The sophomores in Shari Hatfield’s chemistry class couldn’t figure it out.
“It’s not working,” Nikki Fralin grumbled as she attached plastic tubing to a submersible water pump.
Her lab group was supposed to measure and compare water’s rate of flow at various heights, but so far, the water wouldn’t reach the top of a yardstick that Ryan Hatchett held.
“What should we do?”
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The teacher didn’t rush in with an answer or even a hint – at least not at first. She shrugged. She smiled. She asked pointed questions. And she let them struggle.
“We need to encourage kids to use their thinking skills rather than ‘Just tell me what you want me to memorize, and I’ll spit it right back at you,’ ” said Hatfield, who teaches honors and Advanced Placement chemistry at Heights High School in Wichita.
“What we really want are students who can think independently, think critically and solve problems.”
We need to encourage kids to use their thinking skills rather than ‘Just tell me what you want me to memorize, and I’ll spit it right back at you.’
Shari Hatfield, chemistry teacher
That’s one element of rigor, a new districtwide focus in Wichita public schools.
District leaders this year – from superintendent John Allison to building principals and assistant principals – have issued a call to increase rigor by talking about what it means and what it looks like in classrooms from pre-kindergarten through high school.
So what is rigor?
Educators define it as an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels and demonstrate what they’ve learned. It means creating a culture of high expectations, providing support, digging deeper into subject matter and not moving on until students understand the material.
Rigor isn’t new, Allison said. But it marks a shift away from the drill-and-kill “Will it be on the test?” philosophy that has dominated many public school classrooms over the past decade under the No Child Left Behind law.
“Students are having to examine their reasoning,” Allison said. “They’re being asked to do cognitively complex tasks, use previous knowledge and apply it.
Quality over quantity
Ask Wichita teachers to define rigor, and many begin by explaining what it’s not.
It’s not more homework. It’s not a prescribed curriculum available to only the highest-level students. It’s not fewer A’s and B’s and more C’s and D’s.
“Rigor doesn’t mean that we go from 35 math problems to 65,” Hatfield said.
“I’m still giving the same amount of homework I’ve always given, but the homework and activities are going to require them to do more critical thinking, deeper thinking.”
Brynn Lyman, an English teacher at Heights, describes rigor as a commitment to quality over quantity.
Rather than giving her students 100 vocabulary words to learn, for example, “Maybe we do only 25 vocabulary words, but they’re words I feel confident they will be able to use now and really understand,” she said.
“I would rather have them really know fewer things than sort of know a lot of things.”
Over the summer, Lyman’s students read “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer’s account of his participation in a harrowing and deadly Mount Everest expedition in 1996. At school, they spent several weeks discussing the book – small portions at a time, focusing on diction and word choice – then reading other writers’ accounts of the experience and comparing them to Krakauer’s.
Lyman’s students turn in multiple drafts of each writing assignment.
“If you didn’t do it right, I’m going to make you keep working on it until you get it right,” she said.
“It’s that pushing part, I think, that’s really important to rigor – that I’m going to take you as far as you can go.”
It’s that pushing part, I think, that’s really important to rigor – that I’m going to take you as far as you can go.
Brynn Lyman, AP English teacher
Before teaching AP, Lyman was part of the district’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, a reform effort designed to steer students toward upper-level classes and prepare them for college. She said she tells all her students, regardless of academic level, that she will challenge them with difficult texts and assignments.
“If you went to weights class and lifted only 5-pound weights all year, you wouldn’t be any stronger,” she said.
“I have to give you things that are a little outside of your comfort zone and that push you a little bit, or you’re not going to get better.”
Beyond test scores
Allison said Wichita’s new commitment to rigor grew out of its efforts over the past five years to focus on literacy across grade levels and subject matter.
It comes at a time when Kansas assessments show that, on average, Wichita students continue to perform well below their peers across the state.
District- and building-level results from the 2015 state tests show that more than 53 percent of Wichita high school students did not perform at grade level in math. Results were similar among other grade levels in both math and English language arts, with large percentages of Wichita students scoring at the lowest level on the tests.
In December, when the test results were presented, school board member Joy Eakins urged district leaders to take swift action.
“Moving the bar 1 or 2 or 3 percent a year is not enough for our students. It’s not enough for our city,” Eakins said. “Our students and the parents who send their kids here and our taxpayers and our community need us to do something different.”
Educators say rigor, done well, improves student achievement in part because it looks beyond grades and test scores and toward the real purpose of school: to foster curiosity and a true love of learning. It’s a big-picture, long-term evolution, not something that can change in a semester or even a year.
“As a society, we expect teachers to give kids grades, like I’m supposed to impart this knowledge on them magically. But it doesn’t work that way,” said Kate Loyle, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Mayberry Middle School.
“You know that saying ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink’? But you can give him salt and make him thirsty,” Loyle said. “My job isn’t to engage them. My job is to make them want to be engaged.”
You know that saying ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink’? But you can give him salt and make him thirsty.
Kate Loyle, seventh-grade language arts teacher
One recent morning, Loyle spent about 40 minutes explaining common sentence errors such as run-on sentences, comma splices and sentence fragments. One student proposed inserting a semicolon to fix a run-on sentence, writing, “Today is a beautiful day; there is no chance of rain.”
“That’s great,” Loyle told the girl. “I wasn’t prepared to teach that today, but it looks like you’re ready to learn it, so let’s go over it as a class.”
At the end of each lesson, Loyle asks students to give themselves an “engagement score,” reflecting on how well they paid attention, learned and understood. Scores range from 1 – “I don’t want to be here” – to 5 – “Wow! Class just flew by.”
That helps her gauge teaching strategies, and it teaches students that the process is more important than a final grade, she said.
“What rigor demands of them is that they flail, and they fall down, and they get back up and figure it out, and they have that ‘a-ha!’ ” Loyle said. “It’s about understanding that they can figure it out, that they have the skills and the patience to figure it out.”