What Can 4,000 Students Teach Us About School?

In January 2017, we met a young woman who was starting the second semester of her senior year, already waiting to hear back from colleges. Eventually, she wanted to become a neurologist.  

In her high school library, Hajima (not her real name) and her best friend—both of whom would be first-generation college students—told us about school. They liked most of their teachers and had friends and extracurriculars that kept them busy. But they also expressed deep concerns about their readiness for life after high school. 

“We want to be more prepared,” Hajima explained. “For me, I don't want to feel like I'm behind when I walk into a class on the first day of college. The teacher is not going to wait for me. They're just going to go on. I'm just going to be a small number in a class, and I don't want to feel like I'm behind or left out.” 

Hajima is one of the nearly 4,000 students whose perspectives are represented in the new study we’re releasing today, The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix ItThis research emerged from a nagging question: Why are so many students graduating from high school ill-prepared for college and career paths?  

Hajima’s worries are realized for far too many students—a fact reflected in college remediation data. 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. The choices we make at every level of the education system influence not only the daily experiences of students, but also those students’ outcomes. When we give some students more grade-appropriate content, more opportunities to engage deeply in their learning, more teachers with high expectations, we are choosing which students are more worthy of achieving their goals.  

In other words, the achievement gap isn’t an unavoidable problem our field is working heroically to solve. It’s a problem we created in the first place. 

That’s what we’re calling the opportunity myth. It’s the narrative we tell students and families about education in this country—that if students do what they’re asked in school, they’ll be ready to achieve their goals. It’s also the story we tell ourselves to soften the blow when that doesn’t prove true—that if young people aren’t prepared for success in college classrooms or on the job, it must be because they and their families did something wrong, or were victims of circumstances beyond any of our control. It simply isn’t true. In reality, far too many students are never given a fair chance at success to begin with. 

Now it’s time to commit to fixing that. Not in theory, but in real, practical ways, by making different choices in classrooms and schools and district offices, at the state level and in organizations like ours. This is what students like Hajima are asking us to do—so we need to do it. 

To be very clear, the “we” who need to solve this problem are not teachers alone. While this study focused at the classroom level, our findings and recommendations apply to all of us across the education system. Alongside the report, we’re offering concrete resources for the many individual teachers who are asking what they can do to better serve all their students. But first and foremost, our focus should be on fixing the policies and structures teachers must operate within—which in many ways inform and confine the choices they’re able to make for kids—before asking teachers to do more. One place to start, among many, is paying teachers a fair wage for the incredibly difficult work they do. 

None of these findings mean we’re turning away from the work we’ve been doing for years. If anything, they point us toward the root causes of the inequity we’ve been working to eliminate. We will continue to work toward improving how we recruit, prepare, develop, evaluate, pay, and retain teachers (and principals), because the antiquated systems still in place in most school systems make it more difficult for educators to provide all students with the experiences they need to reach their goals.  

Among education “reformers,” a focus on the quality of student experiences and the extent to which students and families feel their aspirations are being honored must be a new center of gravity for our work. It certainly is for us at TNTP. To all our partners in state and local education leadership, if you find yourself trying to fix the symptoms of inequity without addressing the root causes, we hope you’ll join us in stepping back, stepping up, and broadening your scope.  

After you’ve explored the report, you can download a personal action guide with next steps for folks at every level of the education system, from parents to state policymakers. As you work toward upending the opportunity myth, we hope you’ll tell us what you learn along the way. 

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.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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