DEVELOPING A SUSTAINABLE, SYSTEM-WIDE PIPELINE for Rigorous, Standards-based Classrooms


K-12 educators now widely recognize that preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s new economy must be our top priority. In the business world, thought leaders use the acronym VUCA to describe the future our students will most likely face, one characterized by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

Clearly, the traditional model of successful education, where students sit in orderly rows while teachers do most of the talking and thinking, is no longer a model likely to support the complex cognitive and creative skills today’s students will need to thrive. To succeed in a volatile, uncertain world, employees of the future will need to be comfortable with ambiguity, and to be able to grapple with complexity. They will need to be thinkers, entrepreneurs, collaborators and autonomous lifelong learners. These are the skills we need to be developing in our students now.

This widespread recognition of the need for a new model of teaching and learning has not, for the most part, yet translated into system-wide teacher and leadership training to fully prepare educators for the pedagogical shifts required. Such professional development for teachers and administrators is crucial. However,  schools and districts that have received such training are beginning to successfully make the shift to new economy classrooms, classrooms which look very different from the old model.

In elementary schools in Princeton Minnesota School District, Kingsley Area Schools in Michigan, Des Moines Public Schools and Palm Beach Counties in Florida, students are beginning in kindergarten to practice the conative, or interpersonal/emotional skills that will support them to work successfully in teams, challenge each other respectfully, push each other’s thinking, and take responsibility for their own and their teammates’ learning outcomes. They use academic vocabulary and provide evidence for their claims. They are already becoming sophisticated in teasing out complex problems and learning to take various positions in the discussion of a subject to examine its merits. When we visit these classrooms, we often remark how even very young students are using strategies and developing skills that would not be out of place in much older grades.

These are classrooms where high levels of cognitive complexity meet high levels of student autonomy, our definition of rigor. Students are developing grit and learning to persist through failure. They are extending their own knowledge through strategic, analytical and visionary thinking.

Gwen Anderson, Early Childhood Coordinator in Minnesota’s Princeton School District, puts it this way:

“By beginning with early childhood, we are building in students an innate sense of thinking about their thinking. Students become accustomed at a very young age to recognize and rate personal growth so that operating at higher levels of learning occurs naturally, as a result of early and consistent learning conditions.” 

These foundations set for critical thinking and collaboration in the early grades pay off in later years as students move through elementary and into middle and high schools. As students and teachers become more accustomed to teaching and learning this way, the new economy skills and academic knowledge acquired in early grades build from year to year, accruing like compound interest. Each grade benefits from the previous grades’ investment in this transition. The benefits are clear even for districts with more transient populations, as schools across the district adopt an aligned system of rigorous, new economy pedagogy. When feeder schools have successfully transformed their learning cultures, students transferring into secondary schools will be adept at accomplishing real-world projects with minimal teacher direction. Once students have learned to process, explore, and analyze, they can’t “unlearn it.”

Acreage Pines Elementary school principal Amy Dujon knew she needed to reach out to the middle school teachers and principals in her Florida district. Her K-5 students, who were thriving in new economy classrooms after two years of implementation, were now graduating into middle schools. Dujon began inviting middle school teachers and principals to tour her classrooms at Acreage Pines Elementary. She explains:

“I knew instruction in these middle schools was fairly traditional and I was becoming apprehensive. I didn’t want the elementary students to graduate and have to turn off their love of thinking and problem solving. I worried that they would be in traditional settings where they wouldn’t be allowed to collaborate, where the teacher would be doing most of the talking and thinking.”

Dujon volunteered to conduct four professional development days to coach the sixth grade teachers in her feeder middle schools in the fundamentals of student-centered classrooms with rigor. She let them see how the fifth grade students at Acreage Pines would certainly expect to be driving their own learning and engaging in cognitively complex tasks. This year she regularly walks classrooms at the middle schools to witness this new paradigm beginning to take hold.

Because they have begun to master teamwork skills and responsibility, students graduating from rigorous, student-centered elementary classrooms are more mature in their ability to self-regulate their behavior in diverse situations. We expect to see that the conative skills they have practiced for six years—respectful negotiation, self control, listening to the opinions of others, asking questions, revising their thinking — will pay off in better high school behavior in and outside the classroom.

Students mature into these capacities as they move through the system. We predict that this K-12 continuum will ultimately result in the need for fewer academic and behavioral interventions. Dr. Matthew Shoemaker, Director of Extended Learning in Palm Beach County, Florida, says that for kids taught in new economy classrooms:

“It’s only natural that as students acquire new economy skills, that’s going to translate into other areas of their lives, such as the social-emotional realms. As kids begin to own their own academic problems, they’re going to be able to work through difficulties they encounter not just cognitively, but socially.”

Thus, high schools become the ultimate beneficiaries of this new teaching and learning model.

In districts like Princeton, Minnesota, where the district’s two elementary schools, one middle, and one high school are simultaneously engaged in making this shift, school superintendent Julia Espe says that autonomous, cognitively complex learning has become like muscle memory:

“Having the same instructional map from Pre-K through grade 12 has enormous benefits for our students as they move from year to year in their own growth. They already listen for learning targets and learning progressions, and they key in to how to become proficient automatically.”

In new economy classrooms, students are highly engaged because they own their own learning: That engagement and responsibility pays off in improved academic achievement. In Area 3 of the Palm Beach County School District, a rural district in the western farming community of Belle Glade, seven elementary schools, two middle, and one high school are participating in an initiative to implement rigorous, standards-based classrooms to foster new economy skills. In a single year of implementation, four schools improved by two letter grades, and three by one letter grade, an improvement record that has no historical precedent. Similarly, schools in Kingsley, Michigan, saw equally impressive gains.

Our work with rigorous classrooms is still in its early years, but collectively, the educators we consult with have a vision of the cumulative effects that 12 years in a new economy school system will have on our students. The potential is enormous. These educators share a goal to continue to build on the progress they have made in the last two years, and to mentor other schools in their districts to do the same so that the system as a whole eventually benefits every student and every teacher in the district.

Michael Toth is CEO of Learning Sciences International and author of “Who Moved My Standards? Joyful Teaching in an Age of Change.” To learn more, or to download reports on Princeton, Palm Beach and Kingsley Area Schools, visit

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