Report: Vail Valley high schools lack ‘rigor’ |

Report: Vail Valley high schools lack ‘rigor’

Sarah Mausolf
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail Daily file photoA consultants' report has found report found "little difference in the rigor of instruction" between the regular classroom and advanced classes at Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley high schools

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Academic rigor is lacking in most instructional settings at Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley high schools, according to one finding in an outside consultant’s report on the schools.

School Board member Ross Morgan noted that while staff members interviewed for the report made comments like “students are learning at high levels,” consultants found otherwise in some cases.

“We really have a disconnect between how we perceive academic rigor and what is perceived on more of a national scale as academic rigor,” Morgan said.

The report is a collection of findings by Boulder-based education consultant Jean Bonelli and a team of education experts who visited the schools for four days in February.

“It was really time to reflect on our system and think about how we can improve what we believe is a really good foundation,” said Heather Eberts, a district official who oversees curriculum.

Consultants interviewed teachers, students and staff members, Bonelli said. They also observed classes and reviewed documents. The study explored nine different areas including curriculum, student assessment and instruction, Bonelli said.

While the team observed “some excellent instructional strategies,” its report also pinpointed shortcomings at the schools.

The report found “no evidence of a consistent, common curriculum in core content” and suggested school officials develop a districtwide curriculum for each grade.

Eberts said the high schools will start that process in August, using the findings in the report to help guide the process. She said the state adopted new academic standards in December, and the district has until December 2011 to realign the curriculum to meet those standards.

Along with addressing curriculum, the report noted “grading is subjective and not always tied to achievement of learning targets” and “rubrics are rarely used.”

Consultants also observed “an excess of lecture format and teacher talk” and found cases where “lesson design did not require students to actively participate in their learning.”

The report found “little difference in the rigor of instruction” between the regular classroom and advanced classes such as Advanced Placement, dual enrollment and honors courses.

Morgan said he’s been concerned about dual-enrollment classes – classes that count for credit at the high school and some in-state colleges – since his teaching days at Eagle Valley High School.

Unlike AP classes, which end with a standardized exam that’s consistent nationwide, the dual-enrollment classes lack a “barometer for success,” Morgan said. The consultants found that “dual-enrollment classes cover much content but students were not observed engaged in higher level thinking or questioning.”

“There’s no guarantee the kids are getting the rigor they need to be prepared for college,” Morgan said.

Concerns about the schools’ trimester setup are another recurring theme. Instead of the traditional two semesters, the schools have three 12-week trimesters, with classes spanning 75 minutes instead of the typical 55 minutes.

Also, teachers say students need more time to achieve course goals than the trimester allows, the consultant found. If students get behind and fail to catch up during the next teacher’s class, that can lead to “an avalanche of frustration or failure,” the report said.

And while the trimesters allow for the school to offer a “multitude” of classes, that also increases the possibility that students can avoid the rigor of some core classes and still meet graduation requirements, the report said.

Phil Qualman, principal of Battle Mountain High School in Edwards, described the report as a “useful tool.”

“We are at the beginning of our planning for our professional development growth goals for next year, so it couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” he said. “We found the feedback specific enough that we could take action.”

As school staff plan student assessments for next year, Qualman said they will focus on clearly communicating their expectations to students, making sure to measure what they say is important and establishing tools to measure progress and inform instruction.

Although he intends to incorporate the advice on curriculum into plans for the school, Qualman said he found the comment that “academic rigor is lacking in most instructional settings” to be a “gross generalization.” He said graduates have been accepted to Ivy League schools and earned prestigious scholarships, noting the school also boasts an exceptionally low rate of students who require remediation once they reach college.

Mark Strakbein, principal of Eagle Valley High School, said the report contains important information his staff will use to make the school better.

“As we look at the big picture of our school, there are many facets of what makes it successful and a great place for education,” he said. “This is one piece of that puzzle and we want to give that piece its due.”

Eberts said that while the school system has examples of rigor, there may be other areas where rigor is lacking.

“We need to come together and create a common definition of rigor: What we believe that to be, what that looks like in our classrooms , and help people gain the strategies and fine-tune the instructional strategies they are using to makes sure we have rigor happening across the system.”

Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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