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