“The Opportunity Myth:” yes and no

Who contributed to this post:

A tweep I admire posted a link to attend a webinar about, “The Opportunity Myth,” a study that was recently released by TNTP.  The study examined 1,000 students and reported on their lack of preparation for going to college.  The report was personalized by including the stories of students who had dreams for higher education that went unfulfilled because they were unprepared for college.   They had been led to believe they were being prepared by their high school experiences when they were not. The study essentially blames teachers for the lack of student successes at college because, too often, teachers present content below grade level.  The recommendation was that all would be well if teachers taught at grade level. Fair enough, but the report had little to say about why teachers are often prevented from doing so.              Photo imagesleeping

In 2018, the State of Texas reported that 55.7% of students in the Class of 2016 were able to complete one year of post-secondary education without having to take a developmental (remedial) course. For those students who qualified as economically disadvantaged that number was 43.4%, and for English learners, the number dropped to 17.8%. Those numbers are sobering. These students, were not even prepared for the rigor at the initial stages of their college education.  In my award-winning district in Missouri, the numbers are similar.

Curriculum issues

Unlike many other countries, curriculum and standards in the US vary markedly. Not all stakeholders have the breadth of knowledge to build the same quality of resources, even when teachers are involved in the writing process. Teachers must teach to their standards, or their jobs can be at risk. If a school system has curriculum issues they must be corrected before teachers can be expected to teach grade-level content.  

Many school systems offer for a variety of academic tracks such as career certifications, public service enrollment, health and well-being. Those are good options, when students and their families are aware of the differences. But the limitations of different tracks are not always made explicit.

Non-Curriculum Issues

The TNTP report prompted me to reflect on a time when I felt unable to challenge a class of students at the level our content standards.  It was rough. I had similar expectations for that class of students (I will call Class Z) as I have had for a wide variety of math classes over the years, but Class Z students had far different expectations for themselves.  While my other classes of students have transitioned fairly well to my homework expectations, learning in teams with assigned roles, and asking questions; many of the students in Class Z could would have none of it.  When I talked about college-career readiness, Class Z students pushed back with how busy they were, that college was several years off, and that they just wanted a good grade for the class. 

I have taught at two colleges (as a TA and as an adjunct).  I have observed the low college math success rates that mirror Texas and my own district, so I am very passionate about moving my high school students toward learning habits that are needed to be successful. But I have to work with the students in front of me and build up from there.  For awhile, I decided to record direct instruction videos for students in Class Z who said that thinking through inquiry lessons was too much work. I noticed, though, that those students only wore headphones for about six minutes, and the videos were more like 12-15. When I later gave up and went to traditional direct-instruction lessons, I found myself moving around the room with my tablet, using proximity to keep the students looking at the Smartboard.  I was concerned about having to redirect so many so often as it felt like I was treating them like middle school students. I’m not that boring…trust me!

In any math class I teach, I have to convince students of the importance of checking their answers with those provided and correcting misunderstandings.  This is a big change in expectation for most of my students because they are accustomed to rehearsing errors and getting full credit through completion grading practices. I provide a variety of ways for them to get help on homework with anything they don’t understand or have forgotten. Some of the answers were not provided for Class Z, so I gave those students a few minutes each day to check answers with their teammates and ask questions (I don’t usually take homework questions from other classes).  Even so, many of the students in Class Z turned in their homework with incorrect answers or the answers copied from the answer keys without the work.  

Relationships are important, and I embed social-emotional learning in my student learning teams.  Loving my students intentionally and unconditionally builds relationships no matter what kind of students I have.  But even strong relationships were not enough to motivate Class Z to develop the kinds of learning practices they would need moving toward college or for any kind of work environment.

What happened with the TNTP students?

Were the students in the TNTP study deceived or did they tune out warnings?  We may never know. But I quoted statistics had a meeting with parents in the beginning of the year, and lay awake nights trying to figure out how to explain in a way they could wrap their minds around.  Many parents were very understanding and supportive. They got the big picture and were concerned about the motivational issues as well.   But some, like the students, just wanted their student to have a satisfactory grade. By the end of the year I had moved beyond spoon feeding to force feeding because there would undoubtedly be repercussions for failing a large number of students.  While I was able to pull most Class Z students to proficiency with key concepts, I was not able to teach them to reach out for learning as one would be in the habit of doing in order to be successful in college.

 High School and University Collaborations

The data is clear. There’s an issue. Thankfully, where there’s an issue there’s opportunity when passionate educators come together.   My hope is that TNTP would continue their studies in a way that might help pinpoint ways of energizing and elevating classes or entire schools like Class Z.  It isn’t uncommon for the different levels in education to point fingers up and down the supply chain. But what could we accomplish with a room filled with high school teachers and university instructors, who all want students to be prepared and succeed?  “A goal without a plan is just a wish*.” TNTP, please help us do something productive.   

*Antoine de Saint Exupery

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