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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How to Bridge the Generational Hope Divide

Shane J. Lopez, Gallup Senior Scientist

Almost all fifth- through 12th-graders -- 95% -- say it is likely they will have a better life than their parents. However, in a separate Gallup poll, half of U.S. adults aged 18 and older say they doubt today's youth will have a better life than their parents.

This hope divide might limit the support that adults are willing to give children to help them reach their full potential. Undoubtedly, some adults will be tempted to explain to children that there are economic and political circumstances in the world that children can’t understand -- ones that make their future look less rosy. Adults might even point out that many children are fantasizing about a future that is out of their reach. These cautions are grounded in some wisdom, but they also might be associated with the pessimism adults have about our own future, our personal vulnerabilities, or our profound inability to predict the future.

To bridge the hope divide we have to do three things.

First, we must help children come up with a positive, unvarnished assessment about what the future holds. Children are great at visualizing what they want to happen next in their lives. If we foreclose on their future -- setting expectations for youth lower than they have set for themselves -- we could permanently dash their hopes of having the two things most of them want: a good job and a happy family. These conversations have to incorporate their thoughts about the future, not just our ideas about what they need to do to have a better life. David Vinson, superintendent of the Wylie Independent School District outside of Dallas, told me that, as adults, “We spend a ton of time talking with kids about college but very little time about their future.” Maybe if we help them paint a compelling picture, the future will pull them forward.

Second, we need to introduce our children to people who are willing to invest in them. Good parents, great teachers, and inspirational mentors cast their lot with children. Their insistence on setting the bar high for all children is what makes them so different from the hope killers masquerading as caring adults who insist on children being “more realistic.” I asked Suzanne Hince, executive director of TeamMates, one of the nation’s largest in-school mentoring programs, what she looks for in a hopeful adult mentor. “I’m looking for a person who is excited about the future and sees talent where others miss it or misunderstand it.” Find someone who meets those two criteria and create an excuse for your child to spend time with them.

And third, we need to teach our children how to pursue their big goals. Our Gallup Student Poll has taught us that American students are high on will but short on ways. They know what they want and they are confident they can achieve it, but they haven’t a clue where to start and what to do over time. A straightforward hope-mapping exercise can help them figure out how to get from Point A, where they are now, to Point B, where they want to be. Over time, they will learn a simple hope strategy called Plan B’ing, which boils down to having a back-up plan at all times.

Parents and adult mentors can also encourage children to discover and apply their unique talents to help them achieve their future goals.

None of us wants to bet against our kids. We want to make sure our young people have the opportunities to get ahead and realize their version of the American Dream. So some of us, more than half, have to bridge the great hope divide by talking to children about their future plans, jointly outlining the steps needed to get there, and then supporting children like their futures depend on it.

Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., a Gallup Senior Scientist, is the world’s leading authority on the psychology of hope. His forthcoming book Making Hope Happen will be released March 2013.

To get more advice to help students succeed, visit the Gallup Education Knowledge Center.


Friday, January 25, 2013

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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.

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