New Research Follows 4,000 Students, Finds Most Are Missing Key In-School Resources

NEW YORK, New York—At an event today featuring students and education leaders from across the country, TNTP, a national nonprofit organization, released a new study of student experiences in school. According to the study of almost 4,000 students and about 260 teachers, students aren’t getting the access they need to crucial academic resources that improve student outcomes.

Though students in the study succeeded on more than two-thirds of the assignments they were given, they only demonstrated success against grade-level standards 17 percent of the time on those same assignments. This gap exists because so few of those assignments actually gave students the chance to complete grade-level work. The study found that students spend most of their time in school without access to four key resources—grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations—but that getting more access to these resources means students do better in school, especially if they start the school year behind.

The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix It is an in-depth study of five diverse school systems where TNTP followed almost 4,000 students for a school year, including collecting 30,000 in-the-moment student surveys using a technology that prompted students to answer a few questions at random times during or immediately after class. TNTP also surveyed nearly 260 teachers, conducted focus groups with teachers and administrators, observed nearly a thousand full-length lessons at all grade levels, and reviewed almost 5,000 assignments and more than 20,000 individual student work samples.

“The hard reality is that what adults have been telling kids—that doing well in school will prepare them for their futures—just isn’t true,” said TNTP’s CEO, Daniel Weisberg. “The choices we’re making at every level of the education system are engineering the reality that most students aren’t ready to reach the big goals they set for their lives. And we’re making choices that give white, higher-income students more opportunities than other students. We’re looking at the root of the achievement gap here, and it’s a gap we’ve created.”

The report reveals five major findings:

  • Students have big, clear plans for themselves. Ninety-four percent of students surveyed aspire to attend college, and 70 percent of high schoolers have career goals that require at least a college degree.
  • Most students do what they’re asked in school—but still aren’t prepared to meet their goals for after graduation. Students spent nearly 90 percent of their class time working on activities related to class. They met the demands of their assignments 71 percent of the time, and more than half brought home As and Bs. Yet students only demonstrated mastery of grade-level standards on their assignments 17 percent of the time. This gap exists because so few assignments actually gave students a chance to complete grade-level work.
  • Students spend most of their time in school without access to four key 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 these 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.
  • Students of color, those from low-income families, English language learners, and students with mild to moderate disabilities have even less access to these resources than their peers. 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. Even among all students who started the school year academically above average, students from low-income families spent about 30 percent less time on grade-appropriate assignments, compared to students from higher-income families.
  • Greater access to the four resources can and does improve student achievement—particularly for students who start the school year behind. When students did have the chance to work on content that was appropriate for their grade, they usually rose to the occasion. Those chances paid off: In classrooms where students had greater access to grade-appropriate assignments, they gained nearly two months of additional learning compared to their peers. Classrooms with higher levels of engagement gained about two-and-a-half months of learning. In classrooms where teachers held higher expectations, students gained more than four months. The relationships between the resources and student outcomes were even stronger in classrooms where students started the year off behind. When students who started the year behind grade level had access to stronger instruction, for example, they closed gaps with their peers by six months; in classrooms with more grade-appropriate assignments, those gaps closed by more than seven months.

The report recommends adults in the education system commit to making different choices now to give students more challenging, engaging school experiences and start making concrete changes to improve their daily experiences. An online hub on TNTP’s website offers action guides by role: students, parents and families, teachers, school leaders, district leaders, and state policymakers, as well as a toolkit of resources.

The Opportunity Myth is available at

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