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Monday, January 7, 2013

The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year

By Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education

Many Americans are relieved that government leaders in Washington avoided the fiscal cliff. However, there is another cliff to be aware of, one with implications that are far more frightening for the future of our country: the school cliff.

Gallup research strongly suggests that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become.

The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012. We found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students who participated in the poll are engaged with school. By middle school that falls to about six in 10 students. And by high school, only four in 10 students qualify as engaged. Our educational system sends students and our country’s future over the school cliff every year.

Student engagement with school and learning is a gold standard that every parent, teacher, and school strives to achieve. If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.

These results are from the fourth annual administration of the Gallup Student Poll. Schools opt to participate in the poll to measure the hope, engagement, and wellbeing of their students in grades five through 12. Gallup measures these three constructs because our research shows these metrics account for one-third of the variance of student success. Yet schools don’t measure these things. Hope, for example, is a better predictor of student success than SAT scores, ACT scores, or grade point average.

The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure. There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening -- ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students -- not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.

Imagine what our economy would look like today if nearly eight in 10 of our high school graduates were engaged -- just as they were in elementary school. Indeed, this is very possible; the best high schools in our dataset have as many as seven in 10 of their students engaged, akin to the engagement levels of our elementary schools. In fact, in qualitative interviews Gallup conducted with principals of these highly engaged high schools, we heard quotes such as, “Our high school feels like an elementary school,” when describing what they are doing differently.

What’s more, among the many types of students whose engagement wanes during their time in the educational system are those who have high entrepreneurial talent. These are literally our economic saviors -- the future job creators for America.

We not only fail to embrace entrepreneurial students in our schools, we actually neutralize them. Forty-five percent of our students in grades five through 12 say they plan to start their own business someday. That’s a ton of entrepreneurial energy in our schools. Yet a mere 5% have spent more than one hour in the last week working, interning, or exposed to a real business. That would be our economic stimulus package right there. With each year that these students progress in school, not engaging with their dreams and thus becoming less engaged overall, the more our hopes of long-term economic revival are dashed.

Many of us will worry about the federal debt ceiling and the U.S. economy over the coming months. But if we want to secure our country’s future, we need to save our kids from going over the school cliff.

Gallup Student Poll Methodology

The annual Gallup Student Poll is offered at no cost to public schools and districts in the United States. The online poll is completed by a convenience sample of schools and districts each fall. Schools participating in the annual Gallup Student Poll are not randomly selected and are neither charged nor given any incentives beyond receipt of school-specific data. Participation rates vary by school. The poll is conducted during a designated survey period and available during school hours Tuesday through Friday only. The Gallup Student Poll is administered to students in grades 5 through 12. The primary application of the Gallup Student Poll is as a measure of non-cognitive metrics that predicts student success in academic and other youth development settings.

Updated Jan. 7, 2013 with additional methodology information.


David Bley said...
January 7, 2013 at 9:06 AM  

Why are we so surprised that student's engagement with school drops as they are exposed to the system? That is the GOAL of the educational system. We are in the business of passing standardized tests not discovering a student's talents and strengths. As a result, we focus on a students weaknesses instead of their strengths. How many people can hang in there if they are consistently not winning?

orcmid said...
January 7, 2013 at 11:04 AM  

Before I get too excited about this, however credible it seems, I would like to know what counts as engagement and how it is measured in these surveys.

Gardner Campbell said...
January 7, 2013 at 12:16 PM  

Thank you for this fascinating and disturbing blog post. "Hope" and "wellbeing" I believe I understand. want to know more about how Gallup understands "engagement," as this seems the most complex of the qualities you discuss--and clearly, one we need to understand if we are to address the problem you've analyzed here.


Matt said...
January 7, 2013 at 3:27 PM  


Apparently engagement is measured by responses to the following 5 statements in the Gallup Student Poll Engagement Index:

I have a best friend at school.
I feel safe in this school.
My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.
At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
In the last seven days, I have received recognition

thelocketbymikeevans said...
January 10, 2013 at 8:32 PM  

Why are we so surprised that student's engagement with school drops as they are exposed to the system? Question reiterated.. @David Bley

Saving Schools said...
January 14, 2013 at 6:10 PM  

I wonder whether many students become less engaged because their school work becomes more and more difficult for them.

Recently, I have been exploring the idea that students should focus easy steps in learning. I use the EASY button from Staples as a reminder. You press the button and it says: "that was easy". See essay: For Students, Easy Does it.

Kyle Peck said...
January 15, 2013 at 9:32 AM  

Thanks, Matt. Good to know. Very disappointing. Is anyone from Gallup going to justify (or refute) the use of those items as a definition of "engagement?" I'm a professor of Education, and I believe I can say that that is not how others in the field would define it? Can you please expand the discussion of the methodology to discuss how the questions were selected methods used to validate the scale?

Anonymous said...
January 15, 2013 at 11:33 AM  

As a teacher, I find that the trends in demonizing teachers from the legislative and political arenas, coupled with the drive for standarized testing has promoted an increase in disengagement. Students find neither relevance nor hope for a future tortured by economic devastation and the feuding in politics for the eventual dismantling of public education.

Idna Corbett said...
January 23, 2013 at 5:38 AM  

The five items Matt listed seem to be associated with strength-based education in the schools. I would like to know how Gallup defines engagement. In higher education, the National Survey for Student Engagement is the usual measure for "engagement." I am curious about those non-cognitive metrics the students are asked about in the Gallup survey.

Heike Larson said...
February 15, 2013 at 12:14 PM  

I think the explanation is easy: for young children, learning is about the world, about figuring things out, and then applying what they learn. That's exciting, that satisfies a real human need. Unfortunately, in the higher grades, school becomes more about memorizing words disconnected from the world--and the motivation for learning becomes extrinsic (as there's nothing fun in reciting floating words.) But as the article says, it doesn't have to be that way: At our Montessori schools, we keep learning about the world. We motivate by curiosity, by story-telling, by giving autonomy and enabling children to achieve mastery. It's the opposite of today's standardized test obsession, but it works!

manyeyes said...
March 6, 2013 at 1:09 AM  

It's not clear what it is that is really being measured there, but here is an important picture: In our Dallas schools, Hispanic children often make up the majority of students on a given public school campus. These children come to school eager to learn, and their parents send them to school every day with the general understanding that they will be given a fair education. These children are often taught in dual-language and bilingual classrooms, then tested in Spanish on the TAKS, and now STAAR, up through the fifth grade. Bottom line: They learn just enough English to be bad at it, and not enough Spanish to be good at it. They come to middle school with albatrosses around their necks, and often chips on their shoulders, and a lack of confidence. Which is understandable when your own school set you up to read several years below grade level.

Anonymous said...
April 1, 2013 at 6:40 AM  

Convenience samples almost always give bad data and no conclusions should be drawn from them - this is the first rule of statistics. Why would Gallup do this unless they have an agenda?

Engagement by a student becomes more and more the responsibility of a student as they move through school. My experience is that many students will not take this responsibility.

Lee Anna Stirling said...
August 1, 2014 at 4:46 AM  

Students are engaged in learning - intrinsically motivated by what they are doing - when they are working to solve a challenge that is meaningful to them. The challenge might be something that is connected to their lives, for example the challenge of reducing pollution from waiting cars in front of their school, lowering the speeds of cars driving on the street in front of their school, creating a campus garden from which produce will be used in their cafeteria and for a local food pantry, planning orientations for new students, creating a classroom climate of kindness, helping their school reduce energy uses for environmental and economic concerns.

Alternatively, the challenge can be something for which their motivation has been peaked by hooks such as a talk from someone involved, reading a letter or a document, guided reflection on their related experiences, or seeing a related video. Some challenges for which students’ motivation has been peaked by a hook are helping a local business or non-profit with marketing by analyzing benefits of different social media; role playing various stakeholder groups debating the effects of cell phone’s radiation; role playing advising a new nation how to set up their democracy. Students’ engagement is strengthened when they will be presenting their conclusions and products to audiences that include people outside their classmates and teacher.

I found when my students participated in this kind of learning, even though it was for a limited amount of time, their absorption in learning continued when they were required to do other kinds of learning, such as skill work in language arts and math.

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