Monitoring and Responding to Close Equity Gaps in Academic Rigor

May 13, 2021

Dr. Brandi Chin

Founding School Director, DSST Middle School at Noel Campus, Denver

“To me, it’s unacceptable to put anything in front of kids that’s low rigor. That’s injustice.” — Dr. Brandi Chin

The Problem:

Ensuring a High Level of Academic Rigor, in Every Classroom

Dr. Brand Chin was adamant that her school continue to raise learning expectations during the pandemic, even with all the new challenges. Only by raising the bar could she and her team fulfill their mission to give all of their students — almost all of whom are students of color — the kind of high quality education that would empower them to become future leaders.

So through professional learning she forged a shared vision for rigorous learning and how to support it (See “Supporting High Expectations for Student Learning, No Matter What” and Ensuring Deep Mastery for All Students through Skill Building.) But then she needed to know if that vision was becoming reality for every student. And when it wasn’t, she needed a way to move the needle in the right direction.

The Innovation:

Getting Lots of Eyes and Practice on Student Work

To get a school-wide picture of rigor for every class, Chin established a system for collecting and analyzing data on the rigor of teaching and learning — and used the data from that system to provide individual teachers with targeted feedback and 1:1 coaching. The keys to her theory of action were:

● Periodic audits of teachers’ lesson materials and student work examples to assess both against school-wide definitions of rigor.

● Feedback from instructional coaches on teachers’ lesson plans, with specific recommendations for increasing the rigor of instruction; and

● Group professional development on aspects of rigor absent from multiple classes.

Chin’s thinking: Only by seeing what teachers were asking of students, and what students were producing as a result, could she know the level of rigor across her school -- and what needed to be done to increase it. The strategy appears to have paid off. Her school, which had won accolades for its outsized results before this school year, has continued to meet or exceed most of its interim assessment performance targets, despite all the many new challenges brought on by COVID-19.

The Story:

Measuring and Moving Instruction

“We would ask: ‘Are we tapping both the conceptual and the procedural? Are we asking kids to make an inference, and justify their answers?’ And then, ‘Are students meeting the demands?’” — Brandi Chin

Innovating around Data in Challenging Times

Chin has a natural inclination towards data as a tool for instructional leadership. Along with teaching and administration, her experience includes work as a research analyst. She says: “I think you should analyze all of your systems regularly, for what’s excellent about them and for what it is you need to pivot on.” Innovating around data, she adds, is even more important in times like these: “It can’t be that we’re just going to be really good at the same systems and structures that we’ve had in place before.”

She knew that to increase the rigor of teaching and learning she needed a new system for tracking and responding to data — and the first step was getting clear about what needed to be tracked. She laid that groundwork early in the school year by leading staff in collectively defining rigor and in forging a shared understanding of a handful of academic skills, or “habits,” of rigorous learning. The latter included annotating to pull out the meaning of a text, analysis of questions to plan appropriate responses, and using reason to eliminate incorrect answers (For more, see Supporting High Expectations for Student Learning, No Matter What”).

What ultimately mattered to Chin, however, was the extent to which those elements were present in teachers’ lessons and in student work. To determine that, she created an auditing process in which her instructional leadership team reviews teacher lesson plans and student work to look for evidence of rigor and use of the school-wide habits. The first audit took place in November, with additional ones following on roughly a monthly basis.

Monitoring What Matters

For each audit, members of her Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) review the materials for the 2–4 teachers they support. They look at teachers’ slide decks and presentation notes to see what they’re asking of students — and how they’re supporting them in meeting the expectations — in the lesson’s “Do Now,” vocabulary work, modeling, practice, and mastery checks. A major focus is on how teachers incorporate practice using the school-wide habits of rigorous learning throughout the lesson. For each lesson, they also review the work students produce; as Chin says, “You can ask for something, but that doesn’t mean you get it.”

The results from these reviews go into a spreadsheet Chin created, with rows for each teacher and columns for the coaches’ assessments and comments. Green, yellow, and red shading indicate if lesson plans and student work were rigorous, approaching rigor, or not at all rigorous (As the year progressed, the green-to-red ratio increased noticeably.) For their first audit, coaches reviewed work from all students in a class, but as they became more proficient at reviewing Chin had them sample from among the mid-performing students for each teacher, for a snapshot of typical mastery.

To move teaching and learning towards greater rigor, Chin and her team rely heavily on lesson plan feedback. Teachers whose plans and student work don’t yet fully reflect rigor get comments with specific suggestions for, say, modeling how to annotate in an upcoming lesson, or for pressing students to explain their reasoning. When the written feedback is not enough to move practice in the right direction coaches will co-plan one or more lessons with a teacher to clarify how to push students’ thinking. When many teachers struggle with a particular aspect of rigor, Chin makes sure it’s addressed in group staff development.

Assessing and Planning Forward

As the school year draws to a close, Chin says increasing rigor was the right bet to make for her school during the pandemic. She knows many schools naturally focused on just getting by until circumstances improved. But she says she knew they could do better, and indeed had to do better to keep their students on track to succeed in college and beyond. And in fact, her school’s interim assessment results show that, on the whole, learning continued to improve.

While she credits the systems she put in place with making that happen, she says it all had to start with a collective commitment to do best by students regardless of the situation — and a willingness to reinvent how they went about their work. That combination of commitment and ingenuity will be needed in even greater doses, she adds, as schools plan for the 2021–22 school year, when students will return with a host of new academic challenges as a result of this year’s disrupted schooling.

Says Chin: “The bigger message is around having high expectations, no matter what...It’s not an insurmountable task. I see it as an opportunity for us to innovate, to be adaptive leaders, and to be creative.”

Taking it Back to Your School

What does “rigor” look like to your team?

● How do you monitor the extent to which your teachers are delivering rigorous lessons to all students?

● How do you identify and respond to gaps in rigor across classrooms?

● What 1–2 steps can you take to ensure that all students are engaged in more rigorous work tomorrow?


Rigor Audit Tracker. Spreadsheet with tabs for results from several audits. Other tabs include the school’s definitions of rigor and school-wide habits for rigorous learning.

Practice Clinic on Teaching Habits. Detailed session plan for PD session on teaching students “Attack the Prompt” process for analyzing and planning how to respond to questions.


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