By Lesley Muldoon, Chief of Policy & Advocacy at CenterPoint

Promoting equity and opportunity for all American children through public education is a national imperative – and has been, in name if not in deed – since the passage of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.  However, we know from decades of research and results from the Nation’s Report Card that there is a persistent and pernicious nationwide gap achievement between low-income students and students of color compared to their more affluent and white peers. On average, these historically underserved populations of students have lower achievement scores, have lower high school graduation rates, and enroll in and complete college at lower rates than their peers.

Tackling this obstinate problem requires multi-faceted solutions.  In a recent blog post (, Meredith B.L. Anderson and Zakyia Goins-McCants from UNCF share strategies schools can employ to foster and support a college-going culture – and to make progress in closing the gap in college attainment for students of color.  Their strategies encompass a range of in-school factors critical for student success, including high-quality curriculum and course offerings, as well as investments in school counselors, school culture, and the use of data to provide ongoing feedback.

This is hard work, though. Two new research studies shed light on the challenges schools are still facing in providing equitable opportunities for all children, as well as strategies to support educators as they take steps to help every child enjoy a high-quality education.

First, a new report from TNTP is a prime illustration of how inequitable access to quality education impacts students.  In The Opportunity Myth, researchers partnered with 5 diverse school districts to observe classroom instruction, review thousands of student work samples, and survey more than 30,000 students about their classroom experiences. Their findings illustrate a stark reality around inequitable access to rigorous learning experiences that prepare students for the academic requirements of college.  Specifically, TNTP found:

  • While more than 80 percent of teachers supported standards for college readiness in theory, less than half had the expectation that their students could reach that bar.
  • Classrooms that served predominantly students from higher-income backgrounds spent twice as much time on grade-appropriate assignments and five times as much time with strong instruction, compared to classrooms with predominantly students from low-income backgrounds.
  • Students in these 5 schools spent more than 500 hours per year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t push them to do grade-level work, resulting in the equivalent of six months of lost class time in each core subject.
  • These inequities translated into significant learning loss. In classrooms where students had greater access to grade-appropriate assignments, they gained nearly two months of additional learning compared to their peers. Classrooms with higher levels of engagement gained about two-and-a-half months of learning. In classrooms where teachers held higher expectations, students gained more than four months.
  • The relationships between the resources and student outcomes were even stronger in classrooms where students started the year off behind. When students who started the year behind grade level had access to stronger instruction, they closed gaps with their peers by six months; in classrooms with more grade-appropriate assignments, those gaps closed by more than seven months.

These are sobering realities, in line with findings from other research (see a good summary in this Education Week article).

In the work that CenterPoint does – working side-by-side with educators to develop high-quality curriculum, assessments, and classroom tools and building action plans to address strengths and gaps – we know how challenging it can be for educators to provide grade-level instruction to students of widely varying ability levels. That said, high-quality curriculum paired with ongoing professional learning that builds educators’ capacity can help. Education researchers are finding repeatedly that high-quality curriculum is one of the most important factors for successful student outcomes – a key to countering the inequity of different expectations for different children.

The success of using strong curriculum to counter inequity relies on the strength of its implementation:  when done well, teachers’ expectations for students will not be limited based on preconceived notions or labels; there will be high expectations for all, and scaffolding and enrichment are available to help every child achieve and even exceed that high bar.  The key is pairing strong curriculum with strong professional learning; the two can and should be symbiotic to advance teaching and learning.

The second new study, from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research Consortium, demonstrates this in action.  The researchers looked at the impact of high-quality professional development on a variety of student outcomes through the period when Chicago Public Schools implemented new, more rigorous academic standards.  Overall, the researchers found significant improvements in the rigor of instruction and in student outcomes in schools where teachers participated strong, ongoing professional development that was focused on high-quality math instruction (rather than more narrowly focusing on understanding the new standards) and that was coordinated across multiple years to build and strengthen teacher practice.

Since Chicago Public Schools first began offering this professional development, students’ instructional experiences in their math classes, as measured by survey reports, improved substantially in schools where teachers had extensive standards-related professional development.  For example, students in 6th through 8th grade in these schools reported significantly higher levels of academic demand, rigor, instructional clarity, and support compared to students in schools where teachers reported limited professional development.

This research underscores the importance of providing all students with the opportunity to master grade-level content.  Some high-leverage strategies may take time to implement well, but we have a moral imperative to start making changes today to create a more equitable playing field for every child.  As Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises recently said, “There are things we can do now. Expectations don’t cost anything.”