The Opportunity Myth

What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down - and How to Fix It

Portrait Isaac 01
“I’m willing to take any chance in my life for this dream.”
Isaac, 11th grade

When Isaac1 walks across the stage to collect his high school diploma, with his family cheering him on, it will not be an accomplishment he takes for granted. 

There was a time when it looked like it might not happen. He’d struggled during his freshman year, including experiencing a period of homelessness, and had encountered adults in school who undermined his belief in himself—some quite explicitly.

“There were many people telling me I couldn’t make it,” says Isaac, who attends a small public high school. “I stopped going to school. I’d sign in and leave.” Eventually, his guidance counselor told him he wasn’t on track to graduate with his class. 

He found himself contemplating the pain he would cause his family if he didn’t earn that diploma. “It hurt. I was looking at myself like, if my brothers can do this, why can’t I? If my mom can do this, why can’t I?” 

Isaac was also struck by the realization that his lifelong aspiration—becoming a registered nurse—might slip out of reach. For Isaac, it was a goal to which he was deeply committed. “I can’t give up on a dream that I’ve always had since I was a little boy. I’m willing to take any chance in my life for this dream.”

After taking on extra credit, staying late, writing essays—“whatever it takes”—he got himself back on track to graduate. Despite his early struggles, Isaac invested deeply in school. He did everything he was supposed to do to reach his goals.

But has school held up its end of the deal?

It’s a question that has to be asked because for too many students today, the answer is no.

While more students than ever before are enrolling in college,2 far fewer are succeeding once they get there. Nationwide, 40 percent of college students (including 66 percent of Black college students and 53 percent of Latinx3 college students) take at least one remedial course,where they spend time and money learning skills they were told they’d already mastered in high school. A recent study found that college remediation costs students and their families $1.5 billion annually, with one in four students spending an average of $3,000 extra to earn their degrees—and since first-time bachelor’s degree candidates who take a single remedial course are 74 percent more likely to drop out, many of these students are sinking dollars into degrees they’ll never see.5 Graduates who opt for a career straight out of high school aren’t faring much better, with many employers reporting that high school graduates enter their roles missing the skills they need to do their jobs well.6

In other words, Isaac and millions of students across the country are working hard to get through school, only to find themselves ill-prepared to live the lives they hope for. They’re planning their futures on the belief that doing well in school creates opportunities—that showing up, doing the work, and meeting their teachers’ expectations will prepare them for what’s next. They believe that for good reason: We’ve been telling them so.

Unfortunately, it's a myth.

Does this sound like your school experience?
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Yes
Why are schools important to you?
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How can so many students be graduating from high school unprepared to meet their goals for college and careers?

Three years ago, we set out to answer that question. We suspected that we could gain a better understanding of students’ daily experiences by observing those experiences in action, looking closely at the work students were doing, and most importantly, by asking students directly. We hypothesized that a clearer picture of students’ daily experiences could point the way toward changes to policy and practice that would bridge the gap between what students need and what they’re getting every day in their classrooms.

We partnered with five diverse school systems, rural and urban, district and charter, to listen to students’ views on their educational experiences and observe how those experiences played out, in real time, in their classrooms.

We partnered with five diverse school systems, rural and urban, district and charter, to listen to students’ views on their educational experiences and observe how those experiences played out, in real time, in their classrooms. While “student experiences” include many things within and outside school, we chose to focus on a set of in-school elements that offered a window into what students were doing in their classes and how they perceived that time.

Above all, we wanted to understand students’ aspirations for themselves, what kind of lives they wanted to lead, and how school was preparing them to live those lives—or letting them down. 

Here's what we found:

Students have big, clear plans.

They want to be doctors and lawyers, teachers, artists, and athletes. Ninety-four percent of students we surveyed aspire to attend college, and 70 percent of high schoolers have career goals that require at least a college degree. 

Most students do what they’re asked in school—but are still not ready to succeed after school.

In the nearly 1,000 lessons we observed, students were working on activities related to class 88 percent of the time. They met the demands of their assignments 71 percent of the time, and more than half brought home As and Bs. Yet students only demonstrated mastery of grade-level standards on their assignments—a benchmark for being on track for the lives most of them want as adults—17 percent of the time. That gap exists because so few assignments actually gave students a chance to demonstrate grade-level mastery.

Students spend most of their time in school without access to four key resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers who hold high expectations.

Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject. And students reported that their school experiences were engaging just 55 percent of the time overall (among high schoolers, only 42 percent of the time). Underlying these weak experiences were low expectations: We found that while more than 80 percent of teachers supported standards for college readiness in theory, less than half had the expectation that their students could reach that bar.

Students of color, those from low-income families, English language learners, and students with mild to moderate disabilities have even less access to these resources than their peers. 

For example, classrooms that served predominantly students from higher-income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds.  

Greater access to the four resources can and does improve student achievement—particularly for students who start the school year behind. 

When students did have the chance to work on content that was appropriate for their grade, they rose to the occasion more often than not. Those chances paid off: In classrooms where students had greater access to grade-appropriate assignments, they gained nearly two months of additional learning compared to their peers. Classrooms with higher levels of engagement gained about two-and-a-half months of learning. In classrooms where teachers held higher expectations, students gained more than four months. The relationships between the resources and student outcomes were even stronger in classrooms where students started the year off behind. When students who started the year behind grade level had access to stronger instruction, for example, they closed gaps with their peers by six months; in classrooms with more grade-appropriate assignments, those gaps closed by more than seven months. 

There are 180 hours per subject in each school year. How many hours do you think students typically spent on work that was not appropriate for their grade?
0 Hours
55 Hours
133 Hours
178 Hours

133 Hours

spent on work that was not grade appropriate

In short, students and their families have been deeply misled. 

We talk about school as a series of small opportunities for students—to show up, work hard, earn good grades—that add up to much bigger ones later in life. When students don’t find the opportunities they were promised on the other side of the graduation stage, we assume they or their families must have done something to blow their big chance, or that they were simply reaching too high. 

Yet we found classroom after classroom filled with A and B students whose big goals for their lives were slipping further away each day, unbeknownst to them and their families—not because they couldn’t learn what they needed to reach them, but because they were rarely given a real chance to try.

That’s the opportunity myth. It means that at every grade level, in every district, for students of every demographic background, school is not honoring their aspirations or setting them up for success—in their next grade, in college, and in whatever they want to do down the road. This has a cumulative effect, particularly for the students who receive the very least of what our schools have to offer.

Let’s be clear: Teachers alone are not responsible for this myth—either creating it or fixing it. In many ways, teachers too have been subject to a false promise. Their time has been wasted on expensive and lengthy teacher preparation programs that don’t prepare them for the realities of the classroom7 and development opportunities that don’t help them improve;8 on having to sift through far too many mediocre materials;9 with guidance that pulls them in a thousand directions but doesn’t help them do their jobs well—all while being undervalued and under-compensated. While they make many individual decisions in their classrooms, those choices are often dictated by the incentives of the system they work within.

At every level of the education sector, from classrooms to statehouses, from schools of education to nonprofit offices, adults make daily choices that perpetuate a cycle of inequity and mediocrity in our schools. Consciously or not, we choose to let many students do work that’s far below their grade level. We choose to leave teachers without the skills and support they need to give all their students access to high-quality academic experiences. We choose to act on assumptions about what students want and need out of school, without really listening to them and their families. We choose, in essence, which students are more deserving of reaching their goals. 

Yet our research also makes clear that gaps in students’ school experiences and outcomes are not inevitable. We could make different choices—choices that could make a real difference in the short term, without an infusion of new funding, as well as those that will lay the groundwork for deeper structural change. These are the kinds of choices that could make the difference between students like Isaac becoming a nurse, or leaving that dream unfulfilled. We could choose, in other words, to upend the opportunity myth.

We wanted to understand how.

We partnered with

FIVE

diverse school systems
We observed nearly

1,000

lessons
We reviewed nearly

5,000

assignments
We analyzed more than

20,000

student work samples
We collected nearly

30,000

real-time student surveys

METHODOLOGY

More than 50 million children each spend roughly 1,200 hours every year in public school classrooms in this country.10 Over the course of their K-12 careers, that amounts to more than 15,000 hours in the lives of each child. During those hours, adults have nearly all the power. They decide everything from what work goes in front of students to how they spend their time; from what their classrooms and school buildings look and feel like to what tests they need to pass and what courses they need to graduate. Ultimately, those choices determine how well-equipped students are to meet the goals they set for themselves when they leave school.

But these decisions are rarely based on concrete information about how students actually experience school—because those of us in and out of schools who consider ourselves education “experts” rarely bother to ask. Instead, the crucial work of getting students the education they need and deserve is built on a lot of guessing, based on adults’ experiences and implicit biases: guessing at what kids want out of their lives; what kind of content and instruction will engage them deeply and therefore allow them to learn; what factors truly influence academic outcomes.

Filling our collective information gap about what students really think and feel is an essential piece of helping more students succeed. We have to stop guessing and inform our decisions—on everything from teacher training to curriculum to resource allocation—with input from students and clearer information about their daily experiences.

That’s what we set out to do in this study. In our work in schools and districts across the country, we’d seen so many dedicated educators working hard, often in deeply challenging conditions, to give students what they need and deserve. Yet in many of these same classrooms, we observed lessons that weren’t nearly challenging or engaging enough to prepare students for academic or professional success after high school. We didn’t know how to help our partners address these issues because the solutions weren’t clear to us, either. We wondered if we could improve the support we provided to schools and districts if we ourselves had a better grasp on the student experience. We came to the conclusion that the only way to do that was to look closely at what students were doing in school every day, and ask students themselves how they perceive it.

Are “College-Ready Standards” the Right Bar?

In our research, we’ve used academic standards for college and career readiness as an important bar against which we assessed assignments and classroom practices.

We believe that bar is the right one because it defines what students should be able to do at each grade level. Standards are not curriculum: They do not, for example, identify an explicit set of texts

students must read, or tell teachers how to help students master the target skills. Instead, they seek to clarify the thinking and problem-solving abilities students need in order to be ready—by the end of their K-12 careers—for the expectations of college- level work. Since the vast majority of students told us they aspired to attend college, that bar matters:

It is the very one students themselves have defined.

To do this, we collected nearly 30,000 in-the-moment student surveys. Using a technology that prompted students in grades six through 12 to answer a few questions at random times during class, we captured a snapshot of their real-time reactions to school. We also surveyed third through fifth graders during the last five minutes of class, and found that elementary students were just as capable as their older schoolmates of providing rich and telling insight into their lives at school.

Across our five partner school systems, we also observed nearly a thousand full-length lessons at all grade levels from K-12, and reviewed almost 5,000 assignments and more than 20,000 individual student work samples. We visited each participating school daily for a week straight at three points in the year, which gave us the chance to see the same teachers and students at the beginning, middle, and end of their time together (and offered a much more comprehensive lens on the learning environment than a single day’s lesson could have). These classrooms were not substantially different than the others in their districts, and they represented a wide range: those with new teachers and veterans; those at all age levels; a diverse range of subjects; mixed-ability classes and tracked ones. Four of these school systems were located in states that use standards aligned to the Common Core State Standards; one was not.

To assess the quality of content students worked on, we looked at four elements of every assignment: (1) whether the content in the assignments was aligned to relevant grade-level academic standards; (2) whether the assignments gave students the chance to engage in important content-specific practices, like citing evidence from rigorous texts in literacy, or discussing mathematical ideas using precise mathematical language; (3) whether the assignments gave students a chance to learn relevant content that built their knowledge of the world or helped them see how what they were learning could be applied in the real world; and (4) student performance on both the assignments themselves and against the bar for their grade-level standards.

To study instruction, we observed full-length class periods and assessed (1) whether students were doing what they were asked; (2) whether they were being asked to work on grade-level content; and (3) whether teachers were using instructional practices that gave students the chance to do most of the thinking in the lesson. 

We surveyed teachers to capture their knowledge of grade-level standards, their opinions on those standards, and their beliefs about their classroom practices and their students’ abilities. We conducted focus groups with nearly 100 teachers and interviewed 24 school leaders at multiple times throughout the year. And we assessed a large set of extant data provided to us by our partner districts on course access, enrollment policies, and district policies on curriculum adoption, among others.

We hypothesized that students’ experiences of school were influenced by a confluence of factors—among them, the quality of the work they were doing, the instruction they received, and the expectations of their teachers—and that those factors would interact to have an impact on their academic growth. Taken together with students’ in-the-moment survey responses, we were able to triangulate students’ perspectives with the classes they were in, the work they were doing and instruction they were receiving, and their academic outcomes.

In addition to amassing this rich data set, we also sat down with a smaller subset of students (more than 50 over two school years), and got to know them. We observed them in class and spoke to them about their experiences, their likes and dislikes, their families, their goals. Just a few of those students are profiled here. While their names and identifying characteristics have been changed throughout this report, their stories help us understand what the data means in the real lives of individual young people.

They also help us understand what real, tangible changes school systems can make—starting tomorrow and over the long haul—to provide more students with school experiences that are meaningful, that honor their aspirations for themselves and their families, and that give them a fighting chance to meet those goals.

For our complete methodology, including further explanation of our analytical approaches and full analysis results, see the Technical Appendix.

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The Opportunity Seekers

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The Opportunity Seekers

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