Too Much Rigor?

Rigor: A popular buzz word in education today, this word is packed with meaning. It pops up in staff meetings, school mission statements, and parent conversations about school choice. Everyone seems to think that “rigor” is what kids need. But what does this word even mean?

Let’s start with the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:


  1. (a) Harsh inflexibility in temper, opinion, or judgment; (b) the quality of being unyielding and inflexible; (c) severity of life
  2. A tremor caused by a chill
  3. A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable
  4. Strict precision

Well, those definitions offer some opportunities for reflection! According to Merriam-Webster, rigor doesn’t sound like a good thing at all. And I think parents are starting to see that rigor can be a problem.

In my past ten years teaching preschool, I’ve had many conversations with parents that start like this: “Will my child be ready for kindergarten next year?” This is a normal question for caring parents who want their child to be successful. This year, I feel a startling shift. Parents are beginning to ask, “Should my (kindergarten age) child go to kindergarten next year?”

When did this become a reasonable question? Shouldn’t kindergarten be developmentally appropriate for kindergarten age children? Sadly, I think we all know there has been a shift. People often say that “kindergarten isn’t what it used to be.” (They don’t seem to mean this in a good way.) I reached out to a friend with many years kindergarten experience, and here is what she said:

I taught kinder for almost 30 years and saw the transition from developmentally appropriate to “boot camp for first grade.” The idea that you move slowly and thoroughly to develop the whole child [has changed] to skill and drill as we do now. It began with no child left behind. What I have seen are many children being left behind because we ignore their natural development and learning styles and push them on with so many holes and gaps and only an ability to regurgitate information.

Is this what “rigor” has brought us? Is being rigorous a sign of teaching accomplishment? A badge of courage? One of my friends enrolled her child with a teacher who bragged to be “the hardest kindergarten class in the whole district.” When did that become a bragging point? My friend later found out that many parents were opting to postpone their child’s kindergarten enrollment until age six because all the teachers at that school were notoriously difficult. Can I ask again: When did kindergarten become inappropriate for kindergarteners?

Perhaps the Merriam-Webster definition about rigor is accurate. We have created a system that can be unyielding, inflexible, and severe. As a result, school life can become difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable for students and their families. There can be anxious feelings like a tremor caused by a chill. Yeah, that seems to describe it. And don’t blame the educators here. These are the results of policies like No Child Left Behind, Move On When Reading, and high stakes tests that result in school letter grade labeling. Schools are obligated to implement policies legislated from above with their best effort. These policies aren’t always good for kids. Thanks rigor.

I’m concerned to hear people talking about retention in kindergarten or parent-elected delayed start. Retention creates long-lasting consequences for kids. Research shows that retention can decrease the likelihood of high school graduation and harm a child’s school attitude. And there will be new challenges for teachers as they differentiate for a wider age group. I believe kids should be with same-age peers, and I believe that school should be developmentally appropriate for kids enrolled in that grade level.

I think rigor has gone way too far. My second-grade neighbor does homework from the time she arrives home until dinner time. She has no time to play. How disturbing! Research shows play is essential for healthy child development. (Arizona’s recent Recess Law is a good start, but deeper discussions are needed.) In West Virginia, state law changed the age of kindergarten admission to ensure children were two months older. I don’t see this being a solution. Why are we trying to change the children? How about we look at our expectations and practices instead.

Perhaps we need to carefully examine and redefine what “rigor” means in our schools. Families should feel confident that their kindergarten-aged children will have a good experience in kindergarten. And kindergarten teachers should have standards and expectations that reflect the age of the children they serve. I hope that educators and parents can work together at the policy level to bring these changes to Arizona. I look forward to your thoughts on this matter in the comments section below!


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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