Turning the Opportunity Myth Into True Opportunity

Last winter, we brought together a group of 30 educators from across the Commonwealth to talk about the findings of The Opportunity Myth, a report published last year by TNTP. (Read more about that event.

The Opportunity Myth is hardly a light read: It forced us to take a hard look at how many students are not getting what they need and deserve in our classrooms. The teachers who met in February found that the research findings spoke to them in some respects more than others. But together they were driven to make positive changes for their students by reaching outside their own school communities and learning alongside colleagues in other schools, districts, and even sectors. Here’s what they talked about:

Raising the rigor of assignments requires more time and opportunity dedicated to this and deeper teacher collaboration. The word “overwhelming” came up repeatedly when teachers talked about the challenge of presenting their students with consistently grade-appropriate assignments. Teachers spoke of spending hours adapting their mandated curricula and figuring out the right questions to ask to make it sufficiently challenging. As one teacher said, “My interpretation of the standards might not be where it needs to be yet. What is it we’re aiming for in real, concrete, ‘show me’ terms?” Above all, teachers agreed that they didn’t see a deep, shared understanding of the standards among their colleagues. Learning walks could be a powerful tool to share ideas, as well as more time dedicated to collaborative planning—but many teachers felt that their current shared planning time wasn’t being used productively. This time shouldn’t be focused on logistics, but rather on strengthening a common understanding of the standards, aligning content both vertically and horizontally with colleagues across grade-level and subject teams, and building a more collaborative teacher culture. There’s a ton of potential in collaborative planning, the teachers agreed—but that potential isn’t yet being met in most of their schools. 

Struggle is important—but how, when, and how much? Teachers agreed that “productive struggle” was important, and wanted to use collaborative planning time to address this more concretely: They suggested spending time discussing what productive struggle looks like and how to plan for it and support students through it. There was also an appetite for test driving techniques for stepping back and giving students more control. Many teachers felt this would help them get more comfortable taking their hands off the wheel a little bit in their classrooms.

For true engagement, students need to see themselves in the materials—and they need to see the world beyond their classrooms and communities. Students know best when a lesson is engaging, the teaches agreed—but it takes courage and confidence to ask them (and then to use their feedback productively). Teachers who taught using scripted curricula found consistent engagement even more challenging, since their students naturally gravitated toward some lessons more than others and they didn’t have much control, if any, over the presentation of content. But the teachers felt strongly that if they’re bored teaching content, their students would also be bored, so they were eager to consider ways to “mix it up” in their classrooms, from asking one or two provocative questions instead of twenty mundane ones to leveraging small stuff (like who’s on the classroom walls and what kinds of current events are discussed) to make their classrooms more engaging learning spaces. Cultural relevance plays a role here: Teachers felt certain that students need to see themselves represented in the content in order to be deeply engaged, but they also felt that students need to have exposure to experiences that are different from their own. Engagement requires both representing students’ communities and cultures and pushing them beyond those places.

High expectations are essential, but it isn’t easy to change the narrative once students have been labeled. “What are we missing when we ‘dumb it down’ for students?” asked one teacher. “Why not give them all the same high level standard?” Teachers generally agreed that this was the right goal, but how exactly to do this—and how to convince colleagues (especially those who had been teaching remedial coursework for years) to do so—was a more complex question. It was challenging to raise the bar for all students while also meeting students’ individual needs, for example. And for many teachers, students, and families, labels like “high achiever” or “low achiever” were often deeply rooted and hard to shake, especially for older students. “We struggle with the teacher who says ‘my kids can’t do it,” said one teacher. As many pointed out, teachers don’t wake up every day thinking they have low expectations, but labels like “special ed” or “C student” all influence teachers’ expectations over time, and teachers need help recognizing the ways they may be communicating and reinforcing these identities in their classrooms. 

System-level change is required to truly shift expectations. Many teachers in the room felt that the entire A-F grading system needed to be overhauled, perhaps to focus on competencies, and to make grades more meaningful and less transactional. There was also enthusiasm for equity audits at the school and system levels, but teachers wanted to ensure that these would be productive in practice, not merely a box to tick. As part of this process, many teachers felt that there was a real need for deep conversation around how institutional racism, as well as individual biases, play out in schools and influence expectations and outcomes.

At the end of this full day, teachers were buzzing with ideas to take back to their schools and school systems. Even as the tables were being cleared, many stayed on, connecting with colleagues from other schools to plan ahead: They discussed how to work together to raise the cognitive demands they place on their students, and how collaborative planning time could be used more productively to address assignment and instructional quality; they considered pushing their districts to take on equity audits; they planned future opportunities to visit each other’s schools and learn from what’s working well. 

In the fall, teams of educators will come back together to take on some of these challenges over the course of a new school year, as part of a new Co-Lab. We’re excited to see where it all leads. Stay tuned for more details to come!

Maria Fenwick