I Lived—and Transcended—the Opportunity Myth

| The 74 Million | Conor Williams

One December, when I was in high school, my best friend and I decided to fill our study breaks by filming a movie. He had a digital camera, an old Pontiac Fiero, and a sort of surrealist sense of humor. I had none of these things, but I was earnest, which made me a passable straight man — the production’s Bud Abbott.

As I remember it, we had nothing resembling a plot — most of the footage consisted of us bumbling around the rich part of the county and loudly complaining about the rich people in it.

Back then, I defined myself against their privilege. Decades later, I still do. I was proud to attend the public schools in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Most of the campuses are diverse, integrated microcosms of America’s beautiful pluralism.

And yet, our winter side project was also about envy. It was also about a bitter recognition at this community’s advantages. I knew kids there from my participation in countywide gifted and talented programs. I knew how different their schools were from mine. I heard about the International Baccalaureate program and their myriad well-funded school clubs.

That sort of envious pride can salve bitterness, albeit temporarily. But it’s not constructive. It doesn’t build things. It can’t solve problems.

There were plenty to solve. When I look back to those days, as proud as I am of my public K-12 education, my emblematic memory — the big, shaping narrative arc — is of just waiting. Seemingly forever. For it to be over. There were sharper pains — the elementary school teacher who hit the special needs student, the regular violence at the high school, the teacher flirting with girls in their Halloween costumes — but mostly it was just a long, steady drain.

What are American schools for? They’re about building a workforce, about developing a democratic citizenry, and about fostering human flourishing. All of these definitions touch on a central, obvious theme: U.S. public schools are about opportunity.

Of course they are. That’s public schools’ central role in a democracy. Schools teach kids how to live and succeed in our country. They send a simple message: Do well here, and you’re set up to do well as an American adult.

But what if that message is a lie? What if, to borrow the title of TNTP’s recent report, this central educational message is U.S. schools’ “The Opportunity Myth?”

It’s bracing reading — especially if you’ve built your career around expanding educational opportunity in the United States:

…..“Millions of students across the country are working hard to get through school,” the authors write, “only to find themselves ill-prepared to live the lives they hope for. They’re planning their futures on the belief that doing well in school creates opportunities — that showing up, doing the work, and meeting their teachers’ expectations will prepare them for what’s next. They believe that for good reason. We’ve been telling them so. Unfortunately, it’s a myth.”…..

Myths are two-sided. First, they need a bard to write them, to sing them out. “The Opportunity Myth” swells out of our national obsession with bootstraps — do this thing, kid, pass these tests, and you can make something of yourself.

But, second, real myths are also plausible enough to strum an audience’s heartstrings. They need to be believed to count. Do kids think that plugging through at school is worth it, or are they disengaging?

U.S. schools aren’t designed to know the answers to these sorts of questions. They’re not built with students’ voices in mind. Our transparency and accountability systems are intended to figure out where systems aren’t performing, not how students feel about them. Fortunately, “The Opportunity Myth” gives us a window into how students pass their days in school and what they’re expecting to come out of them.

My K-12 frustrations were relatively low stakes. I was good at school from start to finish. College was a baseline expectation in my family — and I’d been working side jobs to save for it since I started delivering papers in fourth grade. While Bowdoin College’s academic expectations came as a painful shock, I had a range of resources I could marshal.

“The Opportunity Myth” calls out “four key resources” that determine whether or not kids’ school opportunities are real — or myths:

1. Grade-Appropriate Assignments

2. Strong Instruction

3. Deep Engagement

4. Teachers Who Hold High Expectations

Starting in early elementary school, I’d enrolled in more or less every high-rigor academic track my town’s schools had to offer (including some dual-enrolled coursework at the local university). I wasn’t wholly ready for high-octane college work on day one, but my core academic skills were in good shape. I spent my K-12 years doing the most difficult academic work I could get access to. The teachers in those AP, honors, and gifted and talented classrooms were usually the best ones my school district had to offer.

Was my public schooling perfect? No. But as a white kid reliably tracked into rigorous, high-quality classrooms, I was relatively steeped in those key resources. Unsurprisingly, as anxious and frustrated as I was at the time, it only took a few months for me to find my academic footing.

Fully 94 percent of the students surveyed for “The Opportunity Myth” “said college was part of their plan.” Unfortunately, TNTP found that far fewer were getting access to the preparation that they needed.

I started to consider joining Teach For America late in my junior year of college. To prepare, I picked up a (third) campus job through the federal America Reads and Counts program, working mostly as a literacy tutor for elementary school students near campus a few afternoons each week. Whenever I was back home, I also made a point of reaching out to great teachers from my K-12 career — to observe their classes and get advice.

It helped. I learned tricks of the trade from each of them. But one of my favorites — an award-winning teacher with decades of classroom experience — had an outside-the-classroom tip for me.

“It’s gotten much harder now,” this teacher said. “The crack-baby generation is starting to show up in high school, and you can just tell. They can’t focus. They can’t learn as quickly as the other kids.”

This person was a hero of my adolescent years and a legend at our school. This teacher cajoled, even yanked, my best work out of me over and over again. They changed my life in all the sappy ways that anchor graduation speeches and retirement parties.

What could they possibly be thinking?

Scarier: If this is what the cream of the teaching crop — someone with a long track record of professional success, a true master of the craft — thought, what might other teachers think?

It didn’t take long for me to find out. When I joined the nation’s teaching force, I immediately began hearing echoes. “Worst of all, there’s this one kid in my class who absolutely has fetal alcohol syndrome,” one teacher told me. Countless teachers, myself included, bemoaned the ways that our students’ families let them down. We lowered our expectations for our kids. We found — or invented — excuses. But we were really excusing ourselves.

One of the gifted and talented tracks I was in required a computer science course for high school freshmen. Some of it was pretty standard: We learned to type, we messed around with Microsoft Word’s mail merge functions, etc. But we also spent huge chunks of time on bizarre research projects. We spent weeks (maybe months?) on an extended, self-guided research project about penguins. I didn’t understand the purpose back then. I still don’t. But I did understand how to switch my screen to playing Bolo whenever our teacher snuck out of class to smoke.

TNTP found that this sort of make-work is rampant in U.S. schools. While students generally succeeded in their academic assignments, they demonstrated grade-level mastery just 17 percent of the time. That is, U.S. kids are passing random penguin units in their computer science classes with flying colors, but those sorts of assignments aren’t actually appropriately rigorous.

For a white kid with accumulated academic advantages, a high school semester lost to online tank warfare spells some extra heartburn during his first year of college. For students without that cushion of privilege, this is where the vaunted meritocratic promises of the American Dream shift toward “The Opportunity Myth.”

Sure, my public K-12 education was integrated at the campus level. But over and over again, I leveled up into more segregated — whiter and wealthier — academic tracks where I got a chance to build on my existing academic strength. I wasn’t so much a student in an integrated school as an on-campus bystander to integration.

TNTP reviewed 5,000 assignments and 20,000 examples across five school systems, and found that around 40 percent of classrooms with mostly students of color never got a rigorous grade-level academic assignment. Not one. Notably, however, TNTP found that when students in classrooms with mostly children of color did get these tougher assignments, they performed about as well as students in mostly white classrooms.

Students who were behind at the beginning of the school year particularly benefited from the key resources. Those who got regular access to tough assignments or higher classroom expectations showed more than seven months more academic growth than kids who were behind and weren’t getting similarly challenged.

It turns out, if you get in there under the hood, the achievement gap rests on a feedback loop. Students of color get less access to high-quality educational resources, which contributes to academic gaps, which compound as school tracking systems further amplify the gaps in access to those high-quality educational resources.

Kids who are academically ahead get better opportunities and get further ahead, which unlocks more educational opportunities. Low-income students face similar inequities. TNTP found that “classrooms with primarily higher-income students tended to receive 2.1x MORE grade-appropriate assignments” than classrooms with primarily low-income students.

In other words, U.S. public education absolutely delivers opportunity. It’s just that it only reliably delivers it to some kids. When guys like me do well at school, we build a profile of skills and knowledge that really does set us up to do well in the rest of our lives. That is, “Across all districts, classrooms with stronger academic offerings had higher proportions of white students and those from higher-income backgrounds.”

For kids outside these tracks of privilege, however, the U.S. public education system is often a myth-perpetuation machine. It limits their access to the nuts and bolts of educational opportunity, and then — critically — it lies to them. It sends them messages that they’re on track for success after K-12 when they really aren’t: “Across all districts, white students who earned Bs were nearly as likely to have mastered [academic] standards as students of color who earned As.”

Though they haven’t always articulated it in these terms, education reformers have spent much of the past two decades floating various policy nudges to shift how the report’s four key resources are allocated in U.S. schools. They pushed various federal mandates and state-driven experiments to set and raise academic standards across the country.

These were — are — a central piece of the policy infrastructure that makes it possible to even discuss “grade-appropriate assignments” or “teachers who hold high expectations.” They built recognizable benchmarks into our public education system that made it easier to build a coherent K-12 academic experience.

Of course, it wasn’t — isn’t — enough to set those standardizable benchmarks. Reformers also pushed for assessments to measure student performance against them. That’s what makes it possible to track whether students’ assignment grades meaningfully correlate with grade-level academic work.

The trouble, of course, has always been what to do with all this measuring and transparency. Reformers have tried applying accountability pressures: Perhaps schools that don’t close gaps and raise achievement should be overhauled or closed themselves. Perhaps they should get additional funding to coach staff. Perhaps they should face some other blend of consequences.

The challenge of “The Opportunity Myth” is reasonably clear: All of this measurement and pressure has made it somewhat easier to see the problem — but it hasn’t actually equalized what matters in public schools.

So, tomorrow a bunch of kids are going to wake up, shuffle out of their homes and into their schools, and sit down. They’re going to get a wide range of educational experiences, and those are likely going to reflect their family’s bank accounts, their skin color, and the size and location of their homes. Some will participate in engaging, challenging lessons that drive them up the ladder toward the American Dream.

The rest will face long hours of weak instruction, patronizingly low academic expectations, and misaligned assignments that they can’t wait to escape to pursue their own life dreams. Trouble is, by the time their K-12 years are over, they’ll likely find that they’ve been lied to — that they’re waiting on a myth.

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.

Learn More About TNTP