Why “Getting Good Grades” is a False Promise For Success

A few years ago, I encountered an 8th-grade student who was reading on a first-grade level and thought, “How does this happen?” It didn’t take long for me to figure it out, and now there is plenty of data to back up what I had once only suspected.

Educators and parents alike continuously tell students that if they show up on time and do the work to meet the teacher’s expectations, they will be prepared and ready to enter college or the world of work. Unfortunately, “The Opportunity Myth,” a recent study by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), had discovered a disturbing trend when they began sorting through the data of the 30,000 students they were observing and surveying.

What’s the problem?

Despite the high enrollment in college, many students are unable to achieve success once there. Data show that 40 percent of all college students take at least one remedial course, and 60 percent of African-American and Hispanic college students take at least one remedial course. This is a huge problem considering that “first-time bachelor’s degree candidates who take a single remedial course are 74 percent more likely to drop out, many of these students are sinking dollars into degrees they’ll never see.”

This particular piece of data stood out to me as a low-income and first-generation college student who had to take TWO remedial courses in college, despite having received all A’s and B’s in high school. I, like so many others, believed I was ready for college, only to discover that I hadn’t been taught what was expected of me to perform successfully at the college level.

What do you think your students are capable of achieving?

The TNTP survey discovered that students were only given on-grade-level assignments 26% of the time, often because teachers did not believe the students were capable of performing successfully on grade-level assignments. For an individual outside of education, it seems improbable that this statistic could even be remotely true.

“Even though most students are meeting the demands of their assignments, they’re not prepared for college-level work because those assignments don’t often give them the chance to reach for that bar.”

Why would students not be given grade level work?

When a student comes to kindergarten already behind socially or academically, they will likely go into first-grade behind as well, which perpetuates the “gap” between student success. In first-grade, they will be given kindergarten work at their present level with the hope that soon they’ll catch up. However, that is often not the case; most students fall even farther behind. Throughout their entire academic experience, these students will be doing below-grade-level assignments.

Students spend roughly 35% on grade-level assignments.

Students were ostensibly successful.

Perhaps most disturbing, more than half of the students were earning A’s and B’s on the work they completed in high school, and yet those same students were only able to demonstrate mastery of grade-level standards 17 percent of the time. What does this mean for our students who hope to attend college? They won’t be prepared for the rigor of the college-level course work, which means that many will need to take remedial courses to “catch up” to their peers.

What do students need to succeed?

How is it possible to reverse these disturbing findings and ensure that every single one of our students has a real opportunity for success? TNPT found four resources that make the most significant impact on student growth.

The TNTP report finds that having these four components in place increase the likelihood of student success: high-level expectations, grade appropriate assignments, strong instruction, and deep engagement. Before you read further, which one of the four “fixes” do you think is the most critical aspect toward student success?

1. High-Level Expectations

What if it is possible to raise your test scores simply by raising your expectations of what a student is capable of achieving? Can it be that simple? Think back to your own experience and recall a time when someone believed that you were capable of doing something that you wouldn’t have dreamed possible for yourself.

This is not throwing your kids into the deep end of the pool and saying, “You can do this!” No. No. No. You want to work within the student’s zone of proximal development and help them reach for just beyond where they are comfortable. We aren’t expecting overnight miracles, but instead are shooting for long strides fueled by support and encouragement.

“The system doesn’t send teachers the message that their mindset matters nearly as much as the material they teach or the practices they employ in their classrooms. Yet teacher expectations had a stronger effect on student achievement growth than any other factor we studied.”

You have to have a relationship with your student to develop expectations of their abilities. Kids will work for people they like and for those they think like them in return. Our students need us to know them, to respect what they might be going through at home, and support them on their journey toward their goals.

2. Grade Appropriate Assignments

Instead of continually giving students work below their grade level, provide students the opportunity for them to take on more challenging work with appropriate scaffolds. Some basic examples: you might ask a specific student to do five of the problems required on grade level instead of all twenty problems or have them work with a buddy. Students must be given the chance to attempt the problems.

“When students who started the year behind had greater access to grade-appropriate assignments, they closed the outcomes gap with their peers by more than seven months.”

Students need exposure to the grade-level content, but they might need more time or someone nearby who could offer support when the instructor isn’t available. Teachers believe they are being kind by providing below grade level work, but the data show that that perpetuates the gap–especially for low-income students and students of color.

3. Strong Instruction

This is a tough one. There are so many fantastic teachers out in the world who work their behinds off, giving love, attention, effort, and strong instruction. However, others don’t have those skills and need more professional development on this topic.

“When students who started the year behind grade level had access to stronger instruction, they closed gaps with their peers by six months.”

Students need someone willing to come out from behind their desks and teach. In addition to knowing the content well, the instructor must have the necessary skills to teach the material. The Cult of Pedagogy is an incredible resource when it comes to developing strong instructional skills.

The TNPT data show that middle and high school students found their lessons engaging less than half of the time. Stronger instruction will yield higher engagement as will building connections with students and having high expectations.

4. Deep Engagement

What does “deep engagement” really mean? When a student is thinking deeply about the issue at hand, they aren’t just regurgitating other people’s ideas, but synthesizing and connecting the information to other areas within their lives. Setting up a lesson for deep engagement is a difficult task, but it a necessary for long-term recall.

“In many classrooms where the content had potential, students weren’t actually reaping the benefits because they were not doing the hard work themselves.”

Students need to do the thinking in the lesson and grapple with the content themselves because that is how they learn.

Each student, regardless of their background or skin color deserves the best opportunity possible for success. We need to know them beyond a name on an assignment. We must build relationships with our students, believe they are capable of meeting our expectations, and hone our own instructional skills to ensure that we are helping each student succeed.

Never tell a young person that something cannot be done. God may have been waiting centuries for someone ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.

–John Andrew Holmes

Credit for graphs goes to TNPT.