The Opportunity Myth

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I attend monthly meetings with the other 40 or so principals.  The professional development at these meetings is always something that gives me insights into how to support my staff and students.

However, last week may have been the most impactful session for me.  We read an article called “The Opportunity Myth,” produced by TNTP, an organization that supports districts and conducts studies on how to deliver high-quality education, especially focusing on students of color.

The findings presented in the study were astounding: the researchers observed 4000 students and over 20,000 pieces of student work in 5 large, diverse school districts.  While the vast majority of students in classes were on-task, doing what was asked, and earning As and B’s, only 17% of the work was on grade-level.  The students weren’t being presented with rigorous tasks that would prepare them for college.

A few other findings: white students were almost four times as likely as students of color to receive grade-level assignments.

When I went back to my school and observed a class, I saw it with totally new eyes: the students were, indeed, doing what the teacher was asking.  To the teacher’s credit, the atmosphere was caring, sweet– students who are sometimes behavioral challenges were cooperating in this class.  And a lot of the work was practical and high quality: the topic was interesting and had some interesting writing tasks.

But– not enough.  I saw that in the 45 minutes I was there, the students were not working hard enough.  Work was getting done, but it wasn’t stretching our students, making them think or grapple with new skills.  Work was happening but there were definite moments of “downtime” or going through the motions.

The teacher was highly receptive to seeing how much her class needed to be more rigorous.  Putting the class into the context of how students were being prepared to be graduates, the teacher saw how she could push her students further.  I wasn’t surprised: I’m lucky to have teachers who can hear feedback and who are willing to see their classrooms through another lens and make changes.  However, I can also see that the shift to higher expectations will have to be clear and guided for teachers so we have a common definition of rigor.

In New York State, we have the Regents exams, which are rigorous exams in math, science, history, and English that the students have to pass in order to graduate.  I know some principals who want to eliminate the Regents, but I don’t: the Regents keep us honest.  A kid could earn a 90 in a class but fail the Regents.  And in that case, can we say they really learned?  While the Regents are not necessarily a college benchmark, and passing them doesn’t guarantee college-readiness, they are still a clear measure, and passing them means something.

“The Opportunity Myth” defined a new possibility for my students and for our school.   I see classrooms differently now, which is a good thing.  And just by seeing something differently, quantum shifts are possible.

Photo credit: Destructive Compliments, Creative Commons License