School & District Management

Gallup: Student Engagement Drops With Each Grade

By Ellen Wexler — January 14, 2013 2 min read
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With every year that passes between 5th and 12th grade, the number of students who are engaged in school declines steadily, according to the Gallup Student Poll, released last month.

A majority of elementary school students—almost eight in 10—qualify as engaged, the poll found. By middle school, however, that number drops to six in 10 students. And when students enter high school, it drops to four in 10.

The poll surveyed approximately 500,000 students from 37 states in over 1,700 public schools in 2012. Each year, as we’ve previously covered, Gallup measures students’ levels of engagement, hope, and well-being at any schools that opt to participate. According to Gallup, those three measures account for one-third of the variance in student success.

“The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure,” executive director of Gallup Education Brandon Busteed said in The Gallup Blog. “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.”

Actually, in a small number of high schools, that prospect is almost true. While the overall levels of high school engagement are still quite low, the best high schools Gallup surveyed had approximately seven in 10 students qualify as engaged—nearly as many students as the average elementary school. Gallup interviewed the principals of these high schools and asked what they had done to successfully engage their students. Sometimes, according to Busteed, Gallup would get responses like, “Our high school feels like an elementary school.”

And as for the rest of the middle and high schools? Busteed posits a few possible causes for the lack of student engagement, including “our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula [and] 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.”

In Iowa, for example, Des Moines Education Association president Andrew Rasmussen thinks that an emphasis on standardized testing doesn’t allow teachers to focus lessons on topics that students would find interesting or thought-provoking, according to the Des Moines Register. Rasmussen, who is also a middle school teacher, is unable to go into depth about topics like the Second Amendment and freedom of religion because teachers have to spend a six-week unit focusing on the Bill of Rights. “That leads to more disengagement,” he said. “It’s not as relevant to students.”

And when schools fail to effectively engage students, according to Busteed, another problem arises: Schools inadvertently stifle students with entrepreneurial potential. While 45 percent of students surveyed by Gallup say they plan to start their own business someday, only 5 percent have spent more than one hour in the last week working, interning, or exposed to real business.

“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,” Busteed said.

The 2013 Gallup Student Poll will take place between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1. Schools that wish to participate free of charge can find more information about the poll here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.