The Dark Side of Rigor

Summer 2021

By Percy L. Abram, Olaf Jorgenson

230413_IndependentSchoolmagazine_April_Emmanuel-Polanco_Illustration1bis.jpgThe word “rigor” is like catnip for so many independent school parents. It’s all over school websites, viewbooks, glossy marketing materials, social media campaigns, and parking lot conversations. Parents ascribe value and credibility to any course, program, or school labeled “rigorous.” Rigor is seen as fundamental to effective academic preparation for young people and is associated with favorable outcomes ranging from high standardized test scores and weighted grades to the grand prize, admission to elite colleges and universities. But what exactly do we mean by rigor? How is it delivered in classrooms? How is it measured? And is rigor—however we define it—good for children?
One of the most common associations we make is difficulty. A rigorous class is a hard one. But why? Is it that the teacher demands that students think deeply and stretch their intellectual grasp to push beyond their assumptions and apprehensions and tackle academic challenges they might not have otherwise tried? Or is it simply that the teacher assigns an inordinate amount of homework or course reading, gives tests that are beyond many students’ capabilities, and otherwise places such heavy demands on students’ time, energy, and resources that they must subject themselves to sleep deprivation, isolation, emotional fatigue, and anxiety to earn high marks?
The dominant contemporary notion of academic rigor is the latter—it rests on the premise that difficulty is defined by a student’s workload rather than the depth and richness and intensity of the intellectual journey. From the Latin, rigor means stiffness, rigidity, cold, harshness. Dictionary definitions evoke equally menacing terms—inflexibility, strict precision, exactness—rigor is “a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.” (Think rigor mortis.) Indeed, these iterations of rigor all too frequently illustrate the learning environment in college-prep high schools today.
 And parents have come to associate rigor with stress and, by extension, stress with desirable outcomes like matriculation at highly selective colleges and elite universities. As a result, we’ve—astonishingly—normalized adolescent stress and its debilitating effects on our students. Whether parents want to inflict this sort of rigor on their children, many of them cast the K–12 school experience as a clash among young combatants driven by fierce competition toward an elusive outcome. In this prolonged, every-student-for-themselves siege, the prize at the end—selective college admission, ostensibly, with an accompanying network of influential contacts and the promise of a launching pad to a career—makes the stress, exhaustion, and misery of high school worthwhile.
This is not to suggest that academic achievement, ambition, or aspiration aren’t worthy and noble drivers, but there is an argument to be made against unnecessary, unhealthy, and inhumane academic distress—about the peril and the ethics of putting student achievement ahead of student wellness, and the fallacy that the two are competing aims. We need to question the role that rigor—and the needlessly stressful, content-focused learning design it perpetuates—plays in secondary schools today, at least as the predominant model. Not only is this sort of rigor unhealthy for kids, it’s not what they need to grow and thrive.

Well and Good?

Just one look at the growing body of research about the alarmingly increasing rates of anxiety disorders, depression, suicide, and self-harm among kids and teens paints a vivid and bleak picture of their well-being. We have known that students are increasingly stressed, and as we’ve entered the second year of a global pandemic, that stress has not just skyrocketed but become more complex. In schools, we know that children of all ages contend with pandemic-related mental health challenges brought on by social isolation, uncertainty, fear of illness, and more. Current studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Institutes of Health find increases in childhood and adolescent depression and anxiety since the start of the pandemic. The research reflects what mental health practitioners have witnessed; for example, in 2020, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in Florida saw a 35% increase in mental health assistance for children as well as an uptick in suicide attempts.
The research examining the pandemic’s impact on children and wellness is still emerging, but it’s clear that such an alarming pandemic-related surge in mental health concerns among young people aggravates an already-grim outlook for adolescent wellness. Our obsession with (and emphasis on) rigor for rigor’s sake may help account for the alarming increase in stress and stress-related concerns young people began to suffer in the two decades leading up to the pandemic.
Is it plausible that parental demand for rigor in school—increased academic workloads, more homework, deemphasizing fine and performing arts and other “nonacademic” pursuits—is contributing in part to a teenage mental health epidemic of its own that paradoxically threatens their own children? Granted, other factors, including social media, peer pressure, family finances, and other ubiquitous sources of adolescent anxiety, most certainly play a role in the academic stress crisis, doubtless exacerbated now by pandemic conditions around the globe. However, prior to the pandemic, studies repeatedly ranked school and apprehension about getting into college as the top sources of stress for teens; these stressors, still weighing on adolescents in all of our schools, are compounded today by layers of anxiety brought about by COVID-19.
It’s important here to distinguish between eustress and distress. Eustress is normal psychological stress that’s beneficial, such as the familiar stomach butterflies we get before delivering speeches or our elevated concern about an approaching deadline. Distress is harmful stress that impairs us physically and emotionally and can have a lasting impact on our health. Distress is what young people today deal with when punishing homework loads, compulsion to stack their résumés with accomplishments, and relentless pressure to achieve—especially under the constraints of distance learning and fears about the virus—all masquerade as rigor.

Falling Short

To be clear, there is a subset of students in schools nationwide who thrive in the high-pressure, content-focused model that constitutes a rigorous education today. The norm for these young people is simultaneously taking a dozen or more AP classes, conducting independent research projects, founding international charities, and taking leadership roles in student government, sports, performing arts, speech and debate, and clubs. In turn, some of these students are in fact rewarded with admission to elite colleges and all the advantages such a path provides.
For too many students, though, the pursuit of these same lofty goals crumbles when the endless, mind-numbing pattern of sit-get-spit-forget paired with constant stress and the fatigue from sleep deprivation saps their creativity, self-confidence, and love for learning. They plod on, frequently developing an intense dislike for school. Many ultimately fall short of the elite college prize, unrealistic though it may have been as a goal, despite the sacrifices they made for four years of their youth. For too many of our students, academic rigor in college prep high schools amounts to suffering.
There are schools across the U.S. that are resetting their priorities around the academic demands of the 21st century while fostering increased student engagement, empowerment, and wellness (see “Redefining Rigor” below). Indeed, these exceptions to the model of rigor-as-suffering are increasingly prevalent, if not yet a critical mass. Along with acknowledging their responsibility to student health, the schools that reject the status quo recognize—and repudiate—the dominant but archaic American paradigm of education: that the primary objective of “learning” is mastering content. Educational reformers and researchers alike have written endlessly on the obsolescence of America’s factory model of learning, founded on acquisition of a standardized body of information measured by summative standardized tests.
Certainly students need exposure to direct instruction, core knowledge, memorization and recall, and automaticity—and some students truly blossom when fed and watered by facts. However, the notion that content mastery is no longer a particularly useful singular learning objective—much less the foundation for what rigor should be—is nowhere more evident than in the technology corridors of Silicon Valley and Seattle. Ironically, the same parents who urge their children to attend content-driven, rigorous high schools in these future-focused communities—often investing substantially to make that happen—work for tech companies and startups that seek employees with a completely separate skill set than the ones their children are building at school.
These companies depend on employees who know how to collaborate (rather than compete) with coworkers, who demonstrate creativity and problem-solving, who recognize that in fact there is more than one correct answer, and who contribute to teams by virtue of their ability to listen, empathize, and connect with others who don’t always understand or agree with them. This last attribute was highlighted in the widely publicized studies Google conducted (Project Oxygen and Project Aristotle) that exposed the value Google employees place on emotional intelligence, generosity, fairness, and interpersonal skills, and in turn shifted the company’s hiring and leadership training systems.
Granted, the goal is not to develop a model of education to feed the tech industry in Seattle and Silicon Valley. But we ought to demand a new template for schooling that recognizes the needs of young people as complicated, nuanced human beings with infinite potential. Employable graduates are a natural by-product of a challenging, engaging, and intellectually rich education.

Redefining and Reimagining Rigor

Where do we go from here? We can begin by reframing what matters when preparing young people to thrive in college and life, to equip themselves for citizenship, and to find fulfilment in their learning experiences—starting with redefining rigor. In the 21st century, rigor should mean “the degree to which a student is in equal parts intellectually challenged, engaged, enriched, and empowered by an instructional program or course of study.”
Note that challenge remains the anchor term of the definition. But we must draw a distinction between the difficult workload that overwhelms students striving to read and memorize and dredge it all up for the test in schools today and the provocative, stimulating, sometimes vexing challenge of grasping complex ideas that make learning meaningful and rewarding (as well as empowering) to master. It is, after all, the love of learning, the questions that beget more questions, and the desire to know and discover that we educators wish for every student in our classrooms and which, sadly, is often snuffed out by the so-called rigor that buries their creativity and suffocates their curiosity.
Whether we look at the existing or the envisioned archetypes of rigor, we should acknowledge that there isn’t a uniform level of challenge or difficulty for all children. Rigor today and tomorrow will always depend to some extent on who a young person is, which disciplines are strengths and liabilities for the individual, and what advantages or setbacks the student carries into the classroom. That said, finding the right level of challenge for any student is compatible with 21st century rigor because the model aspires toward challenge-as-student-engagement, -enrichment, and -empowerment rather than challenge-as-suffering. Rigor reimagined for most parents will mean a place where their children are working at the Goldilocks level—not too hard, but not too easy either.
Reimagining rigor that engages, enriches, and empowers students will require courage, patience, and grit from school leaders as they seek to upend deeply set misperceptions about what matters in education and devise a compelling parent education campaign. For a reimagined paradigm of rigor to take hold in our schools, parents must understand and value intellectual challenge, engagement, enrichment, and empowerment just as they currently embrace rigor-as-suffering. That is a tall order, and it must happen over time. But as rigor for rigor’s sake today continues to take a toll that for too many young people outweighs its elusive and costly payoff, demand for an alternative way is building among parents. In time, this demand will shift parental perceptions of value toward a more humane, student-centered, and meaningful conception of rigor.
The work NAIS has done to understand what parents expect and need from independent schools using the Jobs-to-Be-Done (JTBD) methodology informs this prediction. One of the four parent Jobs—“help me develop a well-rounded person who will impact the world”—suggests that our schools have the capacity to shift parental demands in favor of “focusing on my child’s social and emotional development so I can be sure my child will be a well-rounded and productive member of society.”
In this context, with a concerted effort on the part of college-prep independent schools, we can inspire a gradual migration away from rigor-as-suffering, as parents recognize what—instead of rigor—challenges, engages, enriches, and empowers their children. In this transition, the context for the fourth parent Job—“help me realize my plan for my talented child”—might shift to embrace the importance of social and emotional wellness and student agency as key values or perhaps simply diminish in favor of the overwhelming desire of parents to raise healthy, well-adjusted, confident, and happy children.
Still, parents who have been conditioned for generations to identify and value rigor based on measurable and transactional outcomes will need convincing beyond the assurances of progressive and humanistic ideals. Parents, teachers, and college and university admission officers should demand evidence, including outcomes data, of what this new vision of rigor will accomplish. Formidable documentation is already building as we continue to gather data on the graduates of schools who rejected the standard notion of rigor in favor of well-being.
Rigor today should mean more than suffering. As schools courageously embrace a new conception of rigor that rises above merely a crushing workload, we expect to see both increased student wellness and higher levels of more meaningful academic achievement. We owe it to our young people, and to our future, to make this happen.

Redefining Rigor

There are schools across the U.S. that are resetting their priorities around the academic demands of the 21st century while fostering increased student engagement, empowerment, and wellness.

Notre Dame High School (CA)
This Catholic girls’ school eliminated final exams because the faculty decided a single test in one moment in time should not so heavily impact a student’s standing in a class. The school also determined that its traditional final exams failed to adequately reflect the essential questions of its rich courses. In place of finals, students at Notre Dame now can choose from a variety of ways to express their understanding of content—projects, Socratic seminars, debates—so that assessment is more closely tied to learning rather than cramming.

The Bush School (WA)

Recognizing that academic pressure and stress were undermining student participation in the school’s experiential learning program—which students increasingly viewed as extraneous to college admission and a distraction from their academic commitments—instructional leaders intentionally sought to support student wellness and foster engagement in experiential learning. They created a daily schedule and calendar that improved student morale and buy-in, decreased stress (partly by reducing the number of periods in a day), and provided opportunities for end-of-term interdisciplinary immersive and experiential courses called Cascades. Each Cascade comprises a single interdisciplinary thematic course led by interdepartmental teaching teams. Cascades require students to grapple with complex problems and face real-life challenges on and off campus, culminating in an exposition of what they’ve learned.
Lick-Wilmerding High School (CA)
LWHS was the first college-prep high school in the Bay Area to discontinue its Advanced Placement (AP)program and move away from the breadth, relentless pace, and rushed coverage that typically characterize the AP learning experience. LWHS replaced APs with honors courses designed by faculty members with expertise in their fields. As a result, students were enabled to find greater relevance and connection with their academic work. “Instead of engaging with a course for the ephemeral stamp of AP credit,” says Head of School Eric Temple, “students follow their interests and learn for life beyond college.”
Polytechnic School (CA)
Observing signs of distress among its students, Poly recognized its responsibility in creating a more balanced school experience. Administrators surveyed students and parents about academic workload, levels of school engagement, and student stress. The results affirmed that students were experiencing high levels of academic stress and decreased engagement and were missing school as a result. School leaders implemented key interventions: moving to a later start time; instituting a new homework policy; creating a new block schedule with three periods per six-day cycle of on-campus academic time in which all teachers are free for conferencing. Poly also hired an upper school mental health counselor and created student anxiety and depression groups to provide a forum for students to discuss their experiences with adults in the community.
Menlo School (CA)
As school leaders witnessed increasing stress taking its toll on students, they actively sought to rethink the belief that “it has to be hard to be good” and took several important action steps: developing a nongraded interim program that speaks to students’ interests rather than college admission criteria; creating an individualized study program that takes away some of the volume from the standard workload; moving to a block schedule with fewer transitions (a design adopted in conjunction with Stanford University’s Challenge Success program); and instituting a redo policy on tests that measures students’ development of mastery rather than the pace at which content is consumed.
Percy L. Abram

Percy L. Abram is head of school at The Bush School in Seattle, Washington.

Olaf Jorgenson

Olaf Jorgenson is head of school at Almaden Country Day School in San Jose, California.