By Sachi Takahashi-Rial

I was in Year 2 of my teaching credential program when I worked in a 4th grade classroom. The class followed the same pattern every day: students read an assigned story quietly to themselves, answered comprehension questions with a partner, then answered multiple-choice questions. Every. Single. Day. As an adult in the room, I had to admit that I felt disengaged. And the 9-year olds didn’t have any reason to feel differently.

Imagine if schools prioritized student engagement at the same level that they prioritize test scores:

  • Teachers would be excited to come to work every day. They got into this line of work because they enjoy building relationships with students and nurturing their innate curiosity. No one ever said, “I want to be a teacher because I love watching kids fill in the correct answer on a multiple choice exam.” When students are engaged in the work they’re doing, teachers are more likely to enjoy teaching.
  • Students would come to school more often. Truancy and attendance issues would decrease, because students enjoy coming to school. They would see how their learning is relevant, how it connects to their lives outside of school and their hopes and dreams for their futures. They would have the chance to collaborate with their peers and solve real world problems. Kids want to be at school for that.
  • Behavior issues would decrease too. Students mess around in class when they get bored. Kids act out when they’re made to feel like they’re not good at school. When people enjoy the task put in front of them, they don’t get off-task.
  • Families get their needs met. Parents want their children to be successful in life. And life isn’t a fill-in-the-bubble test. Their children need to know how to communicate, how to make tough decisions, and how to lead. Not just children of wealthy families; all children.

The first step to prioritizing student engagement is to measure it.

What gets measured gets managed. Without a measure of student engagement, you can’t track progress to see what’s working and what’s not. Student surveys are the first step to measuring student engagement. They’re valid and reliable indicators, they’re inexpensive, and you can hear from every student. If you want to start prioritizing engagement in schools, the first step is to hear from young people.

The organization I work for, YouthTruth, aims to help education leaders quantify engagement by asking students directly about their experiences in school. We analyzed survey data from over 230,000 students in grades 3 through 12, collected between the fall of 2012 and spring of 2017, to more deeply understand students’ feelings of engagement in school. Here’s what we found:

  • Most students feel engaged. 78% of elementary, 59% of middle, and 60% of high school students report feeling engaged. YouthTruth defines engagement as a combination of taking pride in one’s schoolwork, experiencing relevant lessons, and enjoying coming to school.
  • Most students take pride in their school work.This is encouraging – most students are proud of the work they produce in school (68% of middle school and 72% of high school students). In the words of one high schooler, “Everything I do in school helps me become a better person. The activities and projects I do in school are things I can be really proud of. I always want to talk about the amazing things my school does to my family and friends, and how much hope it gives me for my future.”
  • Yet, less than half of secondary students feel that what they’re learning in class helps them outside of school. Only 48% of 6th – 12th graders feel that what they are learning in class helps them outside of school. And high schoolers report even less relevant instruction than their counterparts in middle school. This disconnect isn’t new, but it is concerning– it’s hundreds of thousands of students across the country asking: “When will I ever use this in real life?”
  • Only 1 in 2 secondary students enjoy coming to school most of the time. About half (52%) of 6th – 12th graders say they enjoy coming to school most of the time. Which applies directly to the recent national conversation about chronic absenteeism and its focus under many states ESSA plans. Students who are chronically absent – those who miss at least 15 days of school or more in a year – may be missing school for a variety of reasons over which educators have little control, including poverty, health challenges, community violence, and difficult family circumstances. But education leaders have more control over the school environment, and compelling instruction.

Taking the next step: prioritizing and increasing engagement

Across the country, there are classrooms that inspire a love of learning, and there are classrooms that threaten it. The difference between an engaging lesson and a tedious one can’t be measured by the results of a standardized test, but it can be measured by a survey. If you want to start prioritizing engagement in schools, the first step is to hear from young people.

For more, see:

Sachi Takahashi-Rial is the Manager of Partnerships at YouthTruth, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, CA. To get more tips on how to use student feedback, follow YouthTruth on Twitter at @Youth_Truth


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