Opinion
Education Opinion

Why Students Become Disengaged

By Walt Gardner — January 28, 2013 2 min read

If we are serious about producing lifelong learners, affective outcomes warrant far more consideration than they are given in today’s reform movement. These outcomes, which David T. Conley calls “metacognitive learning skills,” constitute a higher form of thinking than we recognize (“Rethinking the Notion of ‘Noncognitive,’ " Education Week, Jan. 22).

One manifestation is student engagement. According to a Gallup poll, engagement diminishes steadily and dramatically each year that students stay in school. Specifically, 76 percent of students are engaged in elementary school. But the percentage drops to 44 percent by the time they reach high school (“ ‘Anybody? Anybody?’ What Ferris Bueller Got Right,” The Atlantic, Jan.).

What causes this paradox? Although the conversion of classrooms into test preparation factories is certainly one of the reasons, the drop off preceded the trend. I see the failure largely as the result of ignoring changes in students as they develop physically and psychologically. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, has said that the American high school is obsolete (“Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood,” The New York Times, May 17, 1999). He correctly noted that young people mature much earlier than they did when the high school was invented. They are exposed to information and images via the Internet that make so much of what is taught in school seem irrelevant. It’s little wonder that they’re bored.

But when teachers try to design lessons more in line with the needs and interests of their students, they often find themselves stymied by district policies that prevent them from doing so. I’ve written before about what happens when censorship is imposed by principals. Their efforts to shield students from the realities of life almost always backfire, leaving students even more disengaged than before. I’m not saying that boring teachers don’t exist. They do. They can take the most exciting material and make it humdrum. What they do amounts to reverse alchemy. But they constitute a small percentage of teachers. Most teachers want to make their classes inviting. It’s just that their hands are tied. Let’s not forget that the courts have ruled that teachers are first and foremost employees who must follow the curriculum.

Frustrated by the constraints, some teachers are switching to charter schools, which are free from most of the rules and regulations affecting traditional schools. It will be interesting to see if a future Gallup poll finds greater student engagement in charter schools. If so, it could provide compelling evidence for far-reaching changes in traditional schools.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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