Leading Forward with Rigor and Heart    
  February 2015
In This Issue


Once again...
Random Acts of Kindness Week

FEB 9-15

   Surprise others with good works.

hair, cars, time, goods.
someone's toll or the grocery bill for
an elderly woman.
a child a hug.
a neighbor's walk.
And here are more ideas.

Want more
STEM information?
Check the newsletter from the CEI archives on STEM and School Resources.



Dear Educators,                        

Where is your school on its pathway to higher academic achievement? How would you describe your school's progress over the last few years?  Consider any gains you have made. What factors were most important to your achievements?


Did rigor play a role?  


In this issue of Wow! we highlight how to enhance rigor and its impact in classrooms, as schools consider their next moves. For many years schools and districts were told to concentrate on academics--however, as you well know, there are a myriad ways to achieve that focus, from the curriculum pacing guides to rigid scheduling and data driven instruction. All of these have a part to play; however, there are some creative ways that are more holistic, supported by research, and may tailor education for a better fit with student interests and needs.
As you prepare this week for Valentine's Day, consider the heart of instruction and the heart of learning. Rigor and heart do not need to be at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Many of the strongest schools have found ways to integrate both. We urge you to consider the findings and recommendations from the articles below--to consider and to make a plan for continuous improvement.


Keeping Rigor, With or Without the Common Core


Note: CEI in this article is not making an argument for or against the Common Core. We will address that later.  What we are doing is submitting a rationale for keeping rigor.


by Christine Mason, Ph.D. 

Rigor. As states and school districts are contemplating the next steps in revising their approaches to standards and standardized assessments, the Center for Educational Improvement is urging educators to consider how to best support continuous, ongoing improvements in advancing rigor to deepen student understanding and problem solving.


According to Robyn Jackson, author of ASCD's How to Plan Rigorous Instruction (2011), "Rigorous instruction asks students to create their own meaning... and use what they have learned to solve real-world problems, even when the 'correct' answer is unclear..." Jackson explains that rigorous instruction helps to develop students' capacity to consider multiple meanings and interpretation, take and support a position, tolerate uncertainty, and adjust their approach when presented with new constraints. These approaches are consistent with the best of CCSS' approaches. Consider for example, the CCSS expectations that students compare and contrast. That skill is useful in considering multiple meanings and interpretation, a skill that demands that students review how various interpretations are similar and different.


Linda Gojak, President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, has discussed what is needed to incorporate rigor into mathematics instruction. Following are five of the principles she recommends, including instruction that:

  • Challenges students
  • Requires "effort and tenacity" by students
  • May result in multiple paths to problem-solving
  • Provides connection among concepts
  • Expects students to be actively involved in their own learning (Gojak, 2013)

As described by Gojak, rigorous instruction may be "messy," resulting in different ways to approach problems and seek solutions-this is in direct contrast to traditional ways of finding the "one correct mathematical solution." Rigorous instruction is also "rich" - it is quality instruction that encourages deep understanding and rich discourse among students. According to Gojak, with rigor, students are directly involved in finding their own pathways to learning. With rigor, students are urged to ask clarifying questions and reflect on their own thinking and progress.


Gojak's recommendations appear to be applicable for rigor in all instruction, with implications beyond the study of mathematics. Whether studying English/Language Arts, social studies, science, or math, the principles of challenging students, engaging in rich discussion, and expecting students to reflect on and monitor their own learning seem equally applicable. To further rigor in instruction, it is necessary then to ask how--to ask how teachers will know that students are challenged, how they will know that students are considering multiple pathways or solutions, and how teachers will know that students are actively monitoring their own learning.


In a rigor rubric developed as a tool for principals and teachers to use in planning for and implementing rigor in classrooms, Oakes, Conway, and Mason (2013) provide a 4-point scale for considering the how's (the how's of teachers and students) in implementing rigor. To develop this rubric for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, Oakes et al. reviewed over 45 diverse sources to identify ways that teachers and students can engage in rigorous interactions. For example they cite:

  • Evertson and Neal 's (2006) description of learning-centered environments that promote student self-direction and ownership for learning
  • Wolf, Crosson, and Resnick's (2006) review of ways teachers can increase rigor by the quality of questioning and dialogue with students
  • Biemuller and Meichenbaum's (1992) early work on the value of self-regulated learning

In this rigor rubric, Oakes et al. (2013) suggested that rigor can be planned for and monitored through a focus on metacognition (student awareness of their own learning), deep understanding, higher order thinking, and problem solving. For example, the rubric relates rigor to text complexity, cross-curricular instruction, addressing misconceptions, reflective feedback, student goal setting, 21st Century instruction, and justifying responses. Oakes et al. provide a 12-page rubric that provides a roadmap for strengthening rigor in classrooms through careful planning, reflection, monitoring, and continuous improvement.


From CEI's review of rigor, many practices that have been incorporated into the CCSS approach to learning are compatible with research on promoting rigor in classrooms. However, it is unclear whether frequent student assessment using standardized assessments is essential to promotion of rigor. The research we have reviewed suggests that practices such as student reflection on learning, self-regulation, and a myriad of effective instructional strategies are associated with increases in deep conceptual understanding, problem solving, and higher order thinking. During the next few years, as we enter into a time of implementing and refining assessments, we urge districts and schools to continue to promote rigor, incorporating instruction that is supported by an evidenced-based approach, even as we rethink standardized assessments.




Biemiller, A. & Meichenbaum, D. (1992 October). The nature and nurture of the self-directed learner. Educational Leadership, 50(2) 75-80. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/oct92/vol50/num02/



Evertson, C.M. & Neal, K.W. (2006 July). Looking into learning-centered classrooms: Implications for classroom management. Washington, DC: National Education Association Research Department. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/tools/44455.htm


Gojak, L.M. (2013). What's all this talk about rigor? President's Corner, NCTM Summing up. Retrieved from http://www.nctm.org/about/content.aspx?id=35428   

Jackson, R. (2011 January). Introduction: Understanding the mastery principle. In How to plan rigorous instruction http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/110077.aspx


Oakes, A. Conway, P. & Mason, C. (2013). A roadmap to rigor: A resource for principals. Alexandria, VA: National Association of Elementary School Principals. 


Wolf, M. K., Crosson, A. C., & Resnick, L. B. (2006). Accountable talk in reading comprehension instruction. CSE Technical Report 670. National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST). Retrieved from http://www.cse.ucla.edu/products/reports/r670.pdf
Rigor and Heart Contribute to Great Principal Leadership 
by Vanessa Abrahams and Christine Mason          

"Let me for your own good tell you something about Miss Trunchbull. She insists upon strict discipline throughout the school, and if you take my advice you will do your very best to behave yourselves in her presence. Never argue with her. Never answer her back. Always do as she says. If you get on the wrong side of Miss Trunchbull she can liquidize you like a carrot in a kitchen blender. It's nothing to laugh about, Lavender. Take that grin off your face. All of you will be wise to remember that Miss Trunchbull deals very very severely with anyone who gets out of line in this school." (Dahl, 1988, p. 52-53)


In this telling quote from Roald Dahl's fictional narrative "Matilda," Ms. Honey characterizes Headmistress Trunchbull as a severe woman with a knack for harsh punishment and tough discipline. This quote, even recalling the exaggerated Miss T., reminds us to consider principal leadership, academic rigor, and the standard of strict discipline in schools across America, since school principals bear the responsibility for setting the tone and school climate.


With the appropriate tone and climate, schools can become the safe haven where students explore their academic greatness. With a principal's leadership, guidance, and platform, a failing school could be promoted to the highest performing one. Because of this powerful ability, principals have an extraordinary privilege that affects both their students and their teachers.


Both teachers and principals are public figures--public relations directors and psychologists, and mentors and coaches to students as well as to teachers (Trail, 2000). Collectively students, parents, educators and community leaders turn expectantly to principals who must multitask and navigate ever-changing roles in order to meet the needs of the community. Successful navigation of these diverse roles can result in positive learning environments, higher standardized test scores, and valued positive publicity, among other things.

When considering state achievement standards, rigor and heart centered leadership or consideration of the social and emotional needs of students and staff is often on a teeter-totter. However, what is important is that administrators consider the diverse factors that impact academic success. As they know, it is not a focus on academics alone that results in academic gains. Student attitudes and motivation are critical, since student interest and enthusiasm can go a long way toward enriching classroom discussion and deepening the learning that occurs.

Parental involvement is another factor that is intrinsically linked to academic rigor. Without parental involvement, student success is more difficult to achieve (Educators4Excellence, 2012). Some students have the drive to see their educational goals actualized, while others require the added push or support from home. In instances where parents are not engaged, teachers and principals may have an increased role in motivating students and helping them prepare to learn.

To foster their students' potential, principals have several more roles: teacher, philosopher, facilities manager, social worker and cheerleader (Trail, 2000). Teachers need encouragement, too, to use time and energy to fulfill these responsibilities. If teachers and principals neglect these roles, students are more likely to fall through the cracks.

Moving toward Heart with Rigor


As we set our sights on meeting and exceeding our increasing academic achievement goals, the most effective principals set even higher standards for rigor, even as they take a holistic approach towards student learning. In Rigor is not a Four-Letter Word, author Barbara Blackburn (2010) establishes the importance of personalizing instruction, defining rigor as: "creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels." Rigor is more than elevating the standard curriculum then. Essentially, rigor emphasizes student potential, student support services and setting high and achievable expectations.

Principals, the cornerstones of our schools, are able to foster rigor by employing various tools to observe:
(1) How teachers ask questions and students respond,  
(2) How teachers scaffold lessons to support students and incremental learning,  
(3) Students engagement with class materials, and  
(4) The teacher's instructional process (Williamson & Blackburn, 2011).  

As Oakes, Conway, and Mason (2013) have conveyed, moving towards rigor is a multi-faceted, ongoing process. Unfortunately, sometimes schools have misconceptualized rigor as simply making learning more difficult, or simply raising expectations. To operationalize rigor, it is important to consider how rigor contributes to student understanding of specific content or how rigor ensures better support for individual students. When deep conceptual understanding is important, when students will benefit from considering various pathways to solving problems, and when flexibility and ability to generalize or adapt lessons learned are important, then establishing an expectation of rigor becomes critical.

Moving Forward: Principal Leadership in Light of Heart and Rigor


New York City provides an excellent case study for examining and evaluating principal leadership. Throughout the years city officials and educators have continually modified current practices in order to achieve greater effectiveness. In 2007, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA) and the Department of Education (NYC DOE) decided high-performing New York City principals would be elected to participate in the Executive Principal Program in high-needs schools across the district. They also modified the Principals Performance Review (PPR) to track administrator goals and objectives (CSA, 2010). This agreement granted principals greater school allowances while allotting for principal accountability. In 2010, more specific rules on how principals were to be held accountable were revealed. Similar to teachers, principals are evaluated throughout the school year to ensure they are being diligent. In New York City, for example, principals are evaluated on

(1) Student growth on state tests,

(2) Student growth on local assessments,

(3) Supervisory visits, and

(4) Progress towards meeting goals (Educators4Excellence, 2000, p. 7).


After several years, the PPR has been revised and modified to support a unified mission: "an effective principal in every school for every student" (NYC DOE, 2015).


Much is being said about principal and teacher evaluation and it has been an area of contention. To improve principal evaluations, particularly with regard to the importance of rigor and a holistic approach to learning, the following may be especially important:

(1) Updating and improving school climate surveys to include teacher input,

(2) Including effective teacher retention data so principals are credited with ensuring that good teachers stay,

(3) Using student attendance, school safety information, and student growth data as measures of effectiveness so that principals are evaluated according to their relation to school culture (Educators4Excellence, 2012).




Blackburn, B. (2008). Rigor is not a four-letter word. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.


Dahl, R. (1988). Matilda. New York, NY: Penguin Group.


Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. (2010). Memorandum of Agreement. Retrieved from http://www.csa-nyc.org/csa-members/doe-members/contract


Educators4Excellence Policy Team (2012, March). Principals matter: Principal  evaluations from a teacher's perspective.  Retrieved from http://www.educators4excellence.org/issues/principal-evaluations  


Oakes, A. Conway, P. & Mason, C. (2013). A roadmap to rigor: A resource for principals. Alexandria, VA: National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Trail, K. (2000 October). Taking the lead: The role of the principal in school reform. SCRD Connections, 1, 4. Retrieved from


PBL and the Future of STEM
By Lindsay Reeves, CEI Intern

From as early as the 1950s, educators have used PBL, or "problem-based learning" scenarios to promote curriculum cohesion and bring concepts alive for students. With the recent shifts toward teaching math with more rigor, educators are now employing this exact classroom technique.


For STEM schools, PBL has become a norm in its own right. Integrated STEM education finds value in the central features guiding PBL. These components include:

  • Student centeredness
  • Small group work
  • Teachers as facilitators or guides
  • Problems as both the focus and stimulus for learning
  • Acquisition of new information through self-directed learning

When students practice approaching problems from a wide range of perspectives, they gain confidence in both conceptual understanding and practical application (Honey, Pearson, & Schweingruber, 2014). This has far-reaching implications for life-long thinking and reasoning skills and capabilities.


One such example is found in the problem of finding solutions to hunger. Tim Steffen, a teacher from New York, developed a project where students could address hunger by using math, reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. To meet the math requirement, students were asked to represent and interpret data through graph creation. Over the course of 10 weeks, students gathered research findings. Small learning groups eventually created the final product, a public service announcement (PSA). The PSA addressed the statistics of poverty, including how poverty immediately affects food choices and consumption variation (Steffen, n.d).


Intel has also become involved in developing these kinds of learning scenarios. In its plans to help students "Track the Trends," statistical learning is brought to the forefront. Teachers can choose from a wide variety of topics, ranging from education and energy consumption, to health expenditures and natural disasters. Once the topic has been agreed upon, the project is laid out to fit a ten-day span. Midway through the project, teachers are prompted to introduce exponential regression and explain concepts like "correlation coefficient and curve of best fit." Once students gain a base knowledge of this content, they are expected to apply relevant knowledge to predict outcomes given historical data, for example. By the end of the project, these participants should have the ability to respond to mathematical terms in a verbal or written format, explaining how the math concepts readily apply to the real world problem they set out to "solve" (Cox, n.d.).


For quite some time, STEM schools have successfully employed these kinds of methods to better prepare students for challenges they will face at the post-secondary level. And, while the trajectory of education for STEM students seems promising, the future for them now holds more potential than ever before, thanks to President Obama's new initiative to provide free access to Community Colleges for American students.

The promise of STEM is also supported by initiatives such as the "Community College Innovation Challenge," sponsored by the National Science Foundation. In September of 2014, the NSF set forth a project for community college students to develop STEM-based solutions to "perplexing, real-world problems." The challenge submission deadline was in January of this year. In the future, it is likely that additional organizations will want to partner with STEM students. With more high school graduates unhindered by sheer economics and presented with the opportunity to pursue additional education, the capacity for answering these societal perplexities is immeasurable (National Science Foundation, 2014).




Cox, D. (n.d.). Intel education designing effective projects track the trends. Retrieved from http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/education/k12/project-design/unit-plans/track-the-trends.html 


Honey, M., Pearson, G., & Schweingruber H. (Feb. 2014). STEM integration in K-12 education: status, prospects, and an agenda for research. Washington D.C.: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=18612&page=44   


National Science Foundation (Sept. 2014). NSF announces the community college innovation challenge. Retrieved from http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=132689


Steffen, T. (n.d.). Finding solutions to hunger. Retrieved from http://us.iearn.org/projects/curriculum-integration-toolkit/integration-plans/plan/finding-solutions-hunger-0 


The White House (Jan. 2015). Fact sheet- white house unveils america's college promise proposal: tuition-free community college for Responsible Students. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/09/fact-sheet-white-house-unveils-america-s-college-promise-proposal-tuition   



STEM(ming) Science Interest for Girls
by Norrell Edwards, Ph.D. student at University of Maryland and CEI Intern

Note: This article, first published in 2014 in Wow! Ed remains pertinent to our discussion of rigor and STEM. We are reprinting this to emphasize the resources  Ms. Edwards describes.

Looking for new ways to engage girls in STEM? Well, the National Girls Collaborative Project has resources galore available to help you in this mission. The NGCP works to bolster and bring together various "girl-serving STEM programs" across the country.  Two of their primary goals are  

  • Increasing "sustainability, organizational effectiveness and shared leadership"
  • Spreading k-12 counselors' access to resources that provide awareness of the hurdles between girls' interest and STEM

The national group encompasses 31 smaller collaboratives serving 39 states, which ultimately connect 12,800 organizations that STEMfully assist 7.8 million girls and 4.4 million boys.



Using the NGCP's online map, you can  locate the regional collaboratives and programs in your area.  
The NGCP's site provides organizations' contact details, needed resources and activities, available resources and activities, population served, collaboration interests, and delivery format.


For those wanting to initiate STEM programs, NGCP offers webinars, newsletters, statistics, stories, links and funding in the form of mini-grants. They also maintain a section on Exemplary Practices, which is broken down into subcategories of: Engaging Girls in STEM, Access and Equity, Collaboration and Evaluation and Assessment. The sections include numerous articles on relevant and helpful topics.  


One successful program that is highlighted is the Techbridge program, launched by the Chabot Space and Science Center in 2000. This program offers STEM opportunities to over 3000 girls from underrepresented communities. "Techbridge offers afterschool and summer programs that include hands on projects, career exploration, and academic and career guidance in science and engineering for girls in grades 5-12" (Mosatche, Matloff-Nieves, Kekelis, & Lawner, 2013). Programming in the field of engineering is especially important since males, ages ranging from grades k-12, are 6 times more likely to have taken engineering classes than female students.


Role Models and Field Trips. One of Techbridge's most promising strategies for replication is the use of role models and field trips in their STEM programs for girls. Using images of women professionals in STEM provides the real life connections with people in STEM careers, and it helps dispel the male stereotypes.    


Collaboration with Girl Scouts. A spin-off of this program, Girls Go Techbridge, created in 2008, reaches girls through Girl Scout councils across the country. The brilliance of this initiative is their "programs-in-a-box" given to Girl Scout camp facilitators. Thus, the facilitators can focus their time on implementation rather than researching and preparing activities. The current programs in a box are: Power it Up, Make It Green, Design Time, ThrillBuilders and Engineers to the Rescue. The program boxes include a detailed leader guide with tips for facilitators and parents and ideas for ways to involve role models. Prepared and packaged STEM activities is a great way to provide girls with ways to experiment and experience science, and incorporating STEM programing into a pre-existing and established, fun extracurricular activity that traditionally appeals to girls, like Girl Scouts, is an innovative way to encourage science.


The National Girls Collaborative Project is a storehouse of STEM sources for school leaders everywhere.    



Mosatche, H., Matloff-Nieves, S., Kekelis, L., & Lawner, E.K. (2013, spring) Effective STEM programs for adolescent girls. Afterschool Matters. p. 18   

Leading Forward,


Are you ready to immerse your school in rigor and to do it with heart? What additional preparation and tools do you need? Even as districts and states are retreating from the Common Core, evidence shows that rigor with heart, personalized learning, and student goal setting can help you move forward even as pendulums are swinging.




Christine Mason
Executive Director, Center for Educational Improvement
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