We’ve been telling students and families that doing well in school creates opportunities—that showing up, doing the work, and meeting teachers’ expectations will prepare them for their futures. Unfortunately, that’s a myth.
That’s the subject of The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix It, a new research report we at TNTP, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending the injustice of educational inequality, published last month.
The Opportunity Myth unpacks a big question: Why are so many students graduating from high school ill-prepared for college and careers? Nationwide, 40 percent of college students take at least one remedial course. (That number is even higher for students of color: 66 percent of Black students and 53 percent of Latinx students, for example, end up in remedial courses.) Those courses add time and money to students’ higher education, and put them at greater risk of dropping out altogether.
We wanted to understand why that was happening, and what we—all of us who work in and around schools—could do to change it. We believed that a better understanding of what students experience in school every day would help us do that. So, we went straight to the source: students themselves.
We partnered with five school systems to observe nearly 1,000 lessons, analyze nearly 5,000 assignments and more than 20,000 student work samples, and collect nearly 30,000 student surveys conducted in real-time during their classes. We conducted focus groups and interviews with teachers and school leaders and interviewed more than 50 students in greater depth.
The young people in our sample reflect the richly diverse fabric of our public schools in every way. But they have a few things in common: The vast majority (94 percent overall) told us they intend to go to college. And among high schoolers, roughly 70 percent specifically aspire to careers that require at least a college degree.
Unfortunately, another thing they have in common is that most are not getting what they need to meet those goals. Across all five school systems, students were missing out on four key in-school resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers who hold high expectations.
Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject. And middle and high school students reported that their school experiences were engaging less than half the time. Underlying those weak experiences were low expectations: While more than 80 percent of teachers supported standards for college readiness in theory, less than half had the expectation that their students could reach that bar.
We also found that while daily school experiences were unacceptable for most students in our sample, they were notably worse for students of color, those from low-income families, English language learners, and students with mild to moderate disabilities. For example, classrooms that served predominantly students from higher-income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds.
But critically, we found that students from every demographic background had roughly the same success rates on grade-level work, when they were given the opportunity to try it. More than half met the bar for grade-level standards when their assignments asked them to. Moreover, when students had greater access to the four key resources, students from all groups—and especially those who started the school year academically behind—gained months of additional learning compared to students in classrooms with less access the key resources.
What this data tells us, indisputably, is that students’ success in school is not dependent on their abilities, their income background, or their race or ethnicity. The key variable is actually adults’ decisions.
As a parent or family member, you have the opportunity to be an invaluable partner in shaping your child’s school experiences. You have the right to know what’s happening in your child’s classroom and school, and to raise questions and concerns. To advocate for improvements in students’ school experiences like those discussed in The Opportunity Myth, visit our website to download a collection of tools and resources to support productive conversations with your child’s teachers, school leaders, and district leaders.
TNTP is a national nonprofit dedicated to ending the injustice of educational inequality. Learn more at tntp.org.