accomplish, and they know how to move beyond a focus on instructional activities to a focus on rigorous instructional goals. Instructional leadership in these schools looks very different from what has traditionally been the norm. This type of leadership is focused on discussions with teams of teachers about common learning goals, formative assessments, and interventions.


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