The Increased Rigors of Curriculum

  • by Bryan Wetzel - Mon, 01/16/2017 - 17:16


I’m writing this as food for thought.

For the past several years, when I’m in meetings with educators, the word rigor has come up.  It's always under the response of “increasing the rigor,” or “we must increase the rigor.”  States and local administrations around the country have had the rallying cry to increase the rigor of their curriculum branded on their core message.  In most states, the curriculum for math is so much harder than it was 25 years ago that kids today in 5th grade are learning math that people in their 30’s didn’t learn until 8th or 9th grade.  What's funny about this mantra to increase rigor is it coincides with the same concerns that every state and local school system has about falling test scores.  I’ve yet to hear anyone make the connection that the increased rigor may have been increased too much.  Please, understand that I’m all for increasing the goals and the intellect of our kids, but sometimes in the process, we must stop and make sure that common sense has prevailed.  If the rigor is so tough that more and more of your students aren’t getting the lesson, does it make sense?  Maybe there's a correlation with the increase in rigor and the increased number of students being put into special ed programs?  I’ve even had a teacher tell me that half of the students in Special Ed or RTI programs wouldn’t be considered “low” if they had to perform at the education levels of the 1990’s.  That's sad when you think about why some kids give up, or why they feel like they’ve fallen so far behind that school is a hopeless cause.  Then we as a society blame the teachers because they failed to teach the students.  Is it possible that the students weren’t ready for the curriculum?  When I talk with college academics who study learning, they often talk about how students, especially below ten years old, develop at very different rates.  A group of 10 students who are starting out in elementary school will progress at different speeds but, given the right attention, can all be on the same academic level by 7th or 8th grade.  That is why kindergarten students who had more pre-K and early learning time before entering kindergarten are academically higher entering kindergarten than the average student their age, but often are not smarter on average by the end of 5th grade.  Some would argue that this is the idea behind Special Ed, and maybe that's true, but a special ed teacher continues to try and teach the current curriculum through more direct attention.  As one teacher put it “there trying to shove too much knowledge into their heads at too young of an age.”

One new feature of math curriculum to increase the rigor of math is teaching several different methods or strategies for solving a math problem.  Most parents have heard their child say “That’s not how I’m supposed to go it.”  For instance to add two numbers you might use:  standard algorithm (the way most of us learned it), adding in chunks, counting on, using compensation, using place value, using friendly numbers, using a number line,  or using the counting method.  Its seems logical that a student understanding every strategy would be better at math.  And indeed that is true.  However, the consensus that I hear from teachers is that the students who were already good in math are the students that understand all the strategies.  The students that struggle in math are now confused by all the methods, which shows up even larger when you require them to use one method over another. 

I understand that academics who love math think that the world would be great if all students could see using mental math, speak math, and love math.  That's not reality.  Most parents and many teachers, who will not say it publicly, believe that the right answer is the right answer and if one child needs to use the standard algorithm and one prefers the another method, even using their fingers, the correct answer should be the goal.  There’s nowhere else in life where you are told you must be able to perform your task successfully using every possible method.  Our bosses just want the correct numbers on a report.  We want our quarterback to put points on the board, whether he gets it done by passing, running, or handing it off is less important to us.  Some kids are visual learners, while others may be more analytical.  Let them solve the problems using whatever process or strategy makes sense to them.

It is true that increasing the complexity or difficulty of something will challenge and strengthen those who practice it.  But just as there is a ceiling to how much each person will dead lift no matter how much they practice, there’s a ceiling to what the average student will do efficiently when the complexity rises above their ability.  When I was in high school, we used to ask our trig teacher when we’d ever use this outside of the classroom.  Now 6th graders are being tested on volume formulas.  Something that they are too young to have a need for at their age.  For me, one of my children was good in math, and one was average.  There are plenty of good careers where you do not need math.  Some I’ve listed below.  To be clear, I’m not pointing any fingers, and I think everyone is doing what they feel is best and with the best of intentions.  But I know from experience that sometimes when we set a goal that we must "reach at all cost" we lose sight of the "cost."


Careers where higher math is not required