Tips for Using Rigor, Relevance and Relationships to Improve Student Achievement

By — American Association of School Administrators
Updated on May 1, 2014

Closing the achievement gap between groups of students on standardized tests has become a familiar imperative for many educators and politicians. Yet how can students meet high academic standards if they don’t believe in their ability to do so? How can they learn if they aren’t academically engaged? How can they set and reach academic goals if they don’t see the relevance of learning to their lives? These are some of the key questions addressed through a five-year research initiative involving 75 high schools in 10 states. The initiative, known as Models, Networks and Policies to Support and Sustain Rigor and Relevance for All Students, is led by the International Center for Leadership in Education, which has enlisted the expertise of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations. These questions came up once again as we observed a teacher in action with his 9th grade Algebra 1 class. He seemed oblivious to the blank stares and doodling of most students because he was so focused on the select group of students in front of him. These students were responding in quiz-show fashion to his every question. This went on for almost 90 minutes. The teacher was knowledgeable about the subject and clearly engaged with his small group of students. As for the other students, however, it was as if they were not there, and this was a day with visitors present. Even more troubling was that the teacher made little eye contact with most of the class. After the visit, we asked about the nonparticipants, and he responded that if the students aren’t motivated in class, he was not going to waste time on them. He didn’t even know their names. “I’ve got a number of students who come here every day ready to learn, and I will not compromise their eagerness to learn,” he said. In another class down the hall, we observed a teacher who knew everyone by name. The students and teacher joked and chatted about current events and their favorite movies and sports teams. This, too, was an Algebra 1 class, but we saw no rigor and little relevance to algebra. Many students seemed to enjoy the class, while others seemed concerned about whether they were going to learn something about the subject they were supposed to be studying. This teacher knew how to build relationships with students but did not use this skill to elicit strong academic performances from them. One class lacked the relationship aspect of the learning process, the other was devoid of rigor, and both classes missed the mark on relevance. Yet these elements — rigor, relevance and relationships — together provide the hallmark for education today. The three are integrally connected; if one is missing in our teaching practices, we are not doing our best to prepare students for success in school and in life.

A Useful Framework

To ensure the inclusion of both rigor and relevance, the International Center created the Rigor/Relevance FrameworkTM in the early 1990s for teachers to use to examine curriculum and plan instruction and assessment. The framework consists of four quadrants that reflect these two dimensions of higher standards and student achievement. First there is the “knowledge taxonomy,” which describes the increasingly complex ways in which we think. It is based on the six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: knowledge/awareness, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The second dimension is the Application Model developed by the International Center, which describes five levels of relevant learning: knowledge in one discipline, apply knowledge in discipline, apply across disciplines, apply to real-world predictable situations and apply to real-world unpredictable situations. Relevant learning is interdisciplinary and contextual. It requires students to apply core knowledge, concepts or skills to solve real-world problems. McNulty chartIn Quadrant A (Acquisition), students learn and store bits of knowledge and information. Quadrant B (Application) requires students to use their acquired knowledge to solve practical problems. In Quadrant C (Assimilation), students extend their acquired knowledge to use it automatically and routinely to analyze problems and create unique solutions. When working in Quadrant D (Adaptation), students have the competence to think in complex ways and apply their knowledge and skills when confronting perplexing unknowns and creating solutions. One way to think about this framework in day-to-day instruction is in terms of the roles that teachers and students play. When instruction and expected student learning is in Quadrant A, the focus is on “teacher work.” Teachers expend energy to transmit content through learning activities, worksheets and other assignments. The student is often a passive learner. When student expectation moves to Quadrant B, the emphasis is on the student doing real-world tasks. This student work is often more complicated than Quadrant A work and requires more time. Learning in Quadrant B is best described as “student work” because students are doing extensive real-world tasks. Learning in Quadrant C is best described as “student think.” In this quadrant, students are expected to think in complex ways — to analyze, compare, create and evaluate. Quadrant D activity can be characterized as “student think and work.” Learning in Quadrant D is demanding and requires students to apply their thinking and knowledge in complex ways to solve difficult problems. Roles shift from teacher-centered instruction in quadrants A and C to student-centered instruction in quadrants B and D. In these quadrants, teachers still work hard, but their role is more as a coach or facilitator of learning. Good instruction is not a choice of a single quadrant but a balance. It may not be necessary for all students to achieve mastery of content in Quadrant A before proceeding to Quadrant B, for example. Some students may learn a concept better in Quadrant B when they see its application in a real-world situation. But no matter what the grade level, students require Quadrant B and D skills if they are to become lifelong learners, problem solvers and decision makers. In essence, students need to know what to do when they do not know what to do. Our framework provides a structure to enable schools to move all students toward that goal. Delano High School in Delano, Minn., is a school that has stretched beyond traditional limits to increase rigor and relevance throughout its curriculum. Through its College in the Schools program, the school partners with three Minnesota universities to offer 48 college credits to students during the junior and senior years. Courses such as English composition, Western civilization, calculus, chemistry, Spanish and psychology are offered. High school teachers teach the courses with college professors periodically visiting to instruct classes. While this program serves the needs of the top 25 percent of students, the goal at Delano High School is for every student to experience some college or post-high school coursework prior to graduation. The Middle College Model was created to serve the needs of the middle two quartiles of students. A partnership with nearby Rasmussen College allows students to earn a high school diploma as well as an associate degree in criminal justice, business, accounting or information technology upon graduation from Delano. Rex Putnam High School in Milwaukie, Ore., also encourages its students to make the most of their potential and to pursue personal goals and passions. The well-designed instructional program offers a mix of core academic and elective courses. Putnam ensures its education programs are relevant by offering a career development curriculum and a required career pathways program. From six available pathways, each student selects a focused program of study. This becomes the basis of a personal education plan that includes electives, career-related experiences and a culminating senior seminar experience.

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