How can we work to increase the rigor in general education classrooms

Inspired by Gen Ed Mom I am starting a conversation about increasing the rigor, challenge, opportunity and support for students working beyond the Standards in our general education classrooms.

As I have written numerous times before, the Standards, intended in theory as a floor - the minimum that students should achieve - function in practice as a ceiling - the maximum that students can achieve. The reasons are multiple, but the primary one is that the focus is on supporting all students to reach the standards rather than supporting each student to achieve as much as they can. All of the focus is on getting students to the standard and there is no focus left for teaching them beyond the standards. In addition to that faulty frame, there are bureaucratic practices that cap student achievement. They include horizontal alignment, vertical articulation, fidelity of implementation, and a gross misunderstanding of how Standards are supposed to work. There is also political opposition to supporting student work beyond Standards. It doesn't make sense but some people think that no student should learn more than their peers. It is somehow unfair, as if they are greedily sucking up all the education and not leaving any for the other kids. No, really. Then there are those who think that the lowest performing students should be our top priority and any time spent supporting students who are not at grade level should all go to those who are working below grade level and none of it should go to students who are working beyond grade level. Finally there are those who reckon that "these kids will be just fine" and since they are obviously getting lessons somewhere other than school they can just keep on getting their lessons there.

This has nothing to do with advanced learning, advanced learning programs, or advanced learners. There is a time when every student is, in one subject or another, ahead of the class. This is about providing challenge for any student who is working beyond standards in any classroom. By the way, Shauna Heath, with her definition of Spectrum as "one grade level ahead" and her definition of APP as "two grade levels ahead" creates caps for the advanced learners in the advanced learning programs. There is nearly as much skill range in APP as you will find in general education classrooms, and the top learners there are capped as well for all of the same reasons. Now let's not talk about those things again.

So what can you do to encourage and support your child's teacher and your child's school to support students working beyond grade level in the general education classroom? If you already have that support, then how did you get it?


Let's not forget Common Core. I'll write a separate thread about what those standards look like and how they are playing out in other parts of the country.

If the district - from the top down - does not clearly have a commitment to implementation of the standards - and makes that clear to every principal and teacher, then it will be a school-by-school decision about how they serve students. That is certainly the case now - there's no real way of knowing how a school will serve a Sped student, a gifted student or a Gen Ed student whose parents might want the highest rigor available. If you are lucky enough to have this situation, tell us about it so that there are examples to be cited.

That was my experience and I suspect it is true to this day.
Eric B said…
I think the answer to this is fairly simple in theory, but harder to implement. There needs to be differentiated instruction at every level and subject. In elementary school, that can be accomplished by programs like Walk to Math and holding higher-performing students to higher standards in writing assignments or other projects. In middle and high school, there should be honors versions of classes available to everyone, and some amount of differentiation in the standard classes. The key is that the honors classes should be self-selecting. If kids want to be in the class, they should have the opportunity to be there.

"All" it will take is a commitment to differentiation by principals, money for class size reduction to allow it to happen, and training and support for teachers. Not so much, right?
Eric, all honors classes ARE self-selecting.

(I'm not even sure there are separate "honors" classes anymore - just AP or IB. There weren't when my own sons were in two different high schools). Why do you think there should be separate ones - because it makes sure that the rigor is there?

Anyone can take an AP or IB class (with the exception of AP classes that require prerequisites and in that case the student - any student - could have taken those classes as well).
Anonymous said…
What Eric B asks for is exactly the opposite of what the district (Teaching and Learning) thinks differentiation entails - they seem against grouping and have a pie-in-the-sky notion that teachers can differentiate within the classroom for all levels. Perhaps some teachers can, but this isn't Lake Wobegon where all the teachers are above average.

That said, the expectations of gen ed can certainly be raised with better math and science curricula and a greater overall focus on content.

Anonymous said…
Melissa - are there honors classes in middle school? I keep wondering if middle schools should have honors classes rather than Spectrum. And as Eric said, let anyone opt in (but then to stay in, they have to show they can do the work).

Anonymous said…
At Garfield, all LA, History, Math and Science classes have honors designations. Students can take LA9 or LA9H, Chem or Chem H, Precalc or Precalc H, etc. There is more rigor in the honors sections, and those students typically then advance to the AP classes (Calc, Chem, LA, etc). But the choice of taking an honors level class and being on the honors level "track" is available to any student at Garfield. And encouraged by several support systems in place for all students.

P and W
Eric B said…
Thanks for the clarifications. I knew that Ingraham allowed any student to take honors classes (as long as they meet prereqs and can do the work), but wasn't sure if that was true elsewhere. At Whitman, it seemed that honors classes were reserved for Spectrum when my kid went through. That may or may not be changing now. I don't have a very good finger on what's going on there now.

Honors classes open to all at middle school would effectively be dismantling Spectrum as a self-contained program. I don't know that this is necessarily a bad thing as long as all students have access to the honors classes.

Curriculum improvements would help too.
Anonymous said…
I think the advanced learning disdain in Seattle trickles down to gen Ed classrooms this way. I have heard the exact same arguments against self contained programs (students' feelings get hurt, label is bad, leaves only disruptive children) used word for word to tell me "no" when I advocated in gen Ed classes for walk to math or walk to reading or even in class ability grouping. And there are also parents who think more rigor is just more work, and developmentally inappropriate for kids until at least high school.

I think it is absurd to not use the low hanging fruit, differentiation-wise (walk tos) to at least try to capture some of the different levels in a gen Ed classroom, though of course those programs aren't perfect (what is?). But first we'd have to all agree that kids are often at different places, academically, and that is honestly a very hard sell. I don't think going to the district is usually very useful in terms of changing positively what happens locally, but i wonder if it would help to have walk tos as standard somehow. Since I'm dreaming, I'd also like it to come with more specialist support (maybe if you agree to do it across all grades, you get and extra specialist?).

I agree generally about honors classes, but I think there are two critical pieces to make that work - minimum performance standards, and of you aren't keeping up, out you go (can't hold the class back). And I want to know when, really, students are making the honors choice, and not parents. Can 6th graders really make it? I don't feel a 4th or 5th grader is equipped, for example, to figure out the best classroom setting for themselves, and is as likely to pick too easy to skate by as too hard for bragging rights. Maybe you are placed for certain classes in 6th, and then choose in 7th? Or do we think 6th graders can really choose?

Anonymous said…
I had a teacher, 30 years ago, who gave a test before each unit, in every subject. If you scored 95% or above you had alternate work to do. Each student in that class had an independent long term project to work on, so she might tell you to do that or she might give you a higher level worksheet or textbook. (Sorry, why is this so hard?)

My kids had similar experiences with many teachers in elementary school and a few in middle school, where the teacher just pulled out different work from the filing cabinet for kids who already knew the material. One teacher planned a whole year reading course for my child that was separate from the rest of the class. Sometimes my children were sent to other classrooms to work or with a regular tutor, or to another staff person, like the librarian. Sometimes, we had new teachers who asked me what they could do or if I could help them find materials to use since they didn’t have a file cabinet full of alternate lesson plans. My kids especially liked teachers who allowed them to negotiate ‘improvements’ to their assignments or propose their own projects. We had one principal in elementary school who met with each teacher at the beginning of the year & asked them about their plan for serving kids above, at, & below standard.

I have been in middle school math classes where the teacher does an entrance ticket & an exit ticket every day, to assess which kids need to do different levels of work & then divided them up & gave them their instructions & materials. At the end of the period, the teacher knows how each child progressed. I have also been in middle school history/LA classes where there are different rubrics with different goals for kids working on a project or a paper on the same topic. The expectations differed by several grade levels.

I have never seen any ‘in-class’ differentiation in high school. The honors options that my kids have taken where just extra work like additional projects. I would like to see kids have the opportunity to ‘test out’ of work, whole classes or even parts of classes or homework. Then have alternative options for learning. Just more flexibility. I have heard high school teachers say that they can’t be flexible because, “credit means something”. But they can’t tell me what it means. It doesn’t mean what a kid knows because so much of the credit is based on timeliness or attitude.

-HS Parent
Anonymous said…
Man, HS parent, your kids elementary educations sound so different than what I see now, and so much better. Though I do think the weird "all kids must learn the same thing at the same time, and should magically get extra from it if they are advanced or behind" attitude makes it hard to gain traction with ideas about differentiating, I have to imagine what you describe is much more possible (only possible?) with smaller class sizes. My kids' have always been at least 27. None of that can happen, even when the teacher would like to. Maybe the file cabinet, but even that, if it involves any instruction time or keeping track of what kid is where (and it must involve at least 60 seconds of instruction time, right?), and when they only have 35 minutes for math, and 5 struggling kids who each need 5 one on one minutes, even 60 seconds gets precious.

Anonymous said…
Thank you thank you thank you Melissa. I can't tell you how pleased I am to see this thread. I am working now, but I will be back to read everyone's ideas later. This is my top priority as an SPS mom! Gen Ed Mom
Anonymous said…
At my child's school (ALO) they've hired a .5 math teacher just to teach advanced math to the 1st and 2nd graders who need more of a challenge. Grades 3-5 have walk to math.
As for language arts, in elementary, using the organizational structure from the book, "The Daily 5" is a very effective way to differentiate. It can be used with any curriculum or program. It's a step by step guide/plan for organizing a language arts block with differentiation for all children. The authors of the book/plan are from Federal Way, and they routinely provide workshops to schools in/around WA state (and beyond).

Of course, it would also be helpful if our district adopted some LA curriculum that had some roots in plethora of literacy research available. It has been 15 years since the last adoption, with no talk of a change. Balanced Literacy is really "Whole Language" in disguise, which is a methodology that has been proven to be ineffective over and over again. Our primary students deserve language arts materials that cover systematic and explicit phonics instruction that is matched to their individual level, and access to books that align to their current level. The Fountas and Pinnel leveled books being used in Seattle teach children to read by sight (and to use pictures). Look at any level A- F book, and they are riddled with words nobody has taught the children "how" to read, yet you'll hear their teachers telling them to "sound it out". Parents seem to think the teachers are teaching phonics because they will occasionally point out a spelling pattern during guided reading.
I'm not a huge fan of the Common Core, but the K/1 standards are all about phonics, yet SPS doesn't seem to the coming need. Be ready to see SPS students fail the Smarter Balanced tests en masse.
Anonymous said…
At Hale there are AP classes and there is Honors work you can do in a class. How the Honors work is graded is different from teacher to teacher which I find very frustrating. The science teachers seem to believe that in order to get an A, you have to do all the honors work while the math teachers give out extra problems for honors work so if you do the honors work you could have an A from having 115% in the class. My daughter has been very resentful of how the science teachers only give A's to those who do honors work and it has caused her to do the minimal amount of work possible while in math, since honors work is extra points, she has gone above and beyond. Last year she ended up with an A in math for 115% and a B+ in science because she refused to do the honors work. I just wish that Hale would agree on a common way for assigning honors work and grading it.

GenEd Mom, that was Charlie, not me, who started the thread (although people think we are interchangeable or the same person).

HP, there's a good point. Honors work in the regular classroom (the high school version of ALO).

BUT it can't be more problems - it has to be deeper and more in-depth. And, A's can't be reserved only for those who do the honors work - that really isn't what it's for in a GenEd class.

And, as you point out, that's just two classes. If you can't get two teachers on the same page for honors, then what kind of "honors" do you have?
Anonymous said…
Sorry Melissa and Charlie, I guess I was confused by the first comment on the thread being by Melissa. And I was reading on my phone which can be confusing. In any case, I am very heartened by the options that seem to exist out there for honors and AP classes in high school. That's something for my kids to aim for and look forward to.

I didn't feel that the private school my children attended before was too hard or too easy for them. The school taught to the middle but the middle maybe seemed a little higher than what I see at SPS. Teachers always tried to give the highest performing students extra challenges and kids who couldn't keep up were told in no uncertain terms to get outside tutoring at their own cost. And plenty of people did. So a year ago we switched, and I have to say in many ways I am so much more pleased with so many things about the public school we are at now than I ever imagined I could be. There are so many great things that I didn't anticipate, so many things I like better than our old school, and I don't want to go back to private school. BUT this school is also teaching to the middle, and academically the middle is just a little bit lower. My kids aren't bored out of their skulls. Not at all, they like school. I just want to make sure they are being held to the standards that are high enough for THEM. I will give you a concrete example. I met with one teacher a few days ago and expressed my concern about my daughter's work in a particular area. His comment was that she was "doing fine". But I personally know my own daughter and she could do much better, and she should be doing much better at this point in her school career. This teacher doesn't know her that well yet (but he's trying to get to know her and seems to appreciate her contribution to his classroom so far, so we're on the right track). Then he said something along the lines of "You should see what the other kids are doing right now". Well that really isn't relevant to us. I don't care what the other kids are doing, my daughter is capable of more in this area. This is an experienced teacher with a great reputation and I don't want to insult him or step on his toes, but I don't want "the other kids are worse" to be the reason that my kid doesn't do her best. She likes to be good at things and it's nice for her to feel competent, but she told me so many times last year "We don't have to do that" (spell words right, look up words she can't spell, use correct grammar, write complete sentences) nobody does that." And at some point she will have to do those things if she wants people to take her seriously. She seems a little bit susceptible to absorbing low standards and feeling they are normal. Now, I can work with her at home, but she is at school for 6 hours. I want her to work on things there. So, how do I support her teacher to get the best out of her? Any ideas?

There are some really great parents working at bringing up academic standards at this school, and I am excited to talk with them and see what we can do as a group. One thing I think could be done is extra help in class for those who aren't at the middle to bring the middle up a little higher. They do that at Whittier and it benefits everyone as far see.

Gen Ed Mom
Anonymous said…
Montessori (M), which is gened, seems to do a good job at differentiating within a classroom (though there are just 3 M elementary programs in SPS). I think part of it is that teachers receive M certification for a span of grades and classrooms are multi-grade (so teachers have training, but also buy in for teaching at different levels because they have the expectation of kids of different grades/ages). Additionally, M has hands-on materials that progress in difficulty and that a student can use on their own. The good part is that a student can move quickly through the materials if they are able, but the hard part is if you have a child who is bright but lacking in motivation, they may move too slowly (but a good teacher will catch this and be prescriptive and monitor what materials, types of “works,” and the rate at which they are done). I like the idea of multi-age classrooms because an individual student can have peers for varying levels of work; I think they can be helpful in increasing rigor in gened classes. However, teachers have to be trained and comfortable in managing a multi-age classroom. Too often (do I hear a SPS theme?) classes become multi-age simply to manage capacity problems within a school.
Anonymous said…
About whether SPS offers "honors" courses in middle school: I can only speak to two of the schools, but the answer is generally "no." To be in an honors class of L.A. or S.S. the child must test into Spectrum or APP using the usual district channels. Math honors classes are also determined by testing, but at the school level and not the same tests that determine Spectrum/APP (even though those do measure math skills). This is something that seems to have developed in the last 4 years -- the first of my kids to go through middle school, the school-level placement test existed but it wasn't given to everyone, just at parent or teacher request. The second kid going through, they tested all the kids. Two different middle schools, but I hear the first one has adopted this same procedure.
Pete said…
Every middle school and its elementary service area should be capable of challenging kids up to APP level. In MS three grades above in math is already available and honors LA is opened ended, it could also go to two or three years ahead. Science has to be ramped up, it's the number one complaint at middle schools. There should be biology offered at every MS and a pathway to it. Social Studies/history needs a compressed model for kids who can do it with HS classes available there as well.. The classes should be test in, teacher rec, parent and student request. If APP kids, except for extreme outliers, have to go neighborhood, it will provide the critical mass for advanced classes.
Anonymous said…

Did you read the post before commenting?

This has nothing to do with advanced learning, advanced learning programs, or advanced learners..... There is nearly as much skill range in APP as you will find in general education classrooms, and the top learners there are capped as well for all of the same reasons. Now let's not talk about those things again.

Pete said…
I guess I didn't. I'll see if I can think up something without including AL in the equation although those students are already there and need challenges too. How do you envision challenging the advanced learners who stay out of APP? Some of them can't deal with or don't want to move from their local school. They deserve an appropriate level of rigor just like general ed students.
Anonymous said…
My child would not go to Hamilton and is very happy at her MS, but the rigor could be substantially higher in science. She could work farther ahead than a year in math but doesn't want to, LA seems strong, social studies last year and history this year, while pretty easy, are interesting and engaging for her. Nothing wrong with getting straight A's but it still takes some work, for sure. She would have been unhappy to go to Hamilton and if we feel the need there are ways to supplement and there are summer schools. In our case, we had to respect our daughters wishes, but it would be nice to have more a challenge in science. I don't think APP kids should be forced back, but if more classes, especially science, were available at an advanced level, most likely some parents would keep their kids closer to home. The nice thing is the honors classes are not filled with just Spectrum and APP kids, it's a great combination of hard workers and high testers and some who are both. The teachers seem to like it as well and it seems that it lets them push the kids pretty hard. The kids who are doing three years ahead in math are not even all APP eligible. The were placed by MAP or parent request. So, rigor is pretty good at our MS for all the kids, except in science.

Pleasantly Pleased
Anonymous said…
Yes they do - but Gen Ed Mom wants to talk about what we can do for her children in the general education classroom. There are plenty of posts about APP students already.
Anonymous said…
What the heck is a general Ed classroom? At my elementary, a Spectrum site that does walk tos for math at all grades and math and writing in four and five, all classrooms are blended, except when the kids have walked. There are APP eligible kids, Spectrum kids and sped kids because it's an inclusion school also. So are we just talking about challenging the kids who are not SpEd and Spectrum and APP eligible? I don't know where you find a classroom of just gened kids. Self-contained Spectrum schools have wait listed Spectrum kids in gened classrooms. SpEd kids are everywhere, APP kids and untested but AL qualified kids are in gened classrooms. The gened classroom is a myth,it doesn't exist.

Frank Sterling
Anonymous said…
In this discussion, the general ed classroom is any classroom that's not self-contained Special Ed, Spectrum or APP. I think though that Gen Ed Mom wants to discuss how kids who are not a part of any of those groups can get more challenging work.
Anonymous said…
All classrooms have a variety of learning abilities. There is no lack of advanced learners in science in middle schools right now- putting more of them there won't change a thing, so there is no reason not to advocate for whatever you want right now. There is already a critical mass. Fight for what you want, not for what you think someone else shouldn't have.

I love the walk to writing thing. I am fairly familiar with the southern NE schools, as well as option schools, and I only know one school able or willing to do anything like this consistently(JA k-8, which says it is full and certainly is by reasonable measures, but is nowhere near as overcrowded as either the southern NE schools or TC). Most of those schools claim class size limits and general crowding as a reason they can't do this, so I am wondering if any of you could share the area of the city you are talking about. Is it the NW (which I know is crowded, but not quite on the scale of, say, Bryant). Sacajawea? Laurelhurst I know gets less stuffed in the older grades, and I wonder if that helps. CD? Or do I just happen to know about differentiation unfriendly schools? Is crowding a legitimate reason to avoid walk tos or not?

I haven't found it very possible in practice to differentiate in large classrooms (over about 25 kids), though I hear how it would work in theory. So I think the best way to increase rigor, if by that we mean differentiation in class, aside from walk tos out of class, is to decrease class sizes. I see newsletters go on about all the differentiation, but then when I go volunteer, what always happens is the kids who are ahead just finish their stuff faster. The teacher is triaging the whole time- working constantly, consistently, as smart as possible, but there are only so many minutes in the day. My kids are mostly in the middle, so it's fine for them, but I think the larger the classroom, the worse off the outliers are, and in our current standards based learning environment this means advanced kids won't get attention .( and so, the larger the classroom, the more self contained programs you need)

my kids in the middle have found the curriculum to be appropriate- sometimes the math is goofy, but I think that is more an issue with the specific curriculum than the level. The amount of writing has so far been good- better than I would have expected, lots of editing and grammar work, discussions of structure. Science depends on the interest of the teacher; you can do a lot or a little with the district kits. I wish there was more civics and world history/geography in the earlier grades. My kids learned a lot about native cultures, but I think there was a missed opportunity for a broader perspective and civics foundation.

Actually, what do we mean, exactly by rigor? I think elementary school and middle school are very different animals here. Moving the gen Ed curriculum faster for everyone? All of it? Or which parts? I think spending fewer educational days on standardized testing and those godforsaken half days could help, too, in terms of number of large projects requiring focus and time the class can do. I think just having a lot of days in a row to consistently work on writing projects, for example, could increase the quality of the projects the kids could do, but they have so many breaks and weird days, long stretches of consistent time is hard to come by. Our lowest ever rigor year was a job share Monday, Tuesday, every other Wednesday with one teacher, thurs fri with another- the kids were constantly whipping back and forth from thing to thing, clasroom culture to classroom culture, and nothing got done. It was a very quiet, academically able class, and our lowest ever (25 kids), but even that wasn't enough.

Anonymous said…
I agree with you on that Sleeper. The half days and all the testing halt any learning momentum just as its getting going. I wish they would not be allowed to have half days. I want to opt my kids out of most of the testing this year, but it's not as if they will learn anything during that time when the while class stops to test. GEM
Yana said…
The CCSS may not seem that challenging, but it is a much higher standard than what was expected in the much so that OSPI is warning in a massive drop in our students' percentile scores in math and even reading because Washington standards and tests are so much lower than CCSS.

All kids can learn more than they currently do. I attended a private school. We had plenty of kids who were there not because they were academically gifted but because Mom and Dad could donate huge amounts. These kids were expected to read and analyze Julius Caesar in 7th grade, learn meteorology, learn and analyze a great deal of information on American history, write papers with fewer than two comma splices and fewer than two spelling errors, well crafted with good vocabulary choices. Back in my day, we didn't have many kids getting tutoring. Kids got Cs if they worked hard but were average in ability. Parents didn't complain about that. If a child earned an F so be it. Today, teachers catch heck from parents if kids bring home a B on sloppy work. The principals support these parents over the teachers. What is a teacher to do? Add that to non-rigorous curriculum, and you get a culture of low expectations and children who are woefully more ignorant and even lazier than they ought to be. Even if you are not the parent complaining about grades, you are not the norm. This sets up a losing situation for parents who DO want and expect more for their kids. Sad.
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