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The Great American Opportunity Myth

15 Feb 2019 by Sarah Hadden

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:

  • Students have high aspirations. The majority of students wanted to pursue higher education.
  • Students worked hard and earned good grades, but were unprepared for higher education because their assignments regularly did not require them to master grade-level material. This was particularly true for students of color, English Language Learners, low-income students, and students with disabilities.
  • Classrooms that primarily enrolled students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade level work than other students.
  • Instruction frequently failed to challenge students or ask them to use their higher order thinking skills.
  • When they were asked to complete grade-level work, all students, regardless of background, were often successful.

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.