We’ve been talking about the achievement gap for an awfully long time. We’re all familiar with the term; it’s the disparity in academic achievement between different groups of students. We tend to hear about in relation to white students and students of color, but it can also be used to describe the difference between low-income students and their more advantaged peers.
This past summer, a colleague introduced me to the term opportunity gap. Certainly, a similar concept, but the wording shifts the focus away from students’ achievement to students’ opportunities to access high quality learning experiences. In other words, it takes the onus of responsibility off of students and their families, looking instead at the broader educational and societal factors that contribute to this disparity.
In the fall, TNTP, a nonprofit focused on helping public schools improve educational outcomes for students released a new report, "THE OPPORTUNITY MYTH: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix It." The report details findings from a year-long study conducted in five diverse school districts across the United States.
The research team wanted to learn more about the daily experience of students in school. They conducted almost 1,000 classroom observations in K-12 classrooms, reviewed close to 5,000 student assignments, analyzed over 20,000 work samples, and collected 30,000 “in the moment” student surveys to learn about students’ views about school. I highly recommend reading the report, but if you’re pressed for time, here are some key findings:
I was still thinking about the concept of an opportunity myth when the New York Times published an article titled, "You are Still Black: Charlottesville’s Racial Divide Hinders Students." Racial tensions in Charlottesville have been center stage since the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in August of 2017. This story added an important perspective - one that illustrates the findings of the TNTP study and brought real faces to the issue.
This article profiles Trinity and Zyahna, seniors at Charlottesville High School. Both are African-American. Trinity exemplifies the student who was short changed throughout her educational career, while Zyahna represents a student who received opportunities that allowed her to make the most of her education. What made the difference for these two young people who have been friends since they were six years old? In short, zoning. Trinity attended a predominantly black elementary school, while Zyahna attended a mostly white, high performing elementary school. Zyahna received gifted services in elementary school, which prepared her to take advanced placement and college level courses in high school. In contrast, Trinity did not receive gifted services and was denied access to higher-level course work, including a course required for college admission. Trinity will likely start her post-secondary education at a community college completing a course she should have taken in high school, while Zyahna is looking to attend an elite university.
The authors of the TNTP study admit that they do not know what it will take for schools to bridge the gap between what they are asked to learn in school and what they need to learn in school. At Teachstone, we know that one of the ways the opportunity gap manifests itself is in the inequitable distribution of effective teacher-student interactions. This knowledge reinvigorates us in our work with school districts and organizations across the country that are working to close this gap. Effective teachers who have high expectations for students and provide them with rigorous and challenging instruction are a part of the solution. Our students deserve no less.
We’ve written before about the discipline disparities between children of color and their white peers. (Since that post was published last year, the Department of Education has released updated - but not improved - statistics on the topic.) But discipline is not the only school arena where children from different backgrounds have different experiences. There’s also evidence that racial bias affects teachers’ academic and behavioral expectations, even in early childhood.
The statistics around exclusionary discipline practices, like suspension or expulsion, are grim. Kids who get kicked out, especially repeatedly, are often already behind academically, become less engaged in school, and are monumentally more likely to drop out of high school. And while exclusionary discipline affects all students, it’s essential to keep in mind that children of color are suspended and expelled at rates disproportionate to their white peers.
One of my biggest takeaways from the childcare calculator we talked about recently was how much it would cost to increase early childhood educators’ wages. It wasn’t shocking—if you’re looking to get some laughs, ask any teacher you know if they’re in education to make big money—but it was a disappointing reminder of just how little we pay those who are shaping our future. The recently-released 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index gives us some specifics around compensation in early childhood education and care.
All across the world, researchers and educators are working on ways to help students learn. Some are small tweaks or classroom “lifehacks.” Some are big, expensive programs with huge ambitions. Some (like CLASS!) are paradigms about learning. When something works, you want it to be accessible to other practitioners. The problem is, many of the programs that are most effective also take a lot of time, money, or resources.