Portrait Isaac 02
“I feel like I’m ready.”

Where is Isaac now?

He’d struggled deeply in ninth and 10th grades. He’d had a series of interactions with adults in school who sent him the message—implicitly and in some cases very explicitly—that he wouldn’t make it. He felt himself drifting toward that reality. 

But then he got himself back on track. “Who wants to see their parents sad because you didn’t make it?” Isaac says. “That’s not the student I wanted to be.” 

From his perspective, earning his diploma was an essential step toward living the life he wants. 

“That diploma means I worked hard,” he says. “I made it this far, through all these years of school. I want to go to college and be a registered nurse. I feel like I’m ready.”

In the spring, Isaac graduated, alongside his classmates. He’s already enrolled in a nursing program at a local vocational college specializing in healthcare careers; he started his coursework even before graduation. He didn’t get a summer vacation, but it hardly mattered.

As he explains the urgency of meeting his own definition of success, he wipes away tears. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do. I have to live it.”


Students like Isaac are planning their lives around the promises we attach to the diplomas they work so hard to earn. And yet we know that for far too many of them, those diplomas will let them down. The opportunity myth promises that success in school is the first step on the path to success in life, but the system we’ve built undermines that promise at every turn.

That system reinforces the flip side of the opportunity myth, too: the pernicious assumption that if students fail, it’s because they didn’t take the chance they’d been offered. It is the result of their abilities, their race, their socioeconomic background, or their choices. For those of us working in school systems, the opportunity myth makes life comfortable. It allows us to operate in good faith to help kids succeed, while accepting the false belief that for many of them, there’s nothing more we can do.

Our research lays that all bare. It shows that while many students do have barriers to overcome to succeed in school, some of the biggest barriers are created by decisions very much within our control: whether students get the opportunity to work on grade-appropriate assignments, or are systematically assigned work that is appropriate for kids several years younger; whether they have teachers who ask them to find the answers to challenging problems, or who think it’s acceptable to assign them the task of copying answers; whether adults ask students and parents about their goals, or assume that because they’re Latinx or Black or don’t have a lot of money, college is probably unrealistic. And then, as a field, we’ve covered up the racist, classist, and just plain unfair choices we’ve made, by telling parents and students—particularly students of color—that they are doing fine, when all the evidence from their classroom work and their exam scores suggests that they are not. 

What would it take to make students’ school opportunities more than a myth?

We can start by acknowledging and understanding the unacceptable experiences we’ve created for millions of students: three-quarters of the school year or more wasted in classes that are boring, too easy, or irrelevant to their life goals; worse experiences for students who need better ones the most; the tacit belief that some students are less capable and less deserving than others.

We can own up to our role in perpetuating these problems—because if you’re reading this and you work in education in any capacity, you bear some of the responsibility. That includes teachers, whose daily choices influence students’ outcomes in the most visible ways, but it includes others as well. Teachers often find themselves forced to implement poor choices made by school leaders, superintendents, legislators, schools of education, textbook companies, and others; or asked to implement better decisions without adequate training and support.

It certainly includes us at TNTP. These conclusions have been painful because we’ve been part of the problem. For many years, for example, we trained new teachers to lead compliant students through a standard curriculum, using standard instructional techniques, and believed that if they did so, students would succeed at high levels. We are actively working to shift our approach to ensure that all students—and particularly those who have been historically under-served, including in our own work—get the resources we write about that they need to succeed.

Most importantly, we can listen to students and learn from their experiences. Across all five districts we studied, we saw a promising trend: When we make different choices about how resources are allocated—when all kids get access to grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and high expectations, but particularly when students who start the year behind receive these resources—achievement gaps shrink. They shrink substantially enough that if we extrapolate the results we saw in one year over five years, achievement gaps would disappear, given more equitable access to the four key resources. If we made different choices, millions of students with big goals for themselves, most of whom are already doing what they’re asked in school, would be prepared to live the lives they aspire to.

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