What Every Parent Should Know About Academic Rigor

Bryan Nixon

Bryan Nixon

When I talk to parents who are considering a private school, the topic of academic rigor nearly always comes up. After all, every parent wants to make sure that they’re putting their child in a school that will do the best possible job of helping their child succeed.

What “academic rigor” looks like, however, is not always so clear. Some schools define rigor as how much students learn, while others talk about how their students spend hours doing homework at night. In fact, if you’re considering multiple private schools, you’re likely encountering a different definition at every school you visit!

At Whitby, we evaluate success by the quality of the instruction we provide to students and the engagement of the student in the learning process.

To help you find the school that’s right for your child, it’s important to know how to distinguish between the different types of “academically rigorous” curricula—and what questions you should ask when you’re considering a private school. Let’s get started by diving into what “academic rigor” really means.

Academic Rigor is More Than a Number

When many private schools talk about academic rigor, they refer to quantifiable items. How tough is it to get a good grade? How many students get As and A+ grades? How many hours of homework do students do each night?

All those things measure the quantity of learning, but not the quality. For instance, what does an A grade mean? Does it signify that students truly understand and can apply the knowledge, or that they’re good at multiple choice tests?

We’ve also found that time spent on homework is also not an accurate barometer of how well it helps children learn. Like learning, homework should be measured on quality, not quantity. Good homework challenges students to think by asking them to do research, read articles and apply concepts—instead of just asking them to work on multiple similar problems over and over again.

Too often, rigor becomes ‘Let’s give more homework.’ Lessons must be ‘rigorous’ if they make kids suffer.
Dick Flanary, National Association of Secondary School Principals

How We Define Academic Rigor at Whitby

When we talk about the rigor of our educational program at Whitby, we’re referring to more than just the amount of math, reading and science knowledge covered in the curriculum. Academic rigor to us is about the quality of the teaching and learning.

At an academically-rigorous school, students feel both success and challenge on a daily basis.

In terms of classroom teaching, we view an academically rigorous curriculum as one that has high levels of student engagement and learning. That often means being flexible with how we teach—adapting lesson plans to increase understanding, grouping and ungrouping students within classes to enhance their knowledge and creating lessons that drive conceptual understanding rather than regurgitation of factual knowledge. Our curriculum is rigorous because it adapts to student needs, not because it rigidly adheres to a textbook.

While we give standardized tests at Whitby, we use them not as a judgment of the child, but to gather data and assess how much the child understands, which will better inform our teaching moving forward. If a student is struggling in some way, we want to know so we can provide them with the additional guidance they need. If many students don’t understand a concept, that’s an indication we should evaluate our curriculum and find out where we need to improve. On the other hand, if students sail through a standardized test, that’s an indication we can challenge them more.

Academic rigor is also about the level of opportunity we give students to take their learning beyond what we do in the classroom. We want a curriculum where children not only learn how to do math and physics problems on paper, they learn how to apply that knowledge to real-world challenges. It’s important that the questions we ask during class lead to deeper curiosity about the subject and challenge students to connect a concept across multiple subjects.

Education Trust, a Washington-based education nonprofit, says that academic rigor means students not only learn knowledge, but that they “should be asked to comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate — using that knowledge.”

We agree. After all, if learning isn’t applicable to the real world, what’s the point?

Finally, we believe that self-assessment should play a big role in a rigorous academic program. Instead of simply telling students how they rank against their peers, we believe students should be able to look objectively at their own strengths and areas of discomfort. Instead of pitting students against their peers, we challenge them to determine what they need to do to maximize their own learning.

We believe that rigor should be based on how students are progressing and learning—not how tough the test is or how many hours students spend on homework.

Academic rigor is about the quality of teaching and learning.

How Should Parents Ask About Academic Rigor?

If you’re trying to determine the academic rigor of a school you’re considering for your child, it’s important to dig beyond the amount of homework and test preparation students do at that school. Instead, your questions about academic rigor should focus around how schools turn students into thinkers and prepare them for success in secondary school, college and beyond.

Here are some questions that will help you dig deeper into how a school challenges students to learn:

  • Is the instruction teacher-centered or student centered?
    Who is doing the talking? Are the teachers telling the student what to learn or are students challenged to actively shape their own learning?
  • Is the instruction geared towards different learning styles?
    Do children just sit at their desks listening to lectures and work quietly? Or do the teachers challenge students with different learning activities?
  • What is the school’s approach to homework?
    How much homework do students take home every night? What do educators do to ensure that students are practicing the right way?
  • How does the school empower students to take ownership of their learning?
    Are students able to dig deeper into topics that fascinate them? Are the students challenged to do self-assessment?

These questions will help you go beyond the “our program is rigorous because students do X hours of homework” argument to find out if a school is really providing children with the best possible learning experience.

To learn more about the Whitby Difference, schedule a tour of our campus, or click below for our guide to help parents choose the right private school for their child.

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Bryan Nixon

Bryan Nixon

Bryan Nixon is now the Head of School at TASIS England, having previously served the Whitby School community for 5 wonderful years. The 'Life of Bryan' continues to be an adventure in many ways. From Belfast to Bavaria and Cardiff to Connecticut, and now onto London, his learning journey has proved to be a source of wonder and exploration through each opportunity and challenge enjoyed. Bryan shares this journey with his family and the school communities that he serves. He draws inspiration from the multiple perspectives provided by students, parents and colleagues that continue to enrich his learning and expand his horizons.