Reflecting for A Successful School Year

Note: Tequilla was a speaker at Impact Florida’s 2019 Summit where she spoke about upending The Opportunity Myth.

Four years ago, TNTP partnered with five school districts to try to answer this essential question: How can so many students graduate from high school and yet not be ready to meet their goals for college and careers?”

Graduating from high school is a big deal – we celebrate it with grand ceremonies, yard signs, and barbecues. How could students NOT be successful after 12+ years of school preparing for their future?

To understand the problem more deeply, we looked at nearly 1,000 lessons, 5,000 assignments, 20,000 student work samples, and 30,000 student surveys. We found that, for the most part, our students have big lofty goals and are doing exactly what they’re being asked to do in school. So then, what was it? What was keeping kids with big dreams who had done what we’d asked them to do from being successful post-graduation?

Ultimately, what we found was that students weren’t getting access to four key resources:

  1. Grade-appropriate assignments
  2. Strong instruction
  3. Deep engagement
  4. Teachers who hold high expectations

More concerning, but perhaps not surprising, is that particular students – those of color, those living in poverty, English language learners, and students with disabilities – have even less access to these resources than their peers.

In other words, when students graduate unprepared for the lives they want to lead, it’s usually not because they couldn’t do the work that would’ve prepared them—it’s because they never had a real chance to try. We talk a lot about the achievement gap in education, but I believe this opportunity gap is the most urgent challenge facing our schools today.

Certainly, this truth is a hard one to swallow, especially for educators who are passionate about and committed to improving outcomes for our kids.

But here’s the good news, if I can paraphrase a favorite quote from Maya Angelou: “When we know more, we can do better.” It’s within the collective power of everyone who works in and supports school systems to provide these crucial resources to students more consistently and equitably.

For example, when 8th graders are consistently doing work better suited for 5th graders, that’s the result of choices made by adults at many different levels of the education system. We could get very different results if we make different choices. Indeed, we found that giving students greater access to these four resources improves achievement — particularly for students who start the school year behind. And it’s worth noting that the four resources we identified are directly related to Impact Florida’s Five Conditions, in that the Five Conditions focus on what leaders of systems and schools should be focused on providing to educators, and these resources are focused on what teachers control when they lead their classrooms.

So, as you plan for a successful school year, one that supports students to be successful after your class, I’d ask you to reflect on how you are giving students access to these resources.

Do you offer students consistent opportunities to work on grade-appropriate assignments?

  • How do you determine whether the assignments you put in front of students are “grade-appropriate”?
  • How often do they get access to these grade-level assignments?
  • Do your underserved student populations get equitable access to these assignments?
  • Do you let students grapple with the rigor of those assignments? Do you scaffold the students up or dumb the rigor down?

Do students benefit from strong instruction that requires them to do the deep thinking?

  • Are students doing the work of the lesson?
  • Are you allowing students to grapple with grade-level content during the lesson? (Note that students need access to grade-level content AND grade-appropriate assignments.)
  • Who is doing the thinking about that grade-level content?

Are students engaged, cognitively and emotionally, in the lesson?

  • Are students enjoying what they’re doing, interested in it, and concentrating deeply on it?
  • Do your students understand how the content you teach is relevant now and in their future?
  • How do you know?

Do you have high expectations for your students’ success?

  • What does the content you put in front of your students and the instructional practices you employ say to students about your expectations of them?
  • How do the grades your students receive correspond with their performance on your state’s standards-based assessment of their achievement? What does that say about your expectations of them?
  • Again, do you “scaffold-up” or “dumb-down” – and what does this say about your expectations?

If you provide these four key resources this school year, your students will be much more likely to succeed — and so will you.

Tequilla Brownie is Executive Vice President and co-leads TNTP’s Client Team and partnerships with school systems, with a focus on building a thriving team and positioning TNTP for impact. She oversees TNTP’s research and evaluation efforts and chairs its  Diversity Leadership Council.

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