Recruitment & Retention

Gallup: Student Success Linked to Positive Outlook

By Liana Loewus — August 28, 2012 3 min read
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Roughly half of today’s students are hopeful about their futures, while two-thirds are engaged in their learning and two-thirds have high well-being, according to Gallup, a polling organization. Those three positive traits are closely linked to student success and should be focal points for educators, the polling group says.

Gallup’s data about student “hope,” “engagement,” and “well-being,” based on polling of nearly 1 million students in grades 5-12 from 2009 to 2011, was the focus of a policy meeting convened by the group here this week.

Shane Lopez, a senior scientist at Gallup, told attendees that the finding on student hope is significant because, according to the organization’s meta-analysis of studies linking hope and achievement, hope accounts for about 13 percent of the variance in students’ academic success, defined by such markers as attendance, credits attempted and earned, and graduation. “That’s a significant chunk,” he said.

For purposes of the student survey, Mr. Lopez said, hope means students “believe the future will be better than the present, and that they have the power to make it so.” One surprising finding, he noted, was that hope has almost no correlation to family income, in contrast to findings on hope for the nation as a whole.

To measure engagement, Gallup asked students to rank their level of agreement about whether they feel safe, important, and acknowledged in their classrooms. While engagement levels were high in total, the data also indicate that engagement decreases significantly in middle school, Mr. Lopez said.

“When students walk out the door to elementary school, that’s where the slide starts,” he said. There’s an engagement uptick again in the 10th grade “because that’s when the most disengaged students drop out.”

Many adults are apt to blame hormonal and other life changes for the drop in student engagement at the middle level, but that is not how students tend to explain it, he added. Instead, students are more likely to say they are “not known, not valued, not recognized” at the secondary level like they were in elementary school. They also indicate that their school days are stripped of “play.” Suddenly, there are no more monkey bars or swing sets, Mr. Lopez said.

Based on findings from other surveys, Mr. Lopez said that teachers show less engagement than their students.

“There are some things you can do as a principal [to increase student engagement], but the number one thing you can do is make sure your teachers are engaged,” he said.

According to statistical modeling by Gallup, student engagement accounts for 10 percent of variances in achievement, including high-stakes test scores.

‘Joy Juice’

Buried in the Gallup presentation was a piece of related data from a 2009 study that seemingly contradicts the popular narrative about teachers being a discontented bunch: According to Gallup’s nightly poll of adults, teachers have the highest well-being of any occupational group in the country. The poll results indicate that five out of six teachers are “thriving,” said Mr. Lopez.

He speculated that teachers are disengaged in their day-to-day work, but fulfilled by the kind of work they’re doing to help children.

By contrast, about two-thirds of students have high well-being, which is defined as how people think about and experience their lives. To determine well-being, the survey asks whether students feel respected, laugh a lot, and are healthy and energetic.

Well-being accounts for approximately 8 percent of student achievement, based on what Mr. Lopez called the “least strategic analysis” of the group’s statistical modeling.

Mr. Lopez was careful to point out that hope, engagement, and well-being do not necessarily account for a total of 30 percent of the variance in student achievement, despite what the figures seem to suggest. “You have to look at how they work together,” he said. That said, the three indicators do account for a large portion and “deserve more of our attention,” he argued.

The major piece the three indicators have in common, Mr. Lopez said, is positive emotion. “You have to have a little bit of joy juice to do well in school,” he said.

The 2012 iteration of the Gallup Student Poll will be administered online this year starting in October. Schools can participate at no cost and receive a scorecard with data down to the grade-level and comparisons to other districts, states, and a national sample.

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Gallup Poll: Student Success Linked to Positive Outlook

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