The Meaningless Buzzword That’s Destroying American Education

  • Brian Stone
    4/26/2016 LGBT advocate, U.S. Navy Veteran and Dearborn, Mich. resident 

From speeches on Capitol Hill to the lowliest school board meeting, there’s a word buzzing around the ears of educators all across America. This word has become a sort of ink blot test, where legislators, citizens and educators can put whatever meaning they want onto it while its destroying our educational system.

Rigor. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says it means, among other things, “an act of strictness, severity or cruelty.” As horrible as that sounds, the word rigor has spread like a bad plague that makes up look like down.

Let’s face the simple truth: rigor is just a new word for rote. As educational systems in Asia are scrambling to find ways to have less repetition of tasks and more creative problem solving, rigor has become a way for our own educational system to erase whatever noble and creative virtues it had.

With the patchy implementation of Common Core and No Child Left Behind, our system has been infected with a fever for high-stakes testing, where a single day’s performance in school decides the fate for teachers, students and even entire school districts. This kind of insanity, which is so detrimental to the well-being of children that it’s associated with high rates of suicide in East Asian countries, is now becoming the new normal here in America.

Are we really prepared to go down that road?

When we talk about strictness, severity or cruelty, it doesn’t fit with my understanding of the role of teaching, or of our schools. Some high-stakes tests are even being administered in Kindergarten, a German word for “the garden of childhood.” Instead of a garden of childhood, Kindergarten is becoming the year kids start being labeled with terms like “inadequate yearly progress” and “below average performance index.”

In the meantime, meaningful programs that actually encourage and challenge children are being cut. The problem with the emphasis on rigor, and the problem it presents for parents, students and educators everywhere, is that children develop at different levels and stages. Rather than having an educational system that focuses on developing the unique talents and qualities of each child through the talent and brilliance of our teachers, rigor has become a word used to enforce a system where each child is taught to be the same.

Anybody can teach for the middle 50% of students - and any teacher can tell you that. The challenge is creating an educational system where our kids are being dealt with at their level and given the chance to rise.

Brilliant children are falling by the wayside in our schools, because rigorous programs put all the emphasis on meeting benchmarks rather than giving teachers the freedom to inspire unique talents and thinking. Gifted kids are receiving fewer and fewer opportunities to stretch their intellectual muscles. Decades from now, we may have lost our greatest minds to a system that taught them that there is nothing more important than a high mark.

The fact is, we do need educational reform in America, but not the kind that’s been advocated by the right wing over the last twenty years. The educational reform we need is one where we match high-standards for teachers with high pay and individualized student expectations. We need a system where teacher creativity is unleashed, not chained to curriculum focused on a single day of testing. We need an educational system that doesn’t just see the growth of gifted and special needs children as statistical outliers, but instead sees each new child as an opportunity to cultivate the talents and humanity of individuals.

Unfortunately rigor, like every buzzword that came before it, is standing in the way. It’s time that rigor, like rote, buzzed out of our education system and went back to the history books.

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