Of all the students we spoke to, perhaps Maggie explained the opportunity myth most explicitly: “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.” It shouldn’t be an unreasonable expectation. And yet, most students will find themselves let down.

It’s time to change that. 

What we’ve learned from students about their experiences has created a new center of gravity for our work. We hope it will do the same for others seeking fundamental changes to our school systems. We now have clearer answers than ever about how and why we’re failing to provide so many students with the experiences they need to reach their goals. If we stay focused on those experiences, we’ll be on a path to sustainable change because the work will be rooted in the experiences of those we serve.  

We readily acknowledge that we don’t have a detailed operational plan to improve student experiences at scale. But we believe it’s time to move beyond important but narrow debates—from how to measure teacher performance to charter versus district to the role of standardized testing—and return to the basic guiding principle that brings us to this work: the right of every student to learn what they need to reach their goals. Over the next several years, we will partner with school systems, educators, students, and parents to build our expertise about how to give all students more of the key resources they need and deserve, in different communities and contexts. We’ll certainly share what we learn as we go, and we hope you will, too.

But we think we know where to begin, and it starts with making students’ daily experiences the center of our work. Students are at the heart of this report, and we learned some profound lessons through the process of asking them about their goals and experiences. They don’t have all the answers, to be clear—nor is it their job to tell us how to do ours better. But they proved again and again, through their nuanced, sophisticated, and practical observations, that they are the best experts we have about the current state of our schools. Above all, we heard from students that they want to be challenged in school, enjoy their learning, and be treated with respect, care, and dignity. They’re asking us to do better, so we should. 

We call on all adults whose choices affect students’ experiences in school—particularly school, district, and state leaders, as well as external partners like ourselves—to make two core commitments to students and families:


Every student should have access to grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations, every day, in every class—regardless of their race, ethnicity, or any other part of their identity. We will continually investigate the extent to which our students receive this access and report on our progress.


Every student and family is an authentic partner and should have real opportunities to shape the experiences students have in school, receive accurate and accessible information about students’ progress, and have a legitimate role in decision-making. We will continually seek feedback from all students and families about whether we’re living up to this commitment.

Many of us believe in these commitments already, but in practice we have maintained the status quo. We think we’re not part of the problem, but the evidence says otherwise. If you have influence over the school experience of even a single student who is not being prepared to meet their goals, this applies to you. If you don’t know specifically, with direct evidence, how these commitments are being upheld in your classroom, school, system, or state, then they are not being upheld. 

We can be this categorical because we made this mistake ourselves. We have often thought we were upholding these commitments, while settling for less in practice. For example, we thought we recognized the need to give all students access to grade-appropriate content, but we have trained new teachers with ineffective scaffolding practices that gutted the rigor of assignments. We have talked about the importance of listening to students, but we have failed to support teachers to use student survey data to make improvements.

Making these commitments means doing things differently. What follows is a list of five big things students told us they want in school. This is not a checklist; it’s a collection of challenging but workable solutions that school and system leaders need to dig into, implement in the ways that make sense for their school communities, and continually revisit.

1. Ask students and families directly about their goals and school experiences; listen to what they share; and then act on what they tell you.

Currently, we operate on assumptions about students’ goals and what students want from school. So many decisions about school are made in administrative offices that are far from the real daily experiences of students. In our research, we saw that the vast majority of students have big goals for themselves beyond high school, but we also found that school isn’t setting up most students to meet those goals—and that different choices at the classroom, school, and system levels can change that. To start, asking students explicitly about their experiences can glean indispensable data. 

By listening to students, we have access to rich and nuanced information that could help us shift away from focusing on the success of groups of students (generally pegged to the average) to focusing on the success of individuals. While students don’t have all the answers, their perspectives provide a critical bellwether for how well we’re doing our jobs. When their experiences are consistently lousy and unchanging, whatever interventions are presently in place are not working. Continued inaction in the face of that evidence—given that we can point to the relationship between different access to high-quality academic experiences and different outcomes for students—is no longer defensible. 

This doesn’t mean we should jump to the typical student and family engagement process, where those of us with power ask for input about decisions that have largely already been made. Instead, we are advocating for students and parents to be equipped with the tools they need to pressure their school systems to replace the opportunity myth with real opportunity and transparency, and for educators and system leaders to put students’ daily experiences and access to grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and high expectations at the center of decision-making.

To hold ourselves accountable for this work, the views of students and parents should not only be public, but easily accessible to all stakeholders. We should share with students and parents how we are changing our approach based on their valued input. And report cards, in addition to providing more detailed information about student progress, should answer one simple question for parents:  Is my child on track to graduate high school ready for college, and if not, when and how will they be on track? 

2. Make greater access to grade-appropriate assignments an urgent priority for all students, no matter what their race, income level, or current performance level.

Students who get assignments that are appropriate for their grade have stronger academic outcomes. But the students in our sample spent more than 500 hours per school year in core subjects on assignments that did not meet that bar. Moreover, students that school has let down in the past—like students of color and those from low-income backgrounds—were even less likely to get access to grade-appropriate assignments. When they did, that high-quality content helped close academic gaps between them and their peers. We found that classrooms with students who tended to start behind that worked on grade-level assignments, on average, even 50 percent of the time gained seven months of learning in a single year. 

Getting better assignments in front of all students more often will raise the floor for students’ experiences, particularly for students of color and those from low-income families. A higher baseline would mean that many more students are getting good enough experiences in school.

To ensure that all students have access to grade-appropriate assignments, stakeholders should first assess how the assignments their students are currently working on stack up. How much time are students spending on grade-appropriate content? After that gut check, stakeholders should make sure that teachers are using high-quality, aligned instructional materials on a daily basis. But we cannot leave teachers to sink or swim; helping students with vastly different needs, some of whom may be several grade levels behind, to succeed with grade-level materials requires a lot of experience and skill. So we must provide teachers materials-based professional learning to ensure that teachers know the value in grade-appropriate assignments and how to use them well.

3. Give all students, especially those who are behind grade level, access to instruction that  asks them to think and engage deeply with challenging material. 

Requiring students to own the thinking in their lessons asks students to take a risk in front of their peers, since it’s possible they could be wrong. Even in classrooms where we saw high-quality assignments, we often observed students missing out on opportunities to take that risk and do the thinking with rigorous content. This included classrooms where teachers did most of the talking, where students were asked only closed-ended questions that didn’t require critical thinking, where students were interrupted by teachers as they were sharing their answers, or where they weren’t given ample “think time” before the teacher stepped in with the answer. We found that students who started the school year behind academically particularly benefitted from strong instruction: In these classrooms, greater access to strong instruction led students to close the gap with their peers by about six months. In addition, students appreciated lessons where they were given the chance to do the thinking: In classrooms where we observed strong instruction, we also saw a 31 percent increase in engagement levels.

Once students have access to grade-appropriate assignments, stakeholders should work to make sure that students have the chance to do the kind of hard thinking with that content that they’ll be expected to do in college or in their careers. Make sure all teachers and leaders realize that is the expectation—and then provide coaching supports and clear, actionable feedback to teachers about whether or not students are consistently experiencing engaging, strong instruction.

4. Ensure educators enact high expectations for student success by seeing firsthand that students are capable of succeeding with more rigorous material.

We found that when teachers have high expectations for students’ success, they have a meaningful positive impact on academic achievement. We also saw that a majority of teachers do not report having high expectations for their students’ success. Significantly, among classrooms where students were at least 75 percent Black or at least 75 percent Latinx, 66 percent of teachers who were the same race or ethnicity as the majority of their students had high expectations. In classrooms with similar student demographics but with teachers who were a different race or ethnicity from the majority of the class, just 35 percent reported high expectations. Those results held true when we controlled for students’ prior achievement. Since teachers with lower expectations were more likely to provide weaker assignments and ask less of their students, low expectations translated into some groups of students getting less access to grade-appropriate assignments and strong instruction. This inequitable allocation of key resources in turn produces inequitable outcomes for students. 

Raising expectations certainly isn’t on the shoulders of teachers alone. We studied expectations of teachers here, but there is no evidence that we would see different results had we studied principals, central office personnel, or non-profit leaders. As a field, we have failed to acknowledge that the expectations decision-makers hold affect students. Choices about everything from staffing to instructional materials are informed by the biases, both implicit and explicit, of the adults making those choices. When we expect some students to do less, in school and in life, we offer them less, in everything from the quality of their assignments to the weight their parents’ opinions are given. 

At every level of the system, we need to reckon with this fact, acknowledge the ways in which our expectations affect the choices we make for students, and develop strategies to ensure that all students have access to adults with consistently high expectations for their success. This has to include work up and down the school system. Teachers need ample opportunities to develop the skills necessary to give students (including those who are working below grade level) grade-appropriate work. That includes opportunities to collaborate with peers and learn from educators with track records of success. But if we’re going to make this huge ask of teachers, it should be accompanied by fair compensation and investments in better working conditions, from strong school leadership to adequate facilities and resources. 

We’re all steeped in a culture of racism and systemic inequity, and undoing implicit bias is incredibly difficult work. So we know that as a field, we have a significant amount to learn here. We also know that many existing attempts to address racialized low expectations are ineffective or have never been rigorously studied35 and may even cause adults to double down on their low expectations.36 But addressing specific behaviors that influence students’ experiences can serve as a path toward unraveling implicit bias, rather than the other way around. In our own teacher and principal training work, for example, we have seen evidence that once teachers and school leaders see that students who are behind can be successful on rigorous assignments, they are much more willing to provide rigorous experiences to their students.

5. Conduct an equity audit to identify school- and district-level decisions—from the diversity of staff at all levels to which students are enrolled in honors courses—that give some students greater access than others to key resources.

All students deserve and need equitable access to the four key resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and high expectations. But we’ve seen that some groups of students—namely students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with mild to moderate disabilities, and English language learners—have less access than their peers. They are more likely to be in classrooms with weaker assignments and instruction, less likely to be engaged, and are subjected to lower expectations. Given that we know that greater access to the four key resources improves outcomes for students—and especially students who start the year behind academically—the status quo is not morally defensible.

The root causes of this inequitable allocation of resources are complex, and there’s no quick fix. But identifying and then actively working to dismantle structures that privilege already advantaged groups of students at the expense of their peers is non-negotiable work. This is not solely the work of addressing individual implicit biases. It requires addressing systemic choices and decisions that result in schools being “places with predictable, systematic inequalities in experience and outcomes based on people’s social group memberships—advantaging people from some social groups while disadvantaging people from others.”37

It is also incumbent that we work to diversify the education workforce, particularly by hiring and retaining staff in counter-stereotypical roles (for example, ensuring that men, particularly men of color, are represented among teachers in elementary grades). To do this, we need to address the systemic barriers that keep teachers of color out of urban and rural classrooms and commit to a staffing model that values diversity. This will support us all in raising the bar for what we expect for students of color, but can also provide a powerful model of high expectations for all students. We must also look at the policies and systems that determine things like course access, curriculum adoption, and grading—all of which can and do contribute to the inequitable allocation of high-quality school experiences.

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


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:
Act Now!

(Click to continue)

Next Up:
Act Now!

(Click to continue)