TRINITY — First-year teachers Kevin Knibbs and Kaitlyn Geddes huddled over their laptops at a recent training session, thinking about ways to make the science of plants more interesting to students.
Two ideas: Let the kids create their own local garden, and give them room to make mistakes along the way.
“They are taking over their own learning,” Geddes said, adding that students should have “voice and choice” in the classroom.
It was exactly the kind of thinking the teaching coaches were trying to instill during a seminar before the school year started earlier this month in Pasco County. For students to do better, they said, classes will need to be more engaging and rigorous.
“Let’s face it,” trainer Anita Alexander told educators gathered for the seminar. “As teachers, we’re really good at providing the ‘what.’ But what we often fail to do for students is give the compelling ‘why.’”
Overcoming that and other shortcomings will be a rallying point this year in Pasco, where educators are being asked to tackle the “opportunity myth.” Other districts, including Pinellas County, are picking up on the concept as well.
The term comes from a recent report by the national nonprofit TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project, which looked at five diverse school systems around the country and concluded that educators waste hundreds of hours a year on lessons that are below where students should be for their grade.
While the vast majority of students were making A’s and B’s and passing most of their tests, the report said, they were mastering material for their grade level only 17 percent of the time.
Students were doing their part, with big aspirations and a desire to do the work they were given, the report said. But the notion that success will naturally follow is a myth, it concluded.
The cause might be poorly selected materials by a district, a lack of proper teacher training, low expectations, or other factors.
The upshot: Teens leave school unprepared for the world of college or career, the report found.
It cited an eighth-grade English class where students were asked to fill in missing vowels on a vocabulary worksheet, and an AP physics class where the period was spent making a vocabulary poster. A high school junior fretted that her physics class wasn't preparing her for college because nothing much happened after the first 20 minutes.
Once students get to college, the report said, 40 percent must spend time and money taking at least one remedial class covering material they should have learned in high school. The percentages were far higher for African-American and Hispanic students.
The recommended cure is to help teachers offer interesting lessons that meet or exceed grade-level standards, and to hold the expectation that all students can accomplish those challenging learning goals.
No more watering down. No more excuses.
“We’re finding not all kids are as successful as they should be,” said Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning, who has embraced the approach so much that he had the TNTP report sent to all newly hired teachers during their training week.
“We need to raise the awareness about grade-level assignments, engagement, high expectations,” he said. “It’s just great, solid teaching practices.”
Other area districts have joined the conversation.
Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego gave the paper to his leadership team last fall. Strategic planning director Jennifer Dull said the ideas aligned nicely with the district’s stated goal of “equity with excellence for all.”
Already, she said, Pinellas had embedded ideas from the “opportunity myth” into programs such as its Bridging the Gap initiative. Ensuring that lessons match a student’s grade has long been a “mantra” in many departments, Dull said.
“I don’t think you can argue against grade-level instruction, strong instruction, high expectations and deep engagement,” she said.
But Pinellas hasn’t jumped in with both feet, as Pasco has done.
Hillsborough schools, too, have taken on some of the issues identified in the TNTP report, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.
While they have the concepts in mind, though, district leaders have not specifically based their work on the “opportunity myth,” Arja added.
In Pasco, by contrast, the move toward its fervent adoption of the philosophy has been long in coming.
Leaders from TNTP spent three months in the county back in 2014-15, assessing whether classroom teachers were providing lessons that met state standards. In many instances, the group said, Pasco teachers had materials that did not adhere to the expectations, and the district did a poor job of identifying who needed help.
“Pasco is actually way out in front, in terms of talking about what we say is the opportunity myth,” said Joe Hettler, a Pinellas County-based vice president for TNTP.
“We had done some work in terms of looking at what was happening in Pasco and some other places. We saw some trends. It was a precursor to the opportunity myth, he said.
So when Browning and his team saw the actual report in late 2018, it came as no surprise. The findings made sense to the superintendent, who has become a leading voice for the cause, even taking to social media to challenge his teaching staff to act.
“What are we doing as the Pasco District to ensure that our students are getting grade level assignments; having high expectations? The Opportunity Myth is real,” Browning wrote on Facebook over the summer. “Let’s dispel the myth in Pasco!”
Several employees responded positively.
Of course, the work has encountered its share of naysayers.
Noted national education blogger Peter Greene, for one, suggested the report falls back on the same message that the education “reform” movement has long relied upon — public schools are failing.
“This is the oldest routine in the reformster playbook — lean heavily on explaining just how bad the problem is. Lay out the problem in gut-wrenching detail. Make sure to define the problem in terms that fit your proposed solution,” Greene wrote shortly after the report was published.
“But while you have research and data and details about the problem, the part where you insist on your solution remains unsupported by anything except your assertions.”
A researcher associated with the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder also raised questions about some of the TNTP findings, suggesting they were not borne out by the evidence.
Even if the problem is real, researcher Amanda Datnow wrote, the proposed solutions don’t address all the complexities of schooling.
”It is essential to consider a host of other conditions in and outside schools,” she wrote.
Hettler said TNTP expected such criticisms. But he suggested the situation at hand demands attention, even as experts debate the finer points.
“We are focused on figuring out what students are experiencing,” he said. “For the most part, students are doing what is asked of them. … So, why is there that disconnect? And, are we supporting teachers enough?”
Pasco superintendent Browning said he’s convinced enough to have his principals work with teachers to make sure they’re providing meaningful and challenging lessons. He’s also looking to ensure the district is offering materials and training for teachers who need it.
“I do not know that it is not being done. I am confident it is being done in a number of classrooms in Pasco County,” he said. “I just want to heighten the awareness of it.”
After their recent training session, Knibbs and Geddes, who are launching their careers as third-grade teachers in Pasco, sounded enthusiastic about the approach and how it would benefit their students.
“The more you get students engaged, it reflects you have high standards,” Knibbs said. “It’s hard to get people involved if you expect the bare minimum.”
All children are capable of meeting the mark, Geddes added, but sometimes it just takes someone to believe in them.
“Then they can say, ‘This teacher was my champion,’” she said. “We’re coming in with new ideas to help students be more successful.”