Posts Tagged ‘rigor and relevance’

Free Resources on Educational Issues and Teaching Trends

Even though we teachers like to think that we are “kings and queens of our own castles,” we are not immune to outside influences. As public servants, what we do in the classroom is impacted by political, economic, and social change. For better or worse, we live in a democracy.

In addition to our roles as public servants, we are also research scientists. More precisely, we are social scientists with a complex and evolving laboratory of students, parents, administration, and teaching colleagues.

As servants and scientists, educational issues and teaching trends affect who we are and how we teach more than many of us like to admit. The veteran teachers who roll their collective eyes and say “What comes around, goes around” know a thing or two. They know that sometimes the tail wags the dog-that things go on that determine what we do as professional educators. Now, change is good. But change with perspective and judgment is better.

Following are articles and practical resources regarding educational issues and teaching trends from the Pennington Publishing Blog. Also, check out the quality instructional programs and resources offered by Pennington Publishing.

Educational Issues and Teaching Trends

Don’t Rely on Rigor and Relevance’t-rely-on-rigor-and-relevance/

As a precursor to the current economic crisis, the educational leadership trend was the Rigor and Relevance Movement. Popularized over the last decade by Bill Daggett and the International Center for Leadership in Education, with concurrent support from the Institute of Education Sciences (the federal research agency arm of the U.S. Department of Education), the movement has swept the nation. Largely as a result of historical timing, the Rigor and Relevance (and now, relationships) Movement has become the de facto solution to the ills of public education. A critique of this movement points out a few noteworthy deficits in philosophy and pedagogy.

Crazy Reading Fads

As an MA reading specialist, I’ve seen some strange remedial reading fads come and go over the years. Much like new weight loss products, each new fad looks enticing and promising. Let’s face it. Everyone wants the magic reading pill that will transform poor readers into skillful readers overnight.

Strange, but True: “Stuffed Animals Increase Reading Levels”

According to Riddering, students were given a stuffed animal as a “reading buddy” and were encouraged to read to their buddy. Because of this method, reading scores increased greatly.

“One school in particular saw their sixth grade reading levels go from just 47 percent to 93 percent,” Riddering said. “That’s huge success!”

Educational Fads: What Goes Around Comes Around

Teaching is, by its very nature, experimental. We teachers are just as susceptible to snake-oil sales pitches, fads, and cultural pressures as any professionals. Educational fads seem to come and go. Teachers need to learn to “crap detectors” to avoid some of the pitfalls of educational bandwagoning and experimentation.

More Articles, Free Resources, and Teaching Tips from the Pennington Publishing Blog


The writer of this article, Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Teaching Essay Strategies, and Teaching Reading Strategies and more ELA/Reading resources for the overworked teacher committed to differentiating instruction according to diagnostic and formative data. Perfect for EL/ESL and RtI instruction. For free diagnostic assessments, game cards, and instructional materials, as well as his highly-recommended curricula, check out Bookmark and refer back often to the Pennington Publishing Blog for insightful articles, free resources, and educational tips. 

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Don’t Rely on Rigor and Relevance

Political and Economic Context

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, public schools have felt mounting pressure to increase the levels of instructional rigor and academic success for all students. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, signed into law in 2002, has forced states to reevaluate their standards and assessment programs according to federal criteria, and adjust to the adequate yearly progress (AYP) provision of NCLB. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and now the Race to the Top funding has brought additional federal carrot and stick measures to induce states to follow federal guidelines and initiatives. Over the last few months, state legislatures have raced to approve needed changes to qualify for federal dollars. Forty states and the District of Colombia made the federal deadline of January 19 to enable them to access federal funds.

Concurrently, concerns about the growing Achievement Gap, especially with respect to underperforming African-American and Latino sub-groups have come to the national consciousness. Traditionally liberal voices have begun supporting traditionally conservative, anti-public school proposals such as charter schools, open enrollment, vouchers, and teacher accountability-via-assessment. The Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Education support these initiatives. The National Education Association is reeling.

For example, the ARRA funds are to be used to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap through “shared commitment and responsibility.” What is this process defined by the federal government?

  • Adopting rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments
  • Establishing data systems and using data for improvement
  • Increasing teacher effectiveness and equitable distribution of effective teachers
  • Turning around the lowest-performing schools
  • Improving results for all students, including early childhood learning, extended learning time, use of technology, preparation for college, and school modernization,,id=204335,00.html

In other words, more and more governmental accountability and less autonomy for school districts, administrators, and teachers.

School districts are failing during the current economic downturn. Deep in debt, districts are enacting furlough days with the consent of powerless teacher unions. Compromises are made to ensure some sort of survival. Districts and teachers are devolving more control to states and the federal government for money to keep afloat. Public education is in crisis mode.

Academic Context

As a precursor to this crisis mode, the in vogue educational leadership trend was the Rigor and Relevance Movement. Popularized over the last decade by Bill Daggett and the International Center for Leadership in Education, with concurrent support from the Institute of Education Sciences (the federal research agency) arm of the U.S. Department of Education, the movement has swept the nation. Largely as a result of historical timing, the Rigor and Relevance (and now, relationships) Movement has become the de facto solution to the ills of public education. Administrators and teachers throughout the United States are using the Rigor and Relevance quadrants to analyze instructional effectiveness.

A Few Working Definitions

Although the movement is pervasive, it is not monolithic. No one holds the trademark on the terms rigor and relevance. In fact, rigor is variously defined. Some define rigor in terms of end-goals, such as high standards or high expectations. Others define rigor as a set of competences as measured by high stakes assessments. Some cross-over adherents from the Essential Schools movement have defined the term as the mastery of educational concepts. Often, the term is defined in terms of process-goals. Instructional methodologies are featured prominently in discussions about rigor. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a favorite, as well as any instructional strategies that elicit critical thinking, deep understanding, exploration, and research.

The usage of relevance also varies. Relevance for students refers to interdisciplinary and contextual learning situations directly connected to real-world problems ranging from routine to complex. Relevance for teachers and administrators implies establishing a vision and mission, and moving forward on school improvement and change initiatives that have purpose and are focused on the agreed-upon needs of that particular school and student population.” David Britten January 3, 2010. So, relevance refers to real-world applications, as well as to the needs and interests of student and school cultures.

Critique of the Rigor and Relevance Movement

As is frequently the case, any educational reform movement produces nuggets that can and should be mined by thoughtful public school stakeholders. However, the harder-to-mine gold often remains, as the placer (surface-level) gold is depleted.


Much of what passes for rigor is arbitrary, subjective, and contrived.  For example, proponents of rigor usually align themselves with those who advocate standards-based education. Such standards beg the question on many fronts. Why don’t states all agree on the same standards, if there is such a broad educational consensus as to what they should be? What happens when the consensus changes? Which standards are most/least important? Do standards really reflect broader educational priorities, such as can the student read, write, do math, and think well? What prerequisites are necessary to demonstrate mastery of the standards? Why are certain standards appropriate at certain grade levels? Who decided that a standard is a standard and for what reasons?

Rigor that is not arbitrary, subjective, and contrived consists of instructional content and strategies determined through direct diagnostic and formative assessments of individual students, not arbitrary “Below Basic,” “Basic”, “Proficient,” or “Advanced” categorizations derived from annual standards-based assessments. Although we teach subject matter (content), we also teach children. Rigorous  teachers find out what students need and differentiate instruction to match those needs. Students experience success by successive approximation. Teachers challenge students just enough to help students take risks, but not too much to overwhelm them. Success builds upon success.


Much of the renewed interest in relevance has developed from panic-attack reactions to the highly publicized Achievement Gap. Well-intentioned, teacher-induced guilt brings the “it must be my fault that I am not meeting student needs” response. Teachers rush to develop “real-world” career applications to lessons on primary numbers. Teachers ditch archaic Shakespeare for analyses of current hip hop songs. Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time establishing a motivational framework to convince students to memorize the scientific method or key elements from the Periodic Table of Elements. Teachers drop rules of classroom decorum to be culturally sensitive to students who have the proclivity to engage in impulsive outbursts.

Perhaps another view of relevance should be considered. Renowned reading researcher, Anita Archer, categorizes the Achievement Gap as largely a misnomer. She says what we really have is a “literacy gap.” I tend to agree. Until we address this fundamental issue, issues such as instructional strategies to establish relevance are futile. In fact, content literacy should be the true means of attaining educational and personal relevance. Relevance becomes a by-product of educational success, not a series of instructional strategies designed by well-intentioned educators.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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Educational Fads: What Goes Around Comes Around

Teaching is, by its very nature, experimental. We teachers are just as susceptible to snake-oil sales pitches, fads, and cultural pressures as any professionals. And many of the teaching strategies, movements, and philosophies appear years later dressed up in different clothes. Talk to any veteran teacher of a dozen years or more and the teacher will eventually comment on the dynamic nature of education with statements such as “Been there, done that,” “There’s nothing new under the sun,” What Goes Around Comes Around,” “We tried that back in…”

Teachers are also victims of the bandwagon effect. What’s new is questioned, until certain key players buy in. At that point, many teachers become no-holds-barred converts. We teachers are especially vulnerable to new ideas labeled as “research-based,” “best practices,” or “standards-based.” We could all do with an occasional reminder that one of our primary duties as teachers should be to act as informed “crap detectors” (Postman, Neil, and Weingartner, Charles (1969), Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Dell, New York, NY.).

Following is a list of the educational fads that have come and gone (and sometimes come again) over the last thirty years of my teaching. I’ve bought into quite a few of them and still believe that some of them have merit. The list reminds me to hold on loosely to some things that I currently practice and to be open to change. Cringe, laugh, and be a bit offended as you read over the list. Oh, and please add on to the list, which is in no particular order.

1. Writing Across the Curriculum No one really ever believed that math, art, or music teachers should be spending oodles of time teaching writing.

2. Timers Timers used to keep students on task, pace themselves, track their reading speed.

3. Left-right Brain Strategies Some teachers used to have students place bracelets on their left or right wrists to cue brain hemispheres.

4. Self-esteem Teachers developed lessons to promote the self-esteem of students to increase their abilities to learn.

5. Cultural Literacy E. D. Hirsch, Jr. popularized this movement of shared content knowledge in his influential 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Teachers abandoned free-choice novels and chose core novels that inculcated American values.

6. Multi-culturalism This much maligned approach to education influenced many publishers and teachers to include multi-cultural literature.

7.  Relevance The practice of choosing curriculum and instructional strategies designed to  relate to the lives and interests of students.

8. Clickers Used to track student discussion responses, equitable teacher questioning, and even attendance.

9. Re-learning Early Childhood Behaviors One reading strategy for struggling readers in the 1970s involved re-teaching those remedial readers who never learned to crawl to crawl.

10. Learning Styles I can’t tell you how many learning styles assessments I designed over the years.

11. Experiential Learning Role play, simulations, mock trial.

12. Alternative or Authentic Assessments I once taught an entire year-long sophomore level World History class without giving one traditional paper and pencil test. Think museum exhibits, video productions, interviews, etc.

13. Cooperative Groups Touted as a primary means of heterogeneous instruction in the 1980s.

14. Values Clarification and Moral Dilemmas Two forms of values education that emphasized decision-making and informed moral choices.

15. Gongs Used to focus students’ attention and signal instructional transitions.

16. Critical Thinking Skills Bloom’s Taxonomy, Costa’s Levels of Questioning, et al.

17. Behavioral Objectives and the Madeline Hunter’s Lesson Design Teaching to measurable objectives with connection to prior instruction, guided practice, closure, and independent practice.

18. Standards-based Instruction A movement to identify content standards across grade levels and focus instruction on these expectations. Many state tests were aligned with these standards.

19. Language Experience A reading strategy which used oral language ability to help students read. Teachers copied down student stories and had students practice reading them.

20. Bilingual Education A movement to teach native literacy and celebrate bilingualism in the belief that literacy skills are easily transferred to English.

21. Learn by Doing John Dewey revisited. Gardening and keeping classroom pets were popular recreations of the theme.

22. Cornell Notes Popularized by the A.V.I.D. (Advancement Via Individual Determination), this columnar notetaking strategy originated in the 1950s at Cornell University.

23. Inventive Spelling The practice of guessing sound-spelling relationships to encourage writing fluency. Instruction followed from spelling analysis.

24. Achievement Gap The gap in reading and math achievement between racial subgroups. Later expanded to language and ethnic subgroups.

25. Thematic Instruction Teaching broad-based themes across the curriculum, such as teaching a unit on cooking in which recipes are composed and read, mathematic measurements involving recipe quantities are practiced, the final meal is sketched, using artistic perspective, and the meal is eaten.

26. Time on Task A movement that tried to minimize wasted time, class interruptions, and outside activities (such as assemblies) and maximize minutes of classroom instruction, such as with classroom openers.

27. Whole Language The movement popularized in the 1970s and 1980s that de-emphasized phonics, spelling, and grammar instruction and emphasized reading and writing for meaning.

28. Reading Across the Curriculum No one really ever believed that math, art, or music teachers should be spending oodles of time teaching reading or that “Every Teacher, a Teacher of Reading.”

29. Phonemic Awareness Better described as phonological awareness, teachers played patterns of sounds, emphasized rhythm, and used nursery rhymes to prepare students to match speech sounds to print.

30. ADD, ADHD, Epstein Bar, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Autism, and Others Difficult to diagnose, these conditions introduced educators to Parent Advocates and mandated classroom interventions.

31. Auditory Processing Deficit Disorders and Visual Processing Deficit Disorders New brain research has validated these learning disabilities, but instructional strategies to address these challenges have a questionable track record.

32. Dyslexia Reading difficulties have produced a plethora of remedial strategies, many such as colored transparencies have been dubious, at best.

33. Career Education Students were tracked according to career interests.

34. Community Service Students were required to perform hours of community service as part of course or graduation requirements.

35. Tracing Letters in the Sand Those who believe that spelling is a visual process had students memorize the shapes of letters within words by drawing the outline of the letters.

36. Inquiry Education Instruction based upon student questions and interests.

37. Sustained Silent Reading, Drop Everything and Read, et al In class or school-wide, this practice of silent reading is usually based upon student choice of reading materials without accountability and is designed to foster life-long reading.

38. TRIBES, et al Groups of students, mentored by adults, that build relational and supportive bonds within the school setting.

39. Peer Tutoring A practice in which a smarter student is paired with one less smart to teach the latter.

40. Writers Workshop and Six Traits Movements based upon the writing research of Donald Graves and others that emphasize the process of writing, revision, and publication.

41. Problem-Solving Strategies developed to solve difficult problems in collaborative groups.

42. Rubrics Here a rubric; there a rubric. Holistic and analytic scoring guides that purport to de-mystify and objectify the grading process of complicated tasks, such as essays.

43. Manipulatives Learning mathematical concepts through visual models that students manipulate to understand mathematical processes.

44. Metacognition Thinking about thinking. Strategies that teach reflection on the learning process.

45. Prior Knowledge Usually referred to as a pre-reading or pre-writing strategy in which the student “accesses” his or her background or personal experiences to connect to the reading or writing task.

46. Hands-on Learning Project-based instruction that emphasizes concrete learning making or doing.

47. Realia Using “real” objects to scaffold into abstract learning. For example, bringing in a silver necklace to teach what silver and a necklace mean.

48. Tracking and Ability Grouping Permanent or temporary grouped instruction based upon student grades, test scores, or skill levels.

49. Differentiated Instruction and Individualized Instruction Instruction designed according to the diagnostic needs of individual students, frequently involving group work.

50. Multiple Intelligences Popularized by Howard Gardner, this movement described intelligence aptitudes such as interpersonal intelligence.

51. Powerpoint®, Blackboard, Web 2.0, computer literacy skills, SmartBoards, Video Conferencing and more to come.

52. Color Mood Design Teachers draped soothing colored butcher paper (blue or green) over the teacher’s desk to reduce stress. Teachers stopped using red pens to correct papers.

53. Back to Basics A movement to focus more on the three R’s and less on electives.

54. The Five-Paragraph Essay The model essay, consisting of one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one conclusion paragraph.

55. Multi-sensory Education Using the five senses to teach a concept or skill.

56. Learning Centers Resources placed around the classroom that allowed students to explore learning on their own.

The writer of this blog, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula: Teaching Grammar and MechanicsTeaching Essay StrategiesTeaching Reading Strategies, and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or training.

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