How to close education’s ‘opportunity gap’

Gap exists because some students do too much work that’s way below grade level
By: | Issue: January, 2020
December 10, 2019

If we ever hope to break cycles of generational poverty by ending the achievement gap in U.S. education, we must first close the opportunity gap that some students still face, says Tequilla Brownie, executive vice president with nonprofit consulting firm The New Teacher Project (TNTP).

“Some students simply aren’t given an opportunity to engage in the type of rigorous academic work that will prepare them for lifelong success,” says Brownie, who works with educators and communities nationwide to solve the issue.

In identifying the major factors behind what TNTP calls “the opportunity myth,” the organization’s research also sheds light on strategies educators can use to ensure that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds bridge the opportunity gap and reach their full potential.

Brownie is a former educator in Tennessee’s Memphis City Schools (now merged into Shelby County Schools), and has spoken at DA’s Chief Academic Officer Summits.

What are some of the root causes of the opportunity gap?

First, it’s when students are not given access to grade-appropriate assignments. Yes, some students are behind grade level, but we’ve found that some are never given a chance to do grade-level work.

Our research shows that when given a chance to do grade-level work, students succeed at a greater rate than what people might have expected.

More from DA: How not to get distracted by educational fads

The second is strong instruction; it’s whether students or teachers are doing the cognitive lifting. Imagine being in a classroom where the teacher asks a question and before the students can grapple with it, the teacher writes the answer on the board.

It sounds like the opportunity gap results from some educators having lower expectations.

When we ask teachers if they believe in college-ready standards, the majority say “yes.” But there’s a disconnect. Teachers don’t expect students to be able to do the work.

When we survey students, the majority—over 70%—have a career path in mind. They have goals, and they know they need education beyond high school. They know there’s a path for them, but schools are not leaning into that.

Is it fair to say that some students are disproportionately affected by the opportunity gap?

We have to acknowledge, as a country, which students are getting access to grade-appropriate assignments.

Too often, not enough students are, and overwhelmingly that number comprises students of color, students from low-income families, students who have mild to moderate learning disabilities, and English language learners—irrespective of their previous performance.

More from DA: How whole-child education powers a healthy society

This is on all of us—every adult in the chain. We need to be making different choices with the time and resources that we have.

So how do district leaders start to close the opportunity gap?

You need to know, with evidence, that your teachers are giving students grade-appropriate work. The way to verify that is not just walking into a classroom for a five-minute observation. You have to look at the work and the assignments students are being given.

And it’s not all about funding, right?

When we talk about the achievement gap, it’s as if there’s something wrong with black and brown students and students in poverty. That’s not the case.

This is as much about educators making a conscious decision to upend the opportunity myth. We can upend it by making different decisions with the time and resources that we have now.

That’s not to say we don’t need additional funding, but we would actually begin to see a shift if we started making different choices right now.

More from DA: Guiding education’s air traffic controllers

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.