Let’s Stop Protecting Students From Challenging Work

Editor's note: This post originally appeared on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog, as part of their 2019 Wonkathon. Voting for the “wisest wonk” is open through November 19; you can vote for this piece (or any of the others in the competition) here.


A typical sixth-grade teacher we work with serves a wide range of students. She likely has some who read above grade level, some who are a little behind, a student who doesn’t speak English but has excellent reading and writing skills in another language, and several students—some of whom have diagnosed learning disabilities—who are reading at an early elementary level. Typically, she’ll follow her training and match the work she gives her students to their current academic level—in other words, give many students assignments that are significantly below what they ultimately need to be ready for the next grade.

It’s a strategy with undeniably good intentions and a certain logic, especially when most teachers are left to figure out strategies to support students on their own. But it practically guarantees these students won’t catch up and get back on track for college—a goal that, based on our research, almost all of them have. As their teachers repeat the same approach year after year, they’ll fall even farther behind, despite their big goals and their ability to do much more rigorous work.

It’s a pattern we saw again and again during our three-year study of student experience, The Opportunity Myth, and continue to see in thousands of classrooms across the country.  And it extends beyond just students who are struggling academically: Watered-down assignments are the norm for all students, regardless of ability. The average student spends more than 500 hours each school year on work that’s not grade-appropriate and won’t prepare them to reach their life goals. Urban, suburban, or rural; well-resourced or not; from elementary school through high school: The trend is the same.

The vast majority of those students are doing everything their schools ask of them. In our research, we found that students met the demands of their assignments 71 percent of the time, but met the demands of state standards on those same assignments just 17 percent of the time. That 54-point gap stems largely from assignments that don’t give kids a real chance to meet those standards—occasionally rote test prep, but much more often work that’s far below grade level (think middle school math classes doing third-grade level problems).

On the rare occasions when students get grade-level work, they usually succeed, regardless of their academic level. In fact, when students who started the year behind grade level had access to grade-appropriate assignments, they closed learning gaps with their peers by more than seven months. But because that’s the exception, far too many students will go on to graduate unprepared for the lives they want to lead—not because they couldn’t master more advanced material, but because they were never given a real chance to try.

Before tinkering with the academic bar for students who’ve fallen behind, schools and districts should back up and make sure they understand where they’re setting that bar to begin with. I’m not talking about lists of the standards they’ve signed on to or the textbooks they’ve purchased. Instead, I want to know about the actual assignments and instruction students receive, and the expectations the adults around them hold for their success. 

More specifically, what percentage of students’ assignments are grade-appropriate? How often do they feel truly engaged in their classes? How much of each lesson do they spend owning the intellectual lift—a key to mastering complex material? Few principals or superintendents could answer these questions with anything more than guesses because few school systems collect information about their students’ classroom-level experiences. That was the case when I worked in a district—meaning we were often left to use poor proxies for student experiences like what curriculum had been selected by the central office or what trainings teachers were attending.

Filling this blind spot would give schools a much stronger roadmap to strategies that help all their students, including students who’ve fallen behind. We’re currently working with several schools and districts to do just that by creating “opportunity scorecards” for their schools—snapshots of students’ access to four critical classroom-level resources our research has shown can help them make big academic gains:

  • Grade-appropriate assignments
  • Strong instruction that lets students do most of the thinking in the lesson
  • A sense of deep engagement in what they’re learning
  • Teachers who hold high expectations for all students and truly believe they can meet grade-level standards

Creating this snapshot of students’ experiences doesn’t require a big influx of new funding or other resources—just a commitment from school and district leaders to spend more time in classrooms focused on what students are learning and doing. We have a free guide on our website for anyone who needs help getting started.

After collecting this information, schools should share it with families and their community. Greater transparency about students’ experiences would help families better understand whether their kids are really on track to meet their life goals, and would focus educators and system leaders even more closely on making those goals a reality. In the longer run, states should consider incorporating data on these four resources into the annual school report cards required by federal law.

Documenting what’s happening in classrooms won’t magically close the big opportunity gaps we’ve seen in our research, especially among students from low-income families, students of color, those with disabilities, and those who are learning English. Ensuring that every student is ready for college by the time they finish twelfth grade requires long-term strategies to provide greater access to the four resources—better instructional materials, better training for teachers throughout their careers, and changes in beliefs about what students can accomplish. Promising strategies already exist for some grades and subjects, but we’re a long way from solutions that will help all students.

In the meantime, we can’t wait to improve on a situation where most schools have little idea how much time students spend on grade-level work—and where the answer for most students, including those who’ve fallen behind, is “not nearly enough.” Once more school systems take a closer look at what’s happening in their classrooms, they’ll see just how big the gap is between students’ aspirations and the opportunities they’re getting. And they’ll prioritize giving every student—even those who are behind or perceived to be behind—regular access to challenging, engaging, grade-appropriate work instead of “protecting” them from work that might be too difficult. Once that becomes the default, I believe the strategies about how to catch students up will come—because millions of educators will embrace that challenge every day and become more skilled at it with each passing lesson.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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