Different Resources, Different Results

In the hundreds of classrooms we observed, we found that the majority of students were doing the work that was asked of them. Contrary to popular narratives about disruptive kids who don’t put in much effort, we saw classroom after classroom where students appeared to be doing the academic work given to them.

Nearly 90 percent of the time, students told us they were doing activities related to classwork. Seventy-one percent of the time, students met the demands of the assignments their teachers gave them, and more than half of the third- through 12th-grade students in our partner school systems earned As and Bs in English language arts (ELA) and math; 80 percent earned at least a C.

Moreover, the courses students were enrolled in—on paper—should be putting them on track for college. We looked at the course trajectories of all high school students in each district we studied, and assessed them against the approach set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).13 Nearly 80 percent of students were on trajectories categorized as standard, mid-level, or rigorous, based on course access—all of which could get students accepted into a four-year college or university. 

On the whole, then, most students we studied were “doing well” in school—one of the most important keys to success later in life, according to American mythology. 

But when we looked at how these students were doing based on the bar set by actual standards for college readiness—the bar students themselves said they aspired to—the opportunity myth emerged. While students succeeded on more than two-thirds of their assignments, they only demonstrated success against the grade-level standards 17 percent of the time on those exact same assignments (Figure 1). That gap exists because so few assignments actually gave students a chance to demonstrate grade-level mastery.

To be clear, “grade-level mastery” doesn’t mean students must have read a particular list of books. It means they have had the chance to practice a core set of grade-level-appropriate competencies for processing information, thinking critically about texts, and solving problems using evidence. Those are essential skills that can make the difference between graduating ready for college or the workplace, or not.  

Figure 1 Student Success On Assignments Versus Mastery Of Grade-level Standards On Those Assignments
Students succeeded on

71%

of their assignments
They met grade-level standards on

17%

of those exact same assignments

Even though most students are meeting the demands of their assignments, they’re not prepared for college-level work because those assignments don’t often give them the chance to reach for that bar.

That readiness is something for which students themselves yearn. When we asked students what they hoped to achieve after high school, Hajima and her peers spoke of college degrees and the meaningful careers that follow. But a large percentage of those students were being woefully underprepared to meet their ambitious goals. 

What explains this gap between the good work students put into school and their long odds of graduating ready to achieve their goals? 

Our research suggests that the answers lie, in part, in a set of resources students have—or don’t have—access to in school each day, which distinguish high-quality academic experiences from weak ones. Typically, when we talk about “resources” in education, we think of tangibles like funding, space, technology, or supplies. Those matter, of course. But here, we have identified four key resources beyond the predictable must-haves, which are critical to students’ success and are correlated to better academic outcomes.

Students need these four key resources in their daily school experiences.

1

Consistent opportunities to work on

GRADE-APPROPRIATE ASSIGNMENTS

2

STRONG INSTRUCTION

that lets students do most of the thinking in the lesson

3

A sense of

DEEP ENGAGEMENT

in what they're learning

4

Teachers who hold

HIGH EXPECTATIONS

for students and truly believe they can meet grade-level standards

When students had access to more of these resources, their outcomes tended to improve. On average, students in classrooms with stronger assignments or higher levels of engagement experienced about two additional months of learning (Figure 2).14 And the resources interact with each other in ways that also influence students’ experiences and outcomes: We saw a relationship, for example, between stronger instruction and higher levels of engagement. In classrooms in the top quartile for instructional practices, engagement was 31 percent higher than in classrooms with weaker instruction. 

Notably, these resources were particularly influential for students with the most to gain academically. In classrooms serving high proportions of students behind grade level, stronger instructional practices amounted to about six months of additional learning. When students who started the year behind had greater access to grade-appropriate assignments, they closed the outcomes gap with their peers by more than seven months (Figure 3).15 Those classrooms did not set an unattainable bar for assignment quality:  On average, they offered grade-appropriate assignments 52 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent of the time across all classrooms. In fact, across all classrooms in our study, the average top-quartile classroom typically used grade-appropriate assignments only about 50 percent of the time. Relatively small improvements in assignment quality, instruction, and engagement offer a real chance for students who have been previously under-served by school to begin catching up to their peers.

When students who started the year behind had greater access to grade-appropriate assignments, they closed the outcomes gap with their peers by more than seven months. 

The fourth key resource—teacher expectations for students’ success against grade-level standards—demonstrated the strongest relationship to student growth in our study. In part, this may be due to the way expectations interact with the other resources and inform students’ access to them. For example, teachers who agreed that their students could meet the bar set by grade-level standards tended to offer stronger assignments and instruction. Teachers who held the lowest expectations tended to offer lower-quality assignments. Those choices have consequences: In classrooms in the top quartile for teacher expectations, students gained five months of growth, compared to students in classrooms in the bottom quartile for teacher expectations.

Figure 2 Difference In Achievement Growth Between Best (top Quartile) And Worst (bottom Quartile) Classrooms

The four key resources benefit all students...

1.7 months
Assignments
0.2 months
Instruction
2.5 months
Engagement
4.6 months
Expectations
Figure 3 Difference In Achievement Growth Between Best (top Half) And Worst (bottom Half) Classrooms Among Classrooms Where Average Student Is Substantially Behind Grade Level

...but particularly students who started the year substantially behind their peers.

7.3 months
Assignments
6.1 months
Instruction
0.9 months
Engagement
7.9 months
Expectations

Students’ perceptions of their teachers’ beliefs also aligned to stronger academic outcomes. Students who agreed that their teachers “think it’s important that they learn a lot” did better on all assignments than students who did not think their teachers held this belief. On assignments that were standards-aligned, where students were stretched to do their very best thinking, students who agreed with this statement about their teachers’ beliefs met the bar 54 percent of the time, compared to 38 percent of the time for students who did not.16

In classrooms where we observed more grade-level assignments, we also found that students met the bar on those assignments more often than not, even though the bar was higher. When students were tasked with assignments that were appropriate for their grade, they met the demands of those assignments a little more than half the time (Figure 4). That was true of students in nearly all groups—regardless of race or language background. It was also true in nearly all types of classrooms, including those that are often identified as “high-need.” In all of these classrooms, students were more likely than not to have success on assignments that were grade-appropriate—when they were given the opportunity to try. 

Figure 4 Student Success On Grade-level Work Versus Opportunities To Do Grade-level Work

All students tended to succeed on grade-level work, but many students of color were denied any opportunity to even try it. Success rates on grade-level work were similar...

56%
65%
Success rates on all grade-level assignments from classrooms with mostly students of color
Success rates on all grade-level assignments from classrooms with mostly white students

Note: “Grade-level” assignments are assignments that earned our highest rating on the content domain. See the Technical Appendix for more details on how we rated assignments. To calculate the success rate in both types of classrooms, we combined all grade-level assignments from eligible classrooms. Because some classrooms provided more grade-level assignments than others, and because some classrooms never provided grade-level assignments, some classrooms (and students) are represented more heavily than others in this analysis. Only core subject classrooms with at least five days of assignments are included.

Figure 4 Student Success On Grade-level Work Versus Opportunities To Do Grade-level Work

...but 4 out of 10 classrooms with a majority of students of color never received a single grade-level assignment.

38%
12%
Percent of classrooms that had no grade-level assignments in classrooms with mostly students of color
Percent of classrooms that had no grade-level assignments in classrooms with mostly white students

Note: “Grade-level” assignments are assignments that earned our highest rating on the content domain. See the Technical Appendix for more details on how we rated assignments. To calculate the success rate in both types of classrooms, we combined all grade-level assignments from eligible classrooms. Because some classrooms provided more grade-level assignments than others, and because some classrooms never provided grade-level assignments, some classrooms (and students) are represented more heavily than others in this analysis. Only core subject classrooms with at least five days of assignments are included.

Which of the key resources influenced your school experience the most?
Assignments
Instruction
Engagement
Teacher Expectations
Why are schools important to you?
I am a:

BRIGHT SPOTS

What did these classrooms look like, where students had greater access to high-quality content and instruction and were deeply engaged with their learning? 

The truth is, each one looked different. There was the 12th-grade English classroom in the western half of the country, where students read a high-quality, grade-appropriate memoir. In small groups, students discussed the book using evidence from the text, pushing each other to use academic language, guided by a rubric. Their teacher floated from group to group, listening and encouraging students to disagree respectfully and use evidence to support their points of view. All the while, she gently reinforced the tools and skills they needed to participate in college-level discourse.

Or there was the fourth-grade math class where students were engaged for an entire period in an active exploration of equivalent fractions. In this joyful classroom, the teacher supported each student’s understanding and provided individualized support so each student could access this grade-level content. Students explained their own thinking, and their teacher offered clarity and praised their process as she moved them along. 

Where we saw entire schools that were bright spots, there were clear patterns. At an elementary school in the south, for example, teachers and administrators shared a consistent definition of what good instruction and student learning should look like. They articulated a common expectation that students would have access to rigorous content and would be responsible for doing the thinking and learning in the classroom, with teachers acting as facilitators. They also expected that students would be deeply engaged in reading, writing, and discussion across subjects. Students in this school spent 24 percent more time with grade-appropriate assignments, 61 percent more time with strong instruction, and reported being engaged 18 percent more of the time than the average elementary classroom in our study.

Those shared expectations were not accidental: In fact, they were consistent up and down this district, starting with the superintendent. Teachers, school leadership, and district leadership all articulated shared expectations for the kind of instruction and engagement students should have access to. There were structures in place to support and maintain that high bar: Teachers received walk-throughs of their classrooms every week or two. 

We found classrooms and schools like this across our sample, serving a diverse range of students and families. They looked different, but their spirit was the same: students who were enjoying their learning; teachers who believed their students could do well; content and instructional practices that demanded students stretch themselves and honored their abilities to do just that. 

In these observations, administrators expected to see students working on grade-appropriate content, and that teachers would be able to explain exactly how they were addressing the full scope of the instructional shifts and the standards. 

In this school, we heard from teachers and administrators alike that a consistent vision for great instruction, a strong curriculum, professional development aligned to that curriculum and designed to support teachers to implement it successfully, and a culture of high expectations for everyone were key. As one teacher explained, “Professional development didn’t used to be helpful, but we started focusing on standards and what good instruction should look like.” Another noted, “We are held to high expectations and we hold our kids to high expectations.” Relative to the other schools in our sample, this elementary school showed higher levels of student engagement and strong instruction—suggesting that their focus on increasing access to those two resources in particular has paid off. 

The other schools that jumped out as positive outliers shared many of these characteristics. At one small high school, adults in the building were similarly focused on a core set of academic priorities: in their case, literacy across all subjects. (For example, students used a consistent writing protocol across all their classes.) Teachers and administrators articulated a common vision of what instruction should look like and spent a lot of time addressing how to fully implement the standards. The school also prioritized a high level of both support and accountability for teachers, through weekly observations and debriefs, and regular data meetings with administrators.

We found classrooms and schools like this across our sample, serving a diverse range of students and families. In about 70 of the classrooms we observed, students spent most of their time with grade-appropriate assignments; in nearly 30 classrooms, we saw strong instruction throughout all the lessons we observed; in 25 classrooms, students were engaged at least 80 percent of the time.17 These classrooms looked different, but their spirit was the same: students who were enjoying their learning; teachers who believed their students could do well; content and instructional practices that demanded students stretch themselves and honored their abilities to do just that. We met teachers in these classrooms who were making conscious decisions to take a leap of faith and offer students more challenging assignments than they might once have attempted. There were teachers who were forcing themselves to step back and let their students do hard work (and sometimes stumble), and those who were holding themselves and their students accountable to a high bar. At the school level, we repeatedly saw a consistent focus on a relatively small set of academic priorities, and a high level of support for teachers to meet those priorities. 

Unfortunately, classrooms and schools like these were the exception. School experiences that included ample access to the four key resources—grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and high expectations—were few and far between for most students. 

Get your action guide to learn how to help improve students’ experiences in school.

Success!

Your action guide is on its way to your inbox. In the meantime, you can also share this with a friend who might be interested.

Next Up:
The Weight of Wasted Time

(Click to continue)

Next Up:
The Weight of Wasted Time

(Click to continue)