Applying “The Opportunity Myth” to Texas

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The Opportunity Myth, TNTP’s newest report, is a sobering read on the realities of classroom instruction in America’s schools. The report centers students and their daily classroom experience, exploring the lessons and assignments students receive, as well as the expectations of their teachers.


Recently, I was at brunch with a few teacher friends from the high school I used to work at. As is typical with a group of teachers, the conversation quickly turned to (okay, started with) school. It’s that time of year, the first six- or nine-week grading period is done, failure reports are run, and the pressure of the end of the semester and grades starts to mount.

One of my friends talked about a meeting she and her subject area team had with their supervising principal about their failure rate. She used an analogy that I keep coming back to, one of a tree firmly planted in the ground but with long branches that could extend in any direction. That, she said, was the goal for the year. As teachers, they would be firmly rooted in their grade-level expectations for every student. But they wouldn’t be successful unless they extended a branch to every kid, no matter where they were at, providing them support to reach those expectations.

The Opportunity Myth, TNTP’s newest report, is a sobering read on the realities of classroom instruction in America’s schools. The report centers on students and their daily classroom experience, exploring the lessons and assignments students receive, as well as the expectations of their teachers. And it finds that, far too often, our students aren’t receiving the rigor and quality of instruction and assignments that will drive their learning and close achievement gaps.

This myth – that if students pass through our classrooms and complete every assignment with a decent grade, they are prepared for what’s next – permeates classrooms across the country, most acutely in classrooms with higher populations of low-income and minority students.

[Students are] 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.

The Opportunity Myth

This deep dive into the classroom experience of students, from their assignments to the expectations of their teachers to the level of instruction they receive, comes at a critical moment for students across Texas. Our state has set an ambitious goal – by 2030, 60% of Texas’ 25-34-year-olds will have a certificate or degree. With almost two-thirds of new jobs created in the next few years requiring post-secondary completion, today’s students must reach and succeed in higher education at much higher rates if they are to thrive in the workforce.

Are our schools holding up their end of the deal?

Almost 90% of Texas students graduate, yet only 58% are college-ready in all subjects.

And when students enroll in post-secondary institutions, the majority need additional instruction before they can start taking classes that will lead to their degrees. 60% of students who enroll in community college need at least one remedial course.

All of this leads to post-secondary completion rates that lag behind the demands of our economy. Only 22% of Texas students who enter high school will complete a certificate or degree program within 6 years of graduating high school. That number drops to 13% for low-income students.

Why aren’t students prepared for success when they graduate high school?

The Opportunity Myth explores the daily classroom reality of students in our public education system. The report presents a set of stark findings, based on their review of classroom assignments, student work samples, real-time student surveys, and classroom lessons. The findings present a troubling picture of what our students experience, especially low-income students, students with a disability, students of color, and English language learners. These findings include:

  • 133 out of 180 classroom hours over the course of a year in core subjects were spent on assignments that were not grade appropriate,
  • School experiences were only engaging 55% of the time – and significantly less so in high school,
  • 4 out of 10 classrooms with a majority of students of color never received a single grade-level assignment, and
  • Less than half of teachers had the expectation that their students could reach the college and career readiness bar.

These differences are evident across lines of race and household income. Classrooms with majority white students received 1.5 times more grade-appropriate assignments and 3.6 times more grade-appropriate lessons. Higher-income students received 2.1 times more grade-appropriate assignments and 5.4 times more grade-appropriate lessons.

The “achievement gap,” then, isn’t inevitable. It’s baked into the system, resulting from the decisions adults make, consciously and unconsciously, about which students get what resources. It’s a gap of our own design.

The Opportunity Myth

Within this data were many positive outliers – teachers holding high expectations for all students and providing support for students to access and succeed on grade-appropriate assignments. There are clear strategies that can change this narrative for our students:

  1. Consistent opportunities to work on grade-appropriate assignments,
  2. Strong instruction, where students do most of the thinking in a lesson,
  3. Deep engagement in what they’re learning, and
  4. Teachers who hold high expectations for students and believe they can meet grade-level standards.

These four resources benefit all students. In classrooms where these characteristics were present, students had clear achievements gaps. The figure below illustrates the additional months of learning for students in the top quartile of classrooms demonstrating each of these four resources (when compared to the bottom quartile).

These gains are magnified for students who started substantially behind their peers.

The opportunity myth – a mistruth we tell students that showing up, working hard, and doing everything asked of them will prepare them to be successful in their next stage of life – is real. So too is the opportunity gap – the gap in access to grade-appropriate assignments and instruction between white and minority students, high-income and low-income students, native-speaking students and English language learners.

In many measures of achievement, from state assessments in grades three through eight to college readiness exams, students of color who receive the same letter grades in their classes underperform their white counterparts. On AP tests, white students who receive Ds or lower pass the test at the same rate as students of color who receive As.

What happens in the classroom matters more than anything in education. Understanding the reality of the opportunity myth and tackling it head-on with proven strategies is critical if Texas wants to provide its students with the skills they will need in tomorrow’s economy.

When I think back to the story my friend told at brunch, its application to this report seems clear. The biggest gains in achievement come for students in classrooms where teachers are firmly planted in their high expectations for all students. The branches of support, the grade-appropriate assignments, the strong instruction, the student engagement, help bring students to meet and exceed those expectations.

Over the next couple of weeks, teachers and students will explore each of the resources that can improve the classroom experience of students. They will dive deep into why deep student engagement, grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, and high expectations are critical to dispelling the opportunity myth. Through their words and experiences, we will explore what it each of these components of a high-quality school experience look like and how they can drive achievement gains for students.

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