The Weight of Wasted Time

Portrait Hajima 01
“I don’t want to feel behind.”
HAJIMA’S EXPERIENCE

When she arrived at her new high school, Hajima’s hope was that the medical careers program would put her on the right path for medical school, both in terms of academic readiness and with some college credit already under her belt. In fact, she had transferred from another public high school—one with higher test scores and more advanced course offerings—explicitly because she’d been enticed by the promise of this program.

Considering that Hajima joined her new school based on the promise that it would prepare her for pre-med studies in college, she was shocked to learn upon arrival that there were no AP math or science courses available to her.

She maxed out on the school’s math offerings as a junior. “They only have up to pre-calc,” she says. “I took that last year. If we feel the classes they have aren’t challenging for us, there are no other options.”

It isn’t lost on Hajima that the academic experiences she has access to at her current school—where her classmates are primarily Black—are weaker than those at her previous school (in the same district), which is primarily white. The tradeoffs have been painful. She reflects on her choice to move schools, in pursuit of better preparation for a medical career: “I don’t really regret moving here because of all the new friends. It’s just education-wise, I do, because it’s not challenging.”

She’d jump at the opportunity to learn more. “We want to be more prepared,” she says.

When Hajima and her best friend talk about how it feels to sit in classes that aren’t challenging enough, they speak of watching the clock. “The time goes super slow,” Hajima’s friend explains. In their physics class, for example, they might get through all the content in the first 20 minutes—and then have nothing to do. It worries Hajima deeply when she considers her future.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m behind when I walk into a class on the first day of college,” she says. “The teacher is not going to wait for me. I’m just going to be a small number in a class, and I don’t want to feel behind or left out.”

GRADE-APPROPRIATE ASSIGNMENTS

Hajima and her classmates will never get their time back—and it adds up. In the four core subjects—ELA, math, science, and social studies—an average student spent almost three-quarters of their time on assignments that were not grade-appropriate (Figure 5).18 In a single school year, that’s the equivalent of more than six months of learning time.19

Consider the experience of the eighth graders in an ELA classroom who were asked to fill in missing vowels in a vocabulary worksheet. Or the students in an AP physics classroom, who spent an entire class period making a vocabulary poster. These sound like extreme examples, but they were far more the norm than the exception.  

When students are consistently forced to do work below their grade level, they’re missing opportunities to learn and practice the skills they’ll need to make their life goals achievable. But they’re also being denied a chance to prove—to themselves as much as anyone else—what they are capable of. Consider the student in one of our partner districts who was asked to solve a variety of word problems using addition and subtraction (a first-grade standard) and multiplication and division (a third-grade standard). That might be all right, except for one problem: This student was in fourth grade. 

Figure 5 Time Spent On Grade-appropriate Assignments Versus Non-Grade-Appropriate Assignments

Of the 180 classroom hours in each core subject during the school year, students spent...

133 Hours

on assignments that were not grade appropriate

47 Hours

on assignments that were grade appropriate

He did the work he was assigned, and answered 87 percent of the questions correctly. But the assignment offered him only the opportunity to grapple with content that was more appropriate for younger students. 

Another assignment in the same classroom offered a better opportunity: The same student was asked to identify equivalent fractions using visual models, meeting a fourth-grade standard. Here, on the more challenging assignment, he answered 100 percent of the questions correctly.

The fourth-grade student who performed better on the grade-appropriate assignment compared to the easier one does not necessarily indicate that students are more likely to do better on tougher content; overall, students are still more likely to meet the demands of less challenging assignments versus more challenging ones. But his experience debunks the common assumption that students can’t do more rigorous work. This student was ready, willing, and able to complete whatever assignment he was offered. Even more importantly, his example upends the belief that achievement mainly reflects students’ abilities. The key variable is actually adults’ decisions.

Neither this student nor his teacher would have known he could do well on the tougher assignment if he hadn’t been given the chance—a chance he and every other student must rely on the adults in their schools to give them. In our observations, we saw hundreds of students demonstrating their ability to do grade-level work when asked to do so, including students with low prior achievement. But most—especially students of color and those from low-income families—don’t get those opportunities nearly often enough.

Some students had access to grade-appropriate assignments.

These eighth-grade students read A Mighty Long Way and wrote an informational essay analyzing historical events, getting the chance to fully meet the depth of multiple standards and learn relevant content.

Many other students did not have access to grade-appropriate assignments.

After reading a fifth-grade-level text, other eighth-grade students completed multiple-choice vocabulary questions and filled in the missing vowels in words, which is not aligned to any eighth-grade literacy standards.

The Role of Curriculum and Assessment Policies

The content in front of students on a daily basis isn’t good enough—simple as that. While improving content isn’t a quick fix, giving students better assignments that are appropriately challenging will give more students the chance to get on track to meet their goals. Given the variation from classroom to classroom and the disheartening level of materials overall, a key question is: Where do these assignments originate? Who defines what students are asked to do and when?

We looked at state- and district-level policies on curriculum adoption, as well as the quality of the materials districts chose. On the whole, we found that our partner districts were adopting materials of widely varying quality—and that in spite of having these district-provided materials, teachers were spending a significant amount of their planning time creating or selecting their own. The typical teacher in our sample reported spending seven hours per week on this, which adds up to more than 250 hours a year—hugely valuable time for teachers who are already stretched thin.

This might be time well-spent if there were evidence that teacher-created materials were giving students access to stronger content than those provided by districts. But this wasn’t the case. In fact, materials created or selected by teachers were generally less likely than those provided by the district to meet academic standards in ELA and math. On average, teacher-created or selected materials aligned to academic standards, meaning they earned our highest content rating, 20 percent of the time, while district-adopted materials aligned 34 percent of the time.

This alignment was even higher when districts had adopted high-quality materials: When teachers reported that their assignments came from high-quality district offerings, the assignments were grade-appropriate 53 percent of the time. Districts’ choices, in other words, were far from universally great—but they were a stronger start than materials teachers found or created from scratch.

We also looked at district-mandated interim assessments to understand what kind of feedback they were providing teachers about their students’ performance against grade-level state standards. All of our districts required their teachers to administer at least quarterly interim assessments in both math and ELA—but none of these assessments met the bar for full alignment to the standards: Of a sampling of 38 interim assessments in math and ELA, just two were “partially aligned” to appropriate benchmarks. The remaining 36 were “not aligned,” largely because they did not ask students grade-appropriate questions. We heard overwhelmingly from teachers that they used these assessments to drive adjustments to their instruction—as they should, as that is a fundamental goal of measuring student progress. But in our partner districts, teachers were receiving misinformation from the mandated assessments, undermining teachers’ efforts to adjust their instruction in ways that would improve student outcomes (and quite possibly confusing teachers about what grade-appropriate content looks like).20

How many months of learning does a student gain in a classroom where their teacher holds high expectations?
About 1 month
About 3 months
About 5 months
About 8 months

About 5

months of learning
Portrait Raymond 01
“Are we still on number two?”
RAYMOND’S EXPERIENCE

Fifty minutes into math, Raymond and his fifth-grade classmates are still working on the warmup: four homework problems their teacher put on the board when they came in (multiplication and division operations that meet a fourth-grade standard). Their teacher explains that the warm-up problems are “to calm [them] down from gym”—though they appeared perfectly calm when they filed into the room. Early on in the lesson, she issues an ominous warning: “What happens when we struggle in math class? All sorts of bad things.”

The lesson moves at an almost unbearably slow pace. The teacher moves through the operations on the board, not checking whether her students understand, pausing to answer questions, or asking students to do much of the work. She solves most of the problems herself, and on one occasion does so incorrectly.

“I know you just came from gym where you got to run around and talk,” the teacher says, frazzled. “It’s math time now. We need to focus.” 

One student is asked to leave after talking out of turn, but there’s nowhere for him to go. Booted from his classroom, he paces aimlessly in the hallway, periodically peering through the window to see what’s happening in class. Inside the classroom, students check out, one by one. 

“Are we still on number two?” asks another student. She seems astonished. The class period is nearly over. As she starts to explain the tape diagram she’d used to solve the problem, her teacher cuts her off. “Stop. I know what you’re going to say and that’s not why six is broken into three.”

One wonders how it feels—at 11 years old—to be interrupted by a teacher and corrected, before you’ve even had the chance to finish answering a question or explain your thinking. The message students receive, day in and day out, is that they should pay attention in school, respect their teachers, and do what they’re asked. And yet, they undoubtedly internalize a very different message when they are shut down while trying to learn, repeatedly, in the very classrooms where they are expected to be giving their best effort.

Remember, Raymond actually likes math. He thinks it’s “kind of fun.” But today in math class, he rests his head on his desk. 

STRONG INSTRUCTION

In assessing the quality of instruction, we looked at classrooms’ cultures and whether students were doing the work of the lesson. We also considered whether students had a chance to work on grade-level content during the lesson, and whether teachers’ instructional practices allowed students to do the thinking about that grade-level content.

Only 16 percent of the lessons we observed in core subjects offered strong instruction: instructional practices that allowed students to grapple with appropriate material in robust ways. Out of 180 hours per school year in each core subject, that means students spent just 29 hours with strong instruction (Figure 6).

The problem is not just that the content in front of students isn’t strong enough—although as we’ve already seen, that is often the case. It’s also that when content is high-quality and grade-appropriate, many students still don’t have the opportunity to actually do the work themselves. Too often, we saw teachers making choices that protected—or prevented—students from doing the thinking of the lesson. Even if those instructional choices were motivated by a desire to see students succeed, they undermined the benefits of high-quality content in the first place. If these lessons represented students’ typical experiences, they were spending the equivalent of fewer than two months experiencing strong instruction, and more than seven months doing something else.

Even when we did see students offered grade-appropriate assignments, their teachers engaged them effectively with that content less than half the time, and students had the chance to do the deep thinking of the lesson just a quarter of the time. That means in the 295 lessons that offered grade-level content—already just a fraction of the nearly 900 core subject lessons we observed in total—only 74 lessons also focused on developing understanding and required students to do the thinking.21 In other words, in many classrooms where the content had potential, students weren’t actually reaping the benefits because they were not doing the hard work themselves. 

Figure 6 Time Spent On Strong Instruction Versus Weak Instruction

Of the 180 classroom hours in each core subject during the school year, students spent...

151 Hours

on lessons with weak instruction

29 Hours

on lessons with strong instruction

When students “do the thinking” in a lesson, they grapple with the process of solving problems. They might be applying prior knowledge to answer new kinds of questions, or working in small groups to discuss different ways to solve a grade-level math problem. They might be writing an argument after reading and evaluating multiple texts that shared different perspectives about an issue. In classrooms where students don’t have these kinds of opportunities, they are often doing more listening than talking. They are writing their teachers’ answers verbatim, plugging numbers into a formula they’ve been supplied, or filling in blanks.

In many classrooms where the content had potential, students weren’t actually reaping the benefits because they were not doing the hard work themselves. 

Ownership in the classroom matters.22 It’s not only how the brain learns best—by trying out new skills and wrestling with new knowledge and experiences ourselves, rather than just receiving information—but it’s also how students build the confidence to take on new challenges. When students are asked to try in school, when they are asked to push their thinking even when they’re stuck, to explain why they’ve arrived at an answer, to help a classmate, they also have the chance to stretch their sense of their own capabilities and see themselves grow. 

Strong instruction that asks students to grapple with challenging content—and that cultivates a classroom-wide expectation that it’s okay to be wrong—has the potential to increase students’ natural drive to learn, rather than squander it. That can in turn deepen students’ engagement in school. 

Portrait Isaac 01
“This might be our last chance.”
ISAAC’S EXPERIENCE

Physics is Isaac’s favorite class. For one thing, he says, it’s clear how the concepts apply in real life—“how you can use it outside of school.” With his aspiration toward a career in nursing, Isaac is aware that he needs a strong math and science background. Not only that, but he likes testing different concepts through experiments. In contrast, in classes where his teachers do all the talking, he struggles to stay focused, because they just don’t engage him deeply.

“Some classes are really dry,” he explains. “You take nothing but notes. That’s not going to help me learn what I need in the long term. What if I need this in my long-term memory? When a class is really dry, the teacher is not helping us learn more about the subject.”

Isaac reflects that he is most interested in classes where the content is useful for what he wants to do with his life. “Let me learn something that’s going to help me in nursing school,” he says. “[It should be] something that’s harder for you, something that’s going to help your lifestyle that you’re living.”

His physics class also rates highly from Isaac’s perspective because his teacher, Mr. Adams, knows how to crack a joke, while also taking students’ learning seriously. “There’s not many classes like that,” Isaac observes. 

In contrast to Raymond’s math class, Isaac’s physics class is a positive, enjoyable place to learn. For Isaac, his favorite class seems to occupy the sweet spot between schoolwork that matters in real life, learning experiences he can own himself, and teachers who care for him and his classmates as people. 

“I don’t think they want to see us fail,” Isaac says of most of his teachers. “They want to see us move on in life.” But he is also acutely aware of how vital the relationships between teachers and students are, and how they can keep a student’s progress on track—or derail it. While he has several strong relationships with teachers, Mr. Adams among them, he has also experienced the opposite: adults who undermined his self-belief. On several occasions, Isaac describes hearing a teacher belittle him or his classmates on account of their race. As a freshman, he says, one of his teachers told him that he wouldn’t amount to anything because he was Black. 

It’s a painful experience to recall. “I told her, ‘It don’t matter the color of my skin. As long as I put in an effort, I can do it,’” he recalls. “I know I can.”

From his perspective, what happens in his current school—and the relationships he has with his teachers there—have a significant impact on his future. “Some of us come to school, and we’re dying. We have a lot going on at home, a lot going on here, but we have to focus here because this might be our last chance at life.” 

If he could change anything about his high school experience, it would be more people like Mr. Adams: adults who know him, recognize and respect his life experiences, and support his goals. They teach in ways that help him engage with interesting content and commit it to his long-term memory, which matters to him. And they know how to have an occasional laugh while they’re at it.

DEEP ENGAGEMENT

We know that the majority of students were “on task” in the classrooms we observed. Being on task and doing what’s asked in class certainly matter; it should be a baseline expectation that students are working on activities related to their lessons during class time. This is necessary, but it is not sufficient, because “engagement” at first glance—behavioral compliance—doesn’t mean students are truly engaged, cognitively and emotionally, with the work they’re doing. 

When we measured “engagement,” we wanted to look at whether students were making a deeper cognitive and emotional investment in their schoolwork. We considered whether students were (1) enjoying what they were doing; (2) interested in it; and (3) concentrating deeply on it.23 When we looked at “worth,” we considered whether students found the content (1) usable outside of school; (2) important now; or (3) important in the future.24 Though most students we observed were completing their work (and even doing well on those assignments), middle and high school students found their school experiences engaging and worthwhile less than half the time (Figure 7).

Deep engagement is not a nice-to-have in school. Isaac’s reflections on what it feels like to sit in a “dry” lesson, where he’s not learning anything that will stick with him or help him later in life, should not be dismissed as a teenager’s complaints. His observations are supported by neuroscience: Deep learning only happens when people are cognitively and emotionally engaged with the material in front of them (and when people feel safe in their environment).25 Students do better academically when they feel engaged like this. In our sample, students were likely to earn better grades and find greater success in classrooms where they also reported feeling engaged.

But most students don’t have that opportunity regularly. More than 2,000 students told us about their experiences in school on at least five separate occasions. Among them, nearly half rarely or never had an experience that they believed was both engaging and worthwhile.26

And the further students get into their school careers, the less engaged they’re likely to be. Elementary students were more engaged and considered their schoolwork more worthwhile than their older peers. By the time they reached high school—just as their identities and career aspirations started to solidify and students began to recognize the content and skills they would need to meet their goals—more and more students perceived their schoolwork to be disconnected from their futures. High school students reported that 58 percent of their experiences were not engaging and 60 percent were not worthwhile: They were disconnected from their realities and irrelevant for their futures. Perhaps it’s not a surprise, then, that nearly half a million students drop out of high school every year.27

Figure 7 Student Engagement By Grade

Middle and high school students found their lessons engaging or worthwhile less than half the time.

When we surveyed students in real time in their classrooms, we found them thinking about a variety of things beyond the lesson. When asked “What are you thinking about right now?” students in low-engagement classrooms reported musings on everything from “lunch” to “sleep” to “Beyoncé.” This range of responses was true even when students were, in practice, on task in class. They were doing the work in front of them, but their assignments did not require their full focus. 

This was in contrast to classrooms that scored higher on our measure of engagement. In these classrooms, students reported thinking about things like “our group work” or “what I was working on.” Clearly, students were prepared to focus on the work at hand, but it needed to be intellectually stimulating and worthy of their attention to engage them. 

On the whole, we found that the notion that many teenagers “hate school” simply wasn’t the case. They were far from uniformly negative about school, nor were they consistently disengaged across all their classes, every day of the week. In fact, students were attuned to improvements in instruction, in particular. When we looked at individual students’ experiences of the same classroom, we found that students who were disengaged on a day with weak instruction tended to report higher levels of engagement on a day when we observed stronger instruction.28

Disengagement, day after day, has an impact on how students feel about not only school, but also themselves. We asked students to respond to a variety of survey prompts to get a sense of how often they feel things like “proud” and “successful” in school. While we can’t know for certain how students define these feelings, the results were telling: 63 percent of the time, high school students reported that they did not feel a sense of pride during the school day. Students in classrooms with weaker instruction were less likely to report feeling proud than their peers in classrooms with stronger instruction.

Perhaps most important of all for students’ engagement, as Isaac inferred, are the relationships between teachers and students. When students believed their teachers expected them to learn a lot, they were twice as likely to find class engaging. Classrooms where teachers reported frequently talking with their students about their interests and goals—getting to know their students, beyond the assignments they do in class—had 34 percent higher rates of engagement.29

That’s what Mr. Adams does for Isaac. Luz, his schoolmate, agrees that this matters.

Portrait Luz 01
“They got to help me when I need help.”
LUZ’S EXPERIENCE

Luz loves school—or she used to. 

“Throughout elementary and middle school, I tried really hard,” she says. “Straight A student, perfect attendance, that kind of thing. Then freshman year happened, and I got some Ds and Cs. I cried. I cried. I had never gotten a C at the end of the year, or a D. When I saw it happen in freshman year, I was like, ‘Wow. What happened?’”

Luz is a junior in high school. Her school, which serves roughly 500 students, was part of a larger public high school that was closed for poor performance and broken into four smaller schools several years ago. She is reflective about what happened in her transition to high school. Some of the dip in her grades, she says, was because she was unprepared for the challenge of her high school classes. 

“I feel like it was a struggle between the difference between the expectations that were given to you in middle school, and then the expectations at high school. I feel that messed me up.” 

As she adapted to high school (and with some pressure at home from her father), she raised those grades back up to As and Bs. But she also describes the importance of having teachers who not only push her but also support her.

“[In] biology, there was a lot of words I didn’t understand,” she says. “When I needed help, my teacher didn’t really help me. I would ask questions. She would answer them, but they weren’t what I wanted, so I would have to go to other students. Sometimes they didn’t understand it, so I didn’t understand it.”

For Luz, getting help when she asks for it is an essential component of success in the classroom. “They got to help me when I need help. Actually help me. I feel like having a relationship with your student is important.”

She elaborates. “The teachers that have high expectations for you in their class, you actually try harder, because you want to show you can meet those expectations. But when teachers give up on their students, you’re like, ‘Why should I try if my teacher’s not giving it a try?’” 

Now, in the second semester of her junior year, just as Luz is starting to consider college, her grades are starting to slip again. She feels herself disengaging from school more often, and she’s missing the positive relationships with teachers that anchor her to school. “If I don’t really connect with that teacher, then it’s like, why am I in your class?” 

HIGH EXPECTATIONS

The vast majority of students (93 percent of those we surveyed) agreed that it’s important to their teachers that they learn a lot. And students like Luz correctly intuit that what their teachers expect of them in class has an impact on what they learn: When teachers have high expectations for students’ success against grade-level standards, it informs their choices about the content they put in front of students, and the instructional practices they employ. 

That sounds like common sense, and it plays out in the data. In classrooms where teachers had higher expectations, we also saw stronger assignments, instruction, and ultimately greater student growth, compared to classrooms where teachers reported the lowest expectations for their students.

But those low expectations for student success were rampant. While 82 percent of teachers were supportive of state-level standards in theory, just 44 percent of teachers believed their own students could meet such high demands (Figure 8). When that translates into choices about content and instruction—and into the messages those choices send to students—it makes a meaningful impact on students’ school experiences and outcomes.

When teachers have low expectations, it may also contribute to a mismatch between the grades students bring home and their actual mastery of grade-level work and skills, because those grades often fail to reflect their success on work that is appropriately challenging. While nearly two-thirds of students across our partner districts earned As and Bs over the last few years, far fewer met the grade-level bar set by their state’s standardized assessments. In one partner district, less than 20 percent of B students did so.30

Figure 8 Teacher Expectations For Student Success Against Grade-Level Standards

82%

of teachers supported the content of their state’s academic standards

Figure 8 Teacher Expectations For Student Success Against Grade-Level Standards

44%

of teachers expected their students could have success with the standards

While most teachers supported the standards in theory, less than half believed they were right for their students.

While higher grades did correspond to a greater chance that students could do grade-level work on these assessments, that chance was not especially great, even for students who were bringing home As and Bs. On the whole, students who were earning Bs on their math and ELA coursework had a less than 35 percent chance of having met their state assessment’s grade-level bar. Even an A was far from a guarantee: 29 percent of A students did not meet their state assessment’s grade-level bar. And we found the same disconnect when we compared students’ grades to college entrance exams and AP tests: Roughly half of students who typically received a B in math and ELA met the ACT’s or SAT’s college readiness benchmarks, and only 20 percent of students who earned a B in their AP math or English course actually passed the AP exam. 

This is not purely about teachers’ individual expectations and the choices that flow from them. The reality is that teachers are themselves acting within a system that shapes and confines the choices they make for students. Although we know that some teachers do make decisions that buck systemic trends, and that teachers have the power to be vigilant about what goes on in their own classrooms, their choices are also heavily influenced by the training, development, and support they’re offered. For example, when the importance of high expectations (and the influence of teachers’ unconscious biases on those expectations) is not prioritized in teacher preparation programs, it’s unreasonable to expect most teachers to prioritize it on their own. The system sends teachers the message that the material they teach and the practices they employ in their classrooms matter far more than the expectations they hold for their students. Yet in our partner districts, these expectations had a stronger relationship to student achievement growth than any other factor we studied. 

Moreover, in a system where many students pass from year to year under-prepared for what comes next, teachers often find themselves teaching students who truly aren’t yet working at grade level. They feel forced to choose between assigning grade-level work that’s beyond their students’ current skillset, or assigning work that matches those skills—but is below grade level. 

The system sends teachers the message that the material they teach and the practices they employ in their classrooms matter far more than the expectations they hold for their students. Yet in our partner districts, these expectations had a stronger effect on student achievement growth than any other factor we studied.

In principle, the solution to this is “scaffolding”: Teachers should provide students the support they need to access grade-level work, regardless of their starting point, and do so as quickly as possible during the school year. But in practice, scaffolding—not to mention differentiating that support in a classroom with students who start at many different levels—is a complex skill to master. Many teachers simply don’t have the training and support in place to do it effectively. Even with the right skills and best intentions, meeting 25 or 30 individual students where they are isn’t possible without additional adults in the room, the right kinds of resources and technology, and a host of other resources that most teachers don’t have. 

The result is the continuation of a cycle in which students who are behind grade level—who are all too often students of color, those from low-income backgrounds, students with mild to moderate disabilities, or English language learners—are continuously exposed to work that never gives them the chance to catch up. 

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Next Up:
Choosing the Opportunity Gap

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Choosing the Opportunity Gap

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