A recent poll of nearly a million U.S. students concludes that schools need to work on building supports to keep students invested in their educations, especially as they advance in grade.
The survey, conducted by Gallup, found that only half of adolescents report feeling engaged in school, and a fifth are actively disengaged. About 10 percent of students are classified as both disengaged and discouraged.
Engagement levels also show a consistent decrease as students get older, bottoming out in 11th grade.
The survey’s findings are based on a convenience, or non-representative, sampling of more than 900,000 students in grades 5 through 12 that was conducted online last fall.
The Gallup Student Poll asked the participants two dozen questions about their level of success in school, then categorized the answers into four areas: engagement, hope, entrepreneurial skills, and financial literacy.
“A tenth of American students are really struggling,” Shane Lopez, a senior scientist at Gallup, said during a panel discussion on the survey at the organization’s headquarters here last week.
Student engagement decreases in nearly every progressive grade level, according to the 2015 Gallup Student Poll. The survey bases engagement measurements on questions about school environments and adult relationships, including perceptions of whether educators value students.
Grade 5: 75%
Grade 6: 67%
Grade 7: 55%
Grade 8: 45%
Grade 9: 41%
Grade 10: 33%
Grade 11: 32%
Grade 12: 34%
Source: Gallup Student Poll 2015
The report suggests that engagement drops as students age because older students feel less cared for by adults and see less value in their own work.
Lopez emphasized that students’ level of hope can also be a strong predictor of academic success, pointing to findings showing that students’ responses to questions on their expectations for the future corresponded to indicators of school achievement.
But even hopeful students worry about barriers to their goals.
“Where there’s a will there’s not always a way,” Lopez said.
The survey also asked students to assess their grades and attendance. The findings tracked with other studies showing correlations between absenteeism, engagement, and academic performance. The results have not yet been disaggregated, Lopez noted.
Panelists at the Gallup event explored a number of ideas to improve student engagement in schools.
Heidi Balter, principal of Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge, Md., said her school works to give students a vision of a successful future, with a focus on helping students of color. The school brings together a group of 5th grade black and Hispanic boys to meet with high school students every two weeks, as a form of mentorship. It also took that group on a field trip to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, so that students could better understand what aspiring to higher education means.
Boosting Parent Involvement
Panelists also highlighted the importance of improving parental engagement as a way of boosting students’ sense of connection to schools.
“Many of the parents want to help but they don’t know what to do, and we need to work a little closer with them to find that common ground,” said Harold Fitrer, the president and CEO of Communities in Schools of Richmond, which works to prevent dropouts and improve students’ attendance in Richmond, Va., schools.
Fitrer said that Richmond has found success in improving engagement through a variety of outreach programs for parents, including strategies that recognize parents’ limitations. Knowing that non-English-speaking parents might not be literate in their native languages, for example, the school invites parents to dinners where they can explain students’ work to them.
Other suggestions from the panelists included:
● Rotating the locations of PTA meetings, so parents who live farther away won’t feel excluded.
● Making sure undocumented parents, who might be reluctant about coming to school, feel included.
● Having students do presentations at PTA meetings.
Fitrer also urged administrators to acknowledge that the burden of student engagement and success should be on the entire community, not teachers alone.
Khalisa Jacobs, the senior director of communications and development at Break the Cycle, a national organization that fights domestic violence, said after the panel that she would like to see more focus on students’ problem-solving skills, which the Gallup survey highlighted as vital to hopefulness.
“There are a significant number of young people that just feel hopeless,” Jacobs said.
But lessons from the students who’ve persevered through challenges may offer a path forward for the less hopeful students, she added.
Coverage of learning mindsets and skills is supported in part by a grant from the Raikes Foundation, at www.raikesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2016 edition of Education Week as Survey: Student Engagement Drops by Grade Level