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Rigorous and Relevant Curriculum Summary

Rigor, in terms of high school improvement, is defined in multiple ways within a variety of research, but can be understood in its most basic interpretation: a set of ideas, principles and strategies that lead to student being well prepared for post-secondary education, career and civic participation (National High School Alliance, 2006). A rigorous high school curriculum includes “higher expectations for all students, with supports for low-performing students through intervention programs and extended learning opportunities” (Improving High Schools through Rigor, Relevance and Relationships).

The terms of rigor can include course requirements and curricula, quality of content and instruction, and strategies to support student achievement. What researchers do agree on is that rigor of high school curriculum is one of the top indicators for whether a student will graduate from high school and earn a college degree.

Relevance refers to relatedness to students' lives, development of 21st century skills, and adequate preparation for postsecondary education and the world of work.

Offering rigorous and relevant curriculum and instruction includes high academic expectations, curriculum that connects to students’ lives, cultures, and communities, career and technical education, partnerships with higher education, interdisciplinary courses, and project- and community-based learning.

Why is it Important?

When youth become adults they will be challenged, as all adults are, to apply basic skills and knowledge to complex problems that are often novel or unique. A solution to an original problem cannot be reached through utilizing previously learned and rote skills; instead it is reached through organizing, interpreting, evaluating and synthesizing prior knowledge in combination with new information. In short, it requires a set of discrete thinking skills.

However, constructing knowledge is not enough. Students need to use a prior knowledge base, gain an in depth understanding of a topic or issue, and develop and express ideas in order to solve problems.

Ultimately, the knowledge that youth learn in school has to apply to the world outside of school. Often the tasks that youth are asked to complete are built around evaluating competence of that basic skill, but have no value outside of the classroom. For example, a student might work on a challenging algebra problem, where they use analytic skills, but if its solution has no interest or value beyond proving competence to pass a course, students are less likely to be able to use the knowledge in their lives beyond school.

It is important to provide a foundation for complex intellectual work that is necessary for success in contemporary society. Youth need to know how to construct knowledge through disciplined inquiry in order to produce something that has meaning beyond success in school.

Relevant and rigorous curriculum is not meant to add a new or different educational goal, but instead is just a framework for teaching and assessing goals already in place. This framework includes increasing teacher instruction skills, but challenges teachers, and other school leadership, to revision how student knowledge acquisition is thought of and evaluated.

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