Choosing the Opportunity Gap
Maggie believes that high school is supposed to get her ready for what she wants to do in life.
“I expect to be getting the knowledge I need to go to college and get a career, to do whatever it is I plan on doing, to be a trauma nurse,” she says. “I don’t expect [school] to be fun, but I also don’t expect it to be the mountain that it is.” She describes class periods where she finishes her work early and sits there with nothing else to do, and those where she’s assigned a lot of work to get through, but doesn’t feel she has the support or guidance to do the work.
“Sometimes, if it’s not something I feel stimulated by, I feel like taking a nap, honestly,” Maggie says. (“But I don’t,” she adds quickly.) “Or if it’s something I don’t understand how to do, I feel frustrated. I would rather be given the tools to solve the problem, instead of just being told ‘you need to do this by tomorrow.’ It’s frustrating or it’s boring. That’s about it.”
Maggie understands that she and her schoolmates have been tracked by ability (or perceived ability) since they were young. She’s been in class with the same kids “for years. We’re always stuck together.”
In this small school district, there is just one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. But even so, that doesn’t guarantee that every student has the same opportunity to work on assignments that challenge them appropriately. “We’re supposed to be the smart class,” she says, putting “smart class” in air quotes. (“I don’t mean to sound conceited,” she says. “It’s just the way it is.”)
From Maggie’s perspective, her teachers have fairly high expectations for her and her classmates. Our data supports that observation: Maggie’s high school offers some of the best academic opportunities we saw. (It also has among the highest percentages of white and higher-income students in our sample.)
But Maggie isn’t convinced that opportunities are the same for classes with the “other students.” They may not be asked to work as hard, she says, or things that are extra credit in their class, for example, might not be considered extra for her, “because [the teacher] expects us to be able to do it in comparison to them.”
She also has an inkling that this might not be fair. “I feel like everybody’s capable of the same thing. I think they can do it just as much as I can do it.”