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Is it rigor, or is it rigor mortis?

By Susan Ohanian

Rigor, this decade's word of the day for the education industrial complex, commands scrutiny. In 1999, when Edward Rust Jr., chief executive officer of State Farm Insurance Company, addressed the U. S. House of Representatives, saying that "the federal government has a role in helping states develop and maintain rigorous academic standards," he brought the weight of his chairmanship of the National Alliance of Business and the Education Task Force for The Business Roundtable, not to mention board positions at McGraw-Hill, Achieve Inc., and the Business-Higher Education Forum. Six years later, speaking at the National Governors Association education summit, Bill Gates identified a new set of three R's — the first one being rigor. In announcing a $42 million initiative to prepare all students for success, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation trumpeted: Leaders call for equity, rigor in the American high school. And when money talks, politicos legislate. The president's 774-page budget bill calls for the federal government to rate the academic rigor of the nation's 18,000 high schools. Republicans and Democrats vie for whose education platform is more rigorous: Mom, apple pie, and rigor.

Rigor: Strictness or severity, as in temperament, action, or judgment. A harsh or trying circumstance; hardship. A harsh or cruel act.

Physiology: A state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.

Synonym: Stiffness, rigidness; inflexibility; severity; austerity; sternness; harshness; strictness; exactness.

—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition.

Nonetheless, the clamor for rigor increases. It's no surprise that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings promotes advanced placement courses as "a very effective model to get teachers the full capability to teach rigorous course work." More disquieting, even bizarre, is Montgomery County superintendent Jerry Weast's campaign, headlined in an article "Why We Need Rigorous, Full-Day Kindergarten." In June 2006, Montgomery County holds its second annual conference titled Partners for Rigor Through Relevancy.

Stevens Elementary School in Washington promises to achieve its goal of 77.2 percent of students meeting standards on the fourth grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning by promoting a "school focus of respect, responsibility, and rigor."

The South Dakota Department of Education distributes checklists on which teachers indicate how well professional development activities produced "Increased Academic Rigor in my Classes." The CESA 4 Standards and Assessment Center in Wisconsin, provides alignment worksheets and rigor ladders in reading and mathematics, though just what the difference between a rigor ladder and a skills checklist is not readily apparent.

In the Elementary Education Newsletter, winter 2006, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell writes that the mathematics framework for California public schools provides for the "implementation of a rigorous and coherent mathematics curriculum for kindergarten through grade 12." California unionists join in. Representing the 319,000-member California Teachers Association, Betty Ann James announced, "Let me assure you that today's rigorous kindergarten aims to prepare youngsters to succeed in the hard academic work that begins in first grade."

Not surprisingly, for-profit organizations move in for the rigor kill. The International Center for Leadership in Education, headed by Dr. William R. Daggett, has developed The Rigor/Relevance Framework. Vermont's former education commissioner Ray McNulty is a senior consultant with this outfit. Their Rigor and Relevance Handbook is available for $40 (plus postage).

In its report the State of State Standards the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., assigned each state a grade for their academic standards. The grades were based on the standards' measurability, specificity, and rigor. Rigor being in the eye of the beholder, Vermont received a D-plus.

Across the country, journalists and editorialists pick up on the corporate call for rigor: "more academically rigorous material to lower grades" (Burlington Free Press); questioning "whether spring test results meet rigorous new federal standards for student performance" (Raleigh News and Observer); "Blame parents for lack of rigor in high schools, Gov. Tom Vilsack says" (Des Moines Register); "the national effort to ratchet up the rigor of American high school education." (New York Times)

Perhaps we in Vermont can take some small comfort that rigor doesn't rear its ugly head until page 3 of the Vermont Department of Education application for a Reading First grant from the federal government. There, the department promises to provide rigorous expectations for reading instruction throughout the grant sites and across the state. And please note: They are talking about the education of 5-year-olds.

Read further and you'll see what the department has abandoned in the name of this rigor. Thanks to the edicts of the rapacious No Child Left Behind and its illegitimate spawn, Reading First, kindergartners and primary graders now inhabit rigorous skill drill zones.

In the guidelines for Reading First applications, the federal government made it clear what was expected, warning, "State applications, however, will be held to rigorous standards for approval." Money commands, and the Vermont Department of Education followed orders. In marching to the corporate-politicos' tune, the Department of Education has strayed far from the principles of the Vermont Design for Education, a 1968 statement of belief about how children learn. One must ask whom, besides functionaries at the U. S. Department of Education, they consulted before doing this. The word rigor does not appear in the 10-page Design for Education, but plenty of good words do. Vermonters would do well to reject the corporate-politico jingles and look again to our educational roots. The Vermont Design for Education is a good place to start.

Susan Ohanian of Charlotte is a senior fellow at the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.

— Susan Ohanian
Rutland Herald


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