A frequent retort to 21st century advocates is that it represents a return to a new permissiveness.  I encountered this Friday during a debate I participated in with the founder and co-director of BASIS school, Dr. Michael Block.   In response to a question from the audience about the most pressing issue in K-12 education today, I answered it was my concern that the forces of standardization were narrowing education to the basics and most easily tested core components of math and reading, and driving out the teaching of creativity and the pursuit of individual student passion.  A second question asked about schools connecting to their community; I argued that schools should seek to connect student learning to community issues, and, for instance, have students in a chemistry class not just analyze the city’s water, but also make a presentation of their findings and recommendations to a city water bureau.

After these two comments, Dr. Block said of my ideas that they represented an “anything goes” view to education.

Yesterday, a fine colleague in independent school leadership, Peter Gow, noted a similar concern about the negative perception of 21st century education in a tweet yesterday: “Why do people confuse 60s-70s free schools and open classrooms with both classical 20s progressive education and 21st-century learning?”

21st century education is not about free schools or open classrooms, and it is certainly not an “anything goes” educational philosophy.   We absolutely intend it to be higher in rigor, not lesser, than any other approach.  This blog has regularly called for 21st century education to be very serious about assessment, and to hold the highest standards of rigor in this assessment.  But these standards should not be narrowly restricted standardized test scores.

What should rigor in the new century be about?

It should be about testing, in authentic, open-ended, written formats, our students’ proficiency in the thinking skills that really matter, as happens in the CWRA.

It should be about our students doing real world work that is judged by real-world standard, and holding them to an ethic of excellence as they do this authentic work, as has been brilliantly articulated in Berger’s book of that name.  Students should publish and present their ideas, and take critiques from professionals in sectors holding them to professional standards.  It should be said this idea of public exhibitions is best credited to the late, great Ted Sizer.

It should be about surveying our graduates in college, closely and attentively, and really seeking to learn how well they are doing in their college coursework, and setting the highest standards for their preparation.  And it should be about surveying graduates ten and twenty years out, to see if they are contributing, leading, and innovating in the ways our 21st century schools intend to prepare them to do.

As Pat Bassett recently wrote, it should also be about setting very high standards for the demonstrations of learning students must provide and perform to achieve diplomas.

It should be about using lessons from Wiggins to ensure we are clear about our goals, and working backwards, and to establish dashboard of student learning we use to evaluate our school-wide success at achieving the highest standards of school-work excellence.

And much more: what would readers add to this list?

Ill conclude here by citing a regular favorite, Tony Wagner, from his article Rigor Redefined.  Before I sign off, though, let me re-assert: we in the 21st century movement make no concessions about the rigor or standards of excellence in thought, work, and demonstrations of mastery from our students.  We believe we are asking of our students, in more motivating and engaging ways, to go further and learn more, and to prove it!

Across the United States, I see schools that are succeeding at making adequate yearly progress but failing our students. Increasingly, there is only one curriculum: test prep. Of the hundreds of classes that I’ve observed in recent years, fewer than 1 in 20 were engaged in instruction designed to teach students to think instead of merely drilling for the test.

To teach and test the skills that our students need, we must first redefine excellent instruction. It is not a checklist of teacher behaviors and a model lesson that covers content standards. It is working with colleagues to ensure that all students master the skills they need to succeed as lifelong learners, workers, and citizens. I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college teacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration.

We need to use academic content to teach the seven survival skills every day, at every grade level, and in every class. And we need to insist on a combination of locally developed assessments and new nationally normed, online tests—such as the College and Work Readiness Assessment (www.cae.org)—that measure students’ analytic-reasoning, critical-thinking, problem-solving, and writing skills.

It’s time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher standard of rigor, defined according to 21st-century criteria. It’s time for our profession to advocate for accountability systems that will enable us to teach and test the skills that matter most. Our students’ futures are at stake.