Guest post by IAHE Government Affairs Team member, Lisa Yankey.

The words “rigor” and “rigorous” have been educational marketing buzzwords for years. Politicians and public school educational reformers call for “more rigor” and “rigorous education.” What do these words and concepts really mean? Well, like typical marketing buzzwords, they can mean different things to different people. When I hear these words come from a politician or a person in education, I want that person to articulate what it means to them. It’s hard to create a solid argument surrounding words and concepts that have no real common definition. I have no confidence in someone who demands “rigor” but does not understand the definition of the word.

I taught public school for seven years, I am the child of two public school teachers, and I never expected that I’d homeschool my own children. However, when my oldest child started first grade, I realized that public school was not going to work for him, so I pulled him out and began homeschooling him. He was already ahead in almost all subjects and was bored to tears in public school. My sweet little six-year-old boy was suffering, daily, under the pressure for him to walk in “lock step” with all the other kids in the classroom. It was hard for me to watch. I’m sure it was harder for him to live through. I tried to work it out with the public school, but they were unwilling to do anything that would ease his suffering. I was shocked at their callousness and inflexibility. What could have led to this level of rigidity, I wondered? I had been out of teaching for around seven years by that point, and things had clearly changed for the worse. I never sent my son back. I could accept an inferior education, because I felt that I could supplement at home, but I could not send him back to an environment that was so callous to a six-year-old child’s daily despair. 

I continued to ponder the attitudes that I experienced at my child’s public school, and the general decline of our public schools. It took me a few years, but I think I have finally connected the increasing inflexibility of our public schools, and their correlated decline, with one word: rigor.

Merriam-Webster defines rigor as follows:

“Definition of rigor

1a (1) :  harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment:  severity

(2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible:  strictness

(3) :  severity of life:  austerity b:  an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty

2:  a tremor caused by a chill

3:  a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially:  extremity of cold

4:  strict precision :  exactness <logical rigor>”

Where did the inflexibility come from in public schools? It turns out that it was right there all along, in the dictionary definition. This is the only commonly shared definition of rigor. Individuals may have their own personal, private definitions, of course, but personal, private definitions are the opposite of clear communication. Educators and politicians use the word “rigor” but there is no consistency of meaning, and the word has become reduced to a marketing buzzword, used to manipulate emotions but lacking any measurable meaning.

Whatever “rigor” is (as interpreted by politicians and educational professionals), it has not been demonstrated to improve public schools. Some have criticized homeschooling as not being “rigorous” enough. Despite the perception that homeschool might lack “rigor,” homeschooled students continue to outperform public school peers on standardized tests, including those used for college admission. In a study of 12,000 homeschooled students, average homeschooled students far outperformed the average public school peer. “In reading, the average home-schooler scored at the 89th percentile; language, 84th percentile; math, 84th percentile; science, 86th percentile; and social studies, 84th percentile. In the core studies (reading, language, and math), the average home-schooler scored at the 88th percentile.”  

Furthermore, colleges such as Stanford have observed that homeschooled students tend to have the “intellectual vitality” that their admissions officers seek. Stanford admissions officials seek students who have the drive to pursue independent research…they call it a “spark.” Homeschool study is flexible and allows students to develop their “spark” of curiosity. In contrast to the “rigor” of public education, where every student has to be on the same page at the same time, homeschool allows for a flexible course of study. First, because students are not required to be on the same page as anyone else, they can delve into the complexities they are interested in. For example, just this week my son was supposed to be studying US history. He completed everything that I required for the week, but his natural curiosity was piqued by the French Revolution. We ended up weeks ahead of our curriculum, studying all the way through to the end of the French Revolution. Along the way, we were also studying and debating the merits of the philosophies of Jean Jacque Rousseau vs. Voltaire. These are concepts that I was not exposed to until college. My son is 9. So no, his education is not “rigorous,” but that lack of “rigor” doesn’t mean it’s inferior. On the contrary, I and others would argue that his education is superior in every measurable way. Second, homeschool hours are very efficient, with very little time wasted on lining up, etc. Consequently, students have time during the school day to pursue their interests. This pursuit of independent research is connected to the “intellectual” vitality that is sought by college admissions officers.

I removed my son from the “rigorous” environment of public school because I saw his bright spark being stamped out daily, and he was clearly suffering for it. With a flexible education, designed around a core of study but able to branch out in a flexible way depending on the student’s interests and abilities, the student can grow the spark of curiosity into a bonfire of knowledge and intellect. Whatever “rigor” is in education (remember, the term has no consistent meaning within the realm of education), I’d challenge that the “rigor” is the very thing that is ruining public education. They are stamping out the sparks.


Lisa Yankey is a happy homeschooling mom of three, but she never expected to homeschool. Teaching runs in her blood – she is a former public school teacher, and her mother, father, and brother are all former public school teachers. During her childhood and as a teacher herself, she recognized many issues in public school. She went to law school at night in a long-term plan to help improve public schools. She used to believe that every child could receive a good and appropriate education from public school. She realized the error of this belief when she watched her own child suffering in public school. She began homeschooling shortly after her oldest child had a disastrous start to public school first grade, and she has never looked back.

She kept her career as a part-time attorney and works for herself as a sole practitioner, with a practice area in immigration law. She is known particularly for her representation of victims of domestic abuse. She continues teaching adults as a speaker on immigration law at continuing legal education events for fellow lawyers. Lisa resides in Noblesville, Indiana (Hamilton County). with her husband, three children, two dogs, and a cat.