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Student Well-Being Opinion

Student ‘Compliance Does Not Equal Engagement’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 24, 2021 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series.)

Some research suggests that as students get older, their engagement with school tends to decrease. This four-part series will examine if this is accurate and, if so, how schools can combat this trend.

Today’s contributors are Janice Wyatt-Ross, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michelle Shory, Irina McGrath, and Matt Renwick. Janice was also a guest on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Posts & Articles on Student Engagement.

‘Darwin’s theory of survival’

Janice Wyatt-Ross has a bachelor’s in special education from the University of Central Arkansas, a master’s in special education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and a doctorate in urban educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati. She is now the program director for the Success Academy of the Fayette County public schools in Kentucky:

High school graduation.

For many students, that accomplishment is never achieved.

Dropping out of high school is a symptom of several layers of compounding problems. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, approximately 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year in the United States. That could easily be 7,000 students a day.

Of the students who drop out, an overwhelming majority are Black students, Hispanic students, and students with disabilities. Our nation’s infatuation with winning and being first is closely related to Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest situated in the realm of the education system.

Our students who are not the best or the brightest are viewed as liabilities who should fend for themselves and make it the best way they can. High-stakes testing, which compares schools, students, and services, has an unintended consequence of placing blame on the very students the system claims it wants to help educate. It is no wonder students lose their resolve to continue. Many of them are told year after year that they are failing to master the content and that they are substandard. If there is no internal or external motivation to continue, students must prioritize what they want out of life. For them, what they want is to make money. Money is like food; they either work to live or live to work.

To reduce this alarmingly high dropout rate, programs are being created across the country to address the issue of students leaving school before they earn a diploma. There is a need to prevent students from disengaging. What is specifically needed for students to remain in school and graduate? Again, I stress that school disengagement and dropping out are symptoms of layers and layers of emotional, economic, cognitive, and social issues. It is important for schools to create an atmosphere where students’ needs are addressed to remove those barriers.

Working in a dropout-prevention center has afforded me the opportunity to speak with students to get an understanding of what they need to graduate from high school. Students need to 1) see what the future can look like; 2) identify what they like to do, such as hobbies; 3) have an adult on campus that they trust and can reach out to when they have problems; 4) have someone who can help them identify a job to help with their immediate financial needs; 5) get assistance with creating job-related products and skills such as resume writing and interview skills; 6) have the opportunity to attend school on a part-time basis and complete coursework on a schedule the fits their lifestyle; and finally 7) have frequent communication between the school and their families.

Our program has developed what we feel are best practices for student re-engagement. We prioritize academics and how they relate to career development. During our interview process, students are informed that the goal of our program is to help them earn a diploma, connect with a job while in school, and help them identify a career for the future, whether that is a trade skill, college, or both.

Every staff member is designated as a coach who has several (5-7) mentees. Coaches have specific times each week to meet with students in a group or individually. To build in additional incentives to attend school, full-day attendance is not mandatory. Students earn flexible attendance based on the completion of credits and job-related employability skill tasks. Program expectations are extremely high for all students. Many aspects of the program are driven by student voice; however, there are program components that are non-negotiable such as no cellphones are allowed during the school day unless there are extenuating circumstances. This is good for cultivating communication skills. This simulates how students would communicate effectively with their immediate supervisors when personal issues must be resolved during the workday in the workplace.

In our program, students can work at their own pace and on their own schedule. They like the smaller class sizes and small student population. Another positive is the culture and climate. We take all their excuses away as to why they cannot accomplish a task. Students like the overall structure. Students have expressed what they like about the program. It is individualized, intervening, intensive, intentional, and immediate.


‘Two forms of engagement’

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the award-winning Meridian CUSD 223 in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

Engagement is a fascinating topic because it is almost universally accepted that we want and need more student engagement. What is nowhere near universally accepted is what student engagement looks like and thus, the issue persists. In almost every school/district I have worked in as an employee/speaker/consultant, there are several different operating definitions of student engagement. As a result, multiple people are working toward different ends creating frustration, exhaustion, and lack of progress.

My solution to this conundrum is twofold and relatively simple.

There are two forms of engagement, and we must discern between the two. First, there is student engagement in their educational experience. The most cited study about decreasing student engagement in schools was conducted by Gallup, and this study specifically measured a student’s connection to their school—not student engagement in the classroom or to a particular lesson.

The second is the engagement you find within an individual classroom. Teachers have always known this as a key element to their success, but attention on this skyrocketed with the teacher-evaluation revolution and hit its peak when Danielson called student engagement the heart of her framework.

At the school level, Gallup found two great indicators which we can influence to increase student engagement. Students who STRONGLY AGREE with the following statements are 30 times more likely to be engaged in school:

These two indicators provide a clear pathway forward, and together they could/should be an operating charge for school leaders and teachers alike.

In relation to student engagement within a classroom, there is, in my opinion, one exponentially more complex issue. The primary issue is that this is so nuanced and people want to ignore this issue and find a simple solution.

Let’s start here—both of these things are true:

  • Compliance (sitting quietly and following directions) does not equal engagement.
  • Sitting quietly does not equal disengagement.

The truth is that student engagement is not observable from the “movie lens.” This means that simply watching a class and student behavior does not allow for an accurate assessment of engagement—only discussion and product creation in concert with observation can do that.

So, instead of focusing on how we measure engagement, I think there are three (3) prerequisites to engagement that teachers can focus on to improve their practice and administrators can use to coach their people. (And, of course, because I am an educational speaker, I have attached an acronym to it.)

E – Expectations

  • You cannot have engagement without expectations. The expectation I am referring to is cognitive demand. To truly engage a student, they need to be thinking—deeply.
  • Quick self-check: Am I asking kids to think in upper-level Bloom’s or DOK with this lesson?

A – Attention

  • The greater the level of attention being given to a concept or stimuli, the greater the chance at engagement. The difficulty is that attention is not always silent, nor is it always collaborative.
  • Quick self-check: Are distractions limited enough (personal and environmental) for students to be able to think deeply?

T – Toughness

  • High expectations and high attention are the cornerstones to engagement, but kids must process/struggle through the work to have true engagement. If we do not allow them the space to cognitively struggle through concepts via active work, engagement is unlikely.
  • Quick self-check: Am I limiting my talk-time to allow students to struggle through and deeply process the content?

To me it boils down to this: Kids have the right to think deeply about important, relevant concepts every hour of every school day. If we consider this a student right, which I do, it will change our behaviors. IF we change our behaviors accordingly, engagement is sure to follow.


Relationships, relevance, & fun

Michelle Shory and Irina McGrath are Google Certified trainers and co-creators of ELL 2.0, a website that offers tools and resources for teachers of English-earners.

Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., works for the Kentucky department of education as an education recovery specialist. She is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and the University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast adjunct who teaches ESL/ENL instruction as well as assessment, literature, and cultural- and linguistic-iversity courses.

Michelle Shory, Ed.S., is a district ESL instructional coach in the Jefferson County public schools, Louisville, Ky. She is passionate about literacy and helped establish Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Louisville:

“Senioritis.” We’ve all heard the term. Google defines it as “a supposed affliction of students in their final year of high school or college, characterized by a decline in motivation or performance,” and it is based on the commonly held belief that when students begin school in kindergarten, engagement is at an all-time high, and each year this engagement decreases. A 2015 Gallup Poll featured in EdWeek found the following: 75 percent of 5th graders feel engaged, while only 32 percent of 11th graders report being engaged. In light of this, educators may want to consider the following three suggestions:

Relationships and Community

Begin with relationships. John Hattie’s meta-analysis of effective learning practices shows that student and teacher relationships have an effect size of .48. Since .4 equates to average growth, educators can easily see that relationships can move the needle. It’s common sense that students will work hard and interact with people they like and respect.

Child psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s work reminds us of the importance of community and the social aspects of learning. When one thinks about how students spend much more time in one classroom as elementary students and with a community of peers before they advance to high school where he or she might not have many classes with the same students, it is easy to understand how elementary experiences could lead to deeper social connections and therefore higher engagement. One exciting trend is a recent move toward learning academies or smaller schools within high schools. These small learning communities have career themes and foster connections between academic subjects and a specific career. They allow students to build relationships with peers who have similar interests, as well as teachers, potential employers, and community partners.


Another important factor contributing to student engagement is relevance. According to the nonprofit Youth Truth, only 46 percent of high school students believe that what they are learning is relevant.

Thinking about what is going on in the world and connecting it to other subjects like history and literature is a way to create instant relevance. 2020 has provided educators with numerous opportunities to do just that. For example, educators could consider linking COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu of 1918 or the Black Lives Matter movement to the civil rights of the 1960s. Relevance also comes from learning that resonates with learners as individuals. Therefore, it is important to continuously re-examine the curriculum to ensure materials reflect the lives of the students. This includes multicultural literature, different historical perspectives, and highlighting the work of accomplished scientists, mathematicians, and musicians from a variety of cultural backgrounds.


A final suggestion is to make the class interesting and fun. Yes, school can and should be fun. Educator and consultant Dave Burgess often asks the question, “Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets to?” His question is simple—and encourages educators to consider engagement, as well as the content.

One way to accomplish that is by allowing students to research, showcase, and present their “nonacademic” passions to the class. Students are still addressing the standards for research, writing, and speaking, and listening standards, but they are doing this work around a topic they are passionate about. What could be better? Student choices might include hair braiding, henna tattoos, dance, the benefits of sleep, and car repair.

Additionally, add flair to your classroom. Setting a theme, playing “intro” music for regular segments, and infusing humor into lessons is a great way to make your classroom more fun. An easy and powerful strategy is to always include suspense. When reading a dramatic book, consider stopping at the most crucial and exciting part of the chapter. Hearing kids groan and say, “You can’t stop there!” is a powerful motivation for them to come back tomorrow.

Engagement is an essential part of learning. When educators capitalize on building relationships, incorporating student interests into the curriculum, and making lessons fun, they promote student engagement and elicit a passionate commitment to learning.


Teaching students, not standards

Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wis.. He is also the author of Digital Portfolios in the Classroom (2017) and 5 Myths About Classroom Technology (2015), both through ASCD. You can read Matt’s most current writings at his blog:

As a student progresses through their education, they need to be provided more autonomy in what they are learning. The trend of decreasing engagement is likely due to the number of prescribed standards along with the aligned tests. Teachers feel obligated to teach the standards instead of teaching the students first.

We can combat this trend by getting creative with how we address standards and tests. First, we can create space within the curriculum for student questions and for voice and choice in what they can learn about and how they can show that they learned. Regarding student questioning, the Question Formulation Technique developed by Rothstein and Santana offers a process for teaching students to ask their own questions. Project-based learning and digital portfolios are two approaches for building in student autonomy for what to know and how to know it.

The standards become more supporting statements than the reason for teaching and learning. They can offer some helpful constraints when preparing curriculum, as well as specific descriptions of what to expect of students at a specific grade level. For example, the ELA anchor standards provide a list of indicators for quality writing in multiple genres. They could very easily become a standard for success in place of wordy and confusing rubric.

But no kid ever came to school wanting to master a standard. All learners want to change and renew, to become better versions of themselves. We can provide this by giving them some space within our classrooms, social and emotionally as well as physically and academically. We can teach them how to learn and how to present their ideas in the best light to develop healthy identities for eventual independence as adults. Are we offering this experience in our classrooms and schools? The answer will tell you what work we need to engage in to realize this vision.


Thanks to Janice, PJ, Michelle, Irina, and Matt for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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