Supporting High Expectations for Student Learning, No Matter What

May 13, 2021

Dr. Brandi Chin

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

“Our kids deserve nothing less than a world-class education. That’s deeply tied to our mission and our commitment to equity. And now even more…we can’t let up on that.”— Dr. Brandi Chin

The Problem:

Increasing Academic Rigor Amidst Myriad Challenges

When the pandemic turned life upside down at her school, Dr. Brandi Chin refused to lower the bar for academics. Yes, she faced a host of new health and technology concerns. Yes, students had significant social-emotional needs. And she would strive to meet all of those needs — but not, she was determined, at the cost of academic rigor. “It’s not either/or,” says Chin. “It has to be ‘yes and.’ ”

She explains: “This is how we fight the good fight: By engaging students in critical thinking, so they can access positions of power, and make changes in our country.” Her school, a STEM-focused charter whose students are almost all Black and Brown, had won praise for its results up to that point, and she wasn’t going to let a global health crisis stop the momentum.

The Innovation:

Clarifying and Committing to the Importance of Academic Rigor

Rather than let rigor slide, Chin made it the primary focus of her leadership for the 2020–21 school year. She would also track and respond to students’ well-being, and create numerous opportunities for them to forge strong relationships, even when fully virtual. But — in pursuit of her school’s vision of equity — she was adamant that rigorous instruction take place in every class, for every student, every day, regardless of the learning environment (remote, hybrid, or in-person).

So her work began with a focused effort to solidify a school-wide vision of — and commitment to — rigorous instruction. Her theory of action:

  • Facilitate a collaborative process to reach school-wide agreement on what rigorous teaching and learning looks like.
  • Consistently message, in words and actions, the urgency of elevating rigor for the school’s students during the pandemic.
  • Commit to deep mastery of core academic skills over covering every topic in the curriculum.

Chin’s thinking: By homing in on a few elements of what rigorous instruction looks like in practice, she could help teachers prioritize what matters most, and make sure every lesson includes the fundamentals for students to continue learning at high levels despite the challenging circumstances.

This early focus on prioritizing rigor laid the groundwork for subsequent work to build teachers’ and students’ skills, and to monitor and respond to data on rigor on an ongoing basis (For more, see Ensuring Deep Mastery for All Students through Skill Building,” and Monitoring and Responding to Close Equity Gaps in Rigor).

The Story:

Clarifying What Matters Most

“Now, more than ever, we can’t let up on the things we know work for our kids.”— Dr. Brandi Chin

Setting the Vision

Chin says it was critical her staff see elevating rigor not as something to aspire to, but as their core mission. Having seen troubling inequities while growing up in Detroit, she says she carries within her a deep commitment to providing students from low-income families the kind of world class education many affluent families take for granted. She says: “We still prioritize things like joy factor and openness and conversations, but we also do excellence because that’s what our kids deserve, even in a pandemic — especially in a pandemic.”

Chin led with that message when, over the summer, she used a series of virtual professional development sessions to foster agreement on what rigor actually means in practice and why it was essential to double down on at this moment in time. The first was with her instructional leadership team (ILT), and then with her whole teaching staff. In each session, participants drafted their own definitions of a rigorous lesson, explained them to each other, then worked together to create a combined definition (See below.)

Recognizing Mastery

Chin says that while it was important to name the elements of rigorous teaching, understanding what they look like in practice takes examples. To make that connection she had her ILT and then teachers review actual lesson plans and student-facing materials from the school to come to agreement on the extent to which they reflected their definition of rigor.

Even then, she knew they also had to norm around examples of student work. As Chin explains, a plan for rigorous teaching is the starting place, without which meaningful learning won’t happen, but what ultimately matters is if students are demonstrating mastery.

To build a shared understanding of what deep mastery looks like, Chin led another set of exercises in which her ILT and teachers reviewed samples of student work to identify the traits of rigorous learning. These included conceptual understanding, making inferences, and offering evidence-based justifications. Says Chin: “That was a really important part of the process because we needed to see the gaps in our own lesson plans. And then when we were asking for rigor, we needed to see: were students meeting the demand?”

Making Room for Rigor

Chin also knew there’s only so much teachers and students can absorb, especially amid so much uncertainty. If they doubled down on rigor they’d need to ease up on something else. Chin decided it was more important for students to experience depth of learning than to cover every part of the school’s curriculum. She says: “If you just chug through then we’re going to stay at the surface level, and in this environment some kids will learn but most won’t.”

To help guide the trimming process, she enlisted her lead planners — a group of ILT members and teachers with a deep understanding of the curriculum and how to teach it, and who teach a reduced load to allow them to support their colleagues in lesson planning. These teachers had a strong sense of what was most essential in a lesson for moving students towards mastery of core topics and understandings. At Chin’s direction, they provided feedback on their colleagues’ lesson plans about where to prune.

As Chin describes it: “It was: Do you need to ask five questions about this little passage? Because that’s just an intro to the lesson. Can you ask just one? We still want learning to be fun and engaging, but what can we reduce so we get to the meat a little bit faster?”

Even still, Chin says getting teachers comfortable with the slimmed down lessons was a challenge: “It’s counterintuitive to us. Teachers have this notion that we have to get through the unit, and we have to get through all the lessons.” The mantra on trimming would need to be repeated, again and again, throughout the school year — in feedback, in PD sessions, and in written communications.

Where it Starts: “What We Put in Front of Our Kids”

Chin would also build significantly upon the foundation for increasing rigor that she set down at the start of the school year. In the months that followed, she guided teachers in building student habits for rigorous learning. And she created a process for auditing the rigor of teaching and learning, and for addressing any trending gaps observed.

But, she says, the first task was making sure everyone understood what they needed to be asking of students. Simply put: only by asking students to analyze, interpret, and justify with evidence could they begin to expect students to demonstrate those skills. As Chin sums up: “What we put in front of our kids has to be rigorous, right? It just has to be!”

Excerpt from lesson before school-wide effort to increase rigor; directions don’t push student thinking
Excerpt from lesson after school-wide effort to increase rigor; directions ask students to annotate while they read the novel The Giver (Where the concept of "Sameness" is introduced and capitalized!) to identify evidence to support different claims.

Taking it Back to Your School

  • How will you make the case for doubling down on rigor, even amid significant new challenges?
  • How will you build a shared understanding of what rigor is and looks like among your teachers and instructional leaders?
  • What will you ease up on to make space for your team to focus on deeper learning?


Combined Definition of Rigor. Shows each ILT member’s own definition, and how they combined them into a single description of rigorous teaching and learning.


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