Are Schools Challenging Our Students?
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Note, however, that these data do not measure the quality of the work that students are performing in class—and the quality of the work can make a big difference in how much students learn. Students might be reading just a few, very rigorous pages every day, for instance. But given overall low reading scores—and the degree to which more reading promotes more learning—we believe these results should be cause for alarm.
Students don’t have access to key science and technology learning opportunities. For today’s students, being prepared for college and the modern workforce means having access to high-quality curriculum materials in critical subject areas like math and science. But our analysis found that most teenagers say their schools don’t provide important learning opportunities in science and technology. For instance, 72 percent of eighth-grade science students say they are not taught about engineering and technology.
Too many students don’t understand their teacher’s questions and report that they are not learning during class. Nationwide, less than two-thirds of middle school math students report that they feel like they are always or almost always learning in math class. Similarly, just under 50 percent of 12th-grade math students said they feel like they are always or almost always learning in their math class.
Students also often report difficulty understanding their teacher’s questions. Twenty-five percent of middle school math students report that they sometimes or hardly ever understand what their teacher asks. Thirty-six percent of12th-graders report they sometimes or hardly ever clearly understand what their math teacher asks.
Students from disadvantaged background are less likely to have access to more rigorous learning opportunities. All students, regardless of their family background, should have access to a high-quality education. But our analysis of student feedback found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have the same access to robust learning opportunities. Consider, for instance, that 74 percent of higher- income fourth-grade students report that they often or always understand what their science teacher is saying, compared with just 56 percent of lower-income fourth-grade students. Among middle school students, 80 percent of higher-income middle-school students report often or always understanding what teachers ask in math class. In contrast, just 70 percent of low-income students report often or always understanding their math teacher. Meanwhile, 66 percent of higher-income 12th-graders reported they often or always understand what their math teacher is saying, compared with 60 percent of low-income students.
There are also racial gaps in some areas. For instance, in the fourth-grade 73 percent of white students and 72 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students said that they clearly understand what their science teacher talks about. In contrast, only 56 percent of black; 54 percent of Hispanic; and 58 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students say they do. In middle school, 83 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students and 79 percent of white eighth-grade students report that they clearly understand what their math teacher is saying. But only 67 percent of black students; 70 percent of Hispanic students; 69 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students report understanding their teacher.
To be clear, there were not opportunity gaps in every area that we looked at. We examined disaggregated data for all of the relevant background questions and we reported the results only for questions in which there were significant gaps.
Our analysis leads us to the following recommendations:
- Policymakers must continue to push for higher, more challenging standards. To ensure that all students are ready for the global economy, we need to expect more of our students and schools they attend. The Common Core standards are one way to help states and districts make progress on this issue, but far more needs to be done.
- Students need more rigorous learning opportunities, and our nation needs to figure out ways to provide all students with the education that they deserve. Too many students report not being engaged in class. They don’t understand what their teachers are teaching them and they feel like they are not learning. Our nation can—and should—do more.
- Researchers and educators should continue to develop student surveys. We hope this report launches additional research into the use of student surveys. Researchers such as Ronald Ferguson, senior lecturer in education and public policy and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, have made significant advances which we describe below. But we need to know much more about these tools, and what they reveal about the student experience.
Over the past few years, many states have engaged in promising reforms that address the issues we raise in this report. But our findings suggest we need to do far more to improve the learning experience for all students. We hope that the interactive state-by-state maps available on our website—together with the findings and recommendations in the following pages—will inspire engagement with students’ perspectives in the search to find new and better ways to provide students with the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed.