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Rigor vs. Rigor Mortis (12/30/2007)
By Paul Durand
Minnesota Governor Pawlenty, and legislative leaders from both parties, have promoted a wide variety of preschool and K-12 education policies and initiatives designed to challenge Minnesota students with rigor and relevance, while maintaining accountability. Preparing students for the 21st century is something parents, educators, business and political leaders are now focusing on to help students succeed in a more competitive global environment. Nationally, we are finally coming to general agreement that all children deserve a "challenging and robust" education. In that discussion many leaders use the term "rigor" to describe the new higher standards expected for student achievement.

The problem may be more than the lack of consensus about what constitutes "rigor" and how to assess it locally. At the recent community forum designing the Winona Area Public School Comprehensive Plan those involved identified several threats potentially limiting our ability locally to improve and change our schools. They include: lack of and inconsistent funding, continued dissonance in the community, disengaged families, poor technology, knowing there is a problem and doing nothing or not learning from or repeating past mistakes. Although there are many pressures for us to resist change, for the good of our students we must move beyond simply a proud heritage, a "good enough" mentality and an often entrenched educational bureaucracy. It is essential we design and support a model locally that has flexibility, is receptive to change, and is able to transition our schools so all students are successfully prepared to survive in the future.

According to a 2004 RAND report, The 21st Century at Work: Forces Shaping the Future Workforce and Workplace in the United States, " Knowledge workers in every industry - from nano-scientists to package deliverers - require high-level cognitive skills for managing, interpreting, validating, transforming and acting on information. Valued skills include such non-routine analytic skills as abstract reasoning, problem solving, communication and collaboration." In the Winona Area Public Schools we are working to help students by addressing these complex and important life skills. Over the past year several initiatives have been started to improve academic rigor and relevance for ALL students:

Articulation Certificates: High school departments, such as Business Education, now have course alignment with Southeast Technical College allowing students to receive dual high school and college credits. Other such agreements are in the works to strengthen relationships between our post-secondary institutions, thus increasing rigor and relevance for our learners.

Expansion of Advanced Placement: Eight courses at WSHS have now been fully aligned with the requirements as determined by the College Board. We are working to expand programs that support post-secondary access that may include: additional Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), College in the Schools (CIS) concurrent enrollment or College Level Examination Program (CLEP).

Curriculum Audits: WSHS conducted a full external audit last year. HS staff members are now rewriting, updating and aligning the curriculum with national and state standards. At the high school, curriculum maps and the use of common assessments are being reviewed. Winona Middle School staff will complete a similar curriculum audit this year followed by our elementary schools beginning fall of 2008.

Data Driven Decision Making: Winona Area Public Schools, in conjunction with over twenty SE Minnesota school districts, through the coordination of Hiawatha Valley Education District, has developed a data warehouse and hired a data manager. This resource will house student data and provide the expertise that will assist us to track, analyze and benchmark student progress. Elementary and middle school staff are being trained to use the data and a new computer diagnostic tool (called AIMS web). This warehouse and technology will allow educators direct and timely access to data so they can make informed educational decisions necessary to improve student learning.

Strong Readers are Leaders: The Winona Area Public Schools now has three reading specialists working in grades K-8. These staff members are supporting the implementation of the new Response to Intervention (RTI) model by identifying and supporting students not meeting benchmarks in reading. They are also working to train teachers on differentiation groups and intervention strategies.

Project Lead the Way : Schools must offer rigorous programs that include career and technical (CTE) education courses that are offered in high demand fields, leading to certification or other industry recognized programs. In conjunction with the Winona Chamber of Commerce and several involved area businesses, WAPS students will be exposed to engineering, science and technology careers through Project Lead the Way. New courses in Engineering Design and Principles of Engineering will be offered next year. In 2009-10 Computer Integrated Manufacturing and Engineering Design and Development will be added to the WSHS course offerings. To learn more visit www.pltw.org.

We have started to make progress in increasing the rigor and relevance in our schools. Yet, many feel greater urgency is needed before our students will be able to keep up with the constant changes being placed upon our society. One of the comprehensive planning focus groups put it like this, " The way we've always done things won't suffice. We are going to need to change our educational system" or " There is no such thing as learning disconnected from community: locally and globally." We must be careful not to unknowingly fall into a paralysis by analysis syndrome allowing rigor mortis to overtake our system. We must continue to strive for the best, transitioning as necessary, matching our curriculum, technology and resources to meet the anticipated future demands. If we work together we can strengthen our schools and teach the critical thinking skills required for students to adapt to unknown future societal challenges. To follow the community work done on the comprehensive plan, access the new reading resources (under educators then reading specialists), or to view the Powerpoint titled: SHIFT HAPPENS please checkout our website at www.winona.k12.mn.us



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