School & District Management

States Have Role to Play in Fostering Student Engagement, Report Says

By Evie Blad — March 24, 2015 4 min read
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State education leaders should take a more active role in supporting and pushing schools to nurture student engagement, a critical driver of academic achievement.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the National Association of State Boards of Education, which the organization assembled after six months of consultation with experts and educators.

The report’s recommendations come at a time when teachers and schools are recognizing the importance that interpersonal relationships and non-cognitive factors play in supporting academic achievement, and increasingly changing their policies as a result. But the crucial role that state policymakers can play in supporting student-engagement efforts is sometimes overlooked, said Kristen Amundson, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“When we dug into it, we realized there were policy changes that state boards of education could make and not just say to teachers, ‘Hey, go out there and engage those kids,’ ” she said.

State education officials can respond to the report’s five recommendations by changing policies and by using their influence to encourage schools and state lawmakers to change practices, Ms. Amundson said.

Too often, states view engagement in terms of truancy and dropout rates, not recognizing that students can be present at school without being engaged, the report’s authors said.

“To put it another way, regardless of what other investments states may make in education, nearly half of their students will not be physically or mentally present to benefit from those investments if states fail to pay sufficient attention to student engagement,” says the report, released earlier this month.

More Than Attendance

It cites a 2013 Gallup Education poll of 600,000 students who ranged from 5th to 12th grades that concluded that 45 percent of students did not demonstrate signs of engagement at school. Gallup’s engagement indicators included questions like, “I have a best friend at school” and “At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”

While it may be easy to determine how schools and teachers can directly impact interpersonal relationships that contribute to strong student engagement, the path for states isn’t always as clear. State boards of education recommended that NASBE study the issue, and they had great interest in the results, Ms. Amundson said.

“The fact that individual interaction between students, their peers, and adults drive engagement does not negate policymakers’ responsibility to help build a system that makes these interactions more likely,” the report says.

It suggests state-level policies that can help support and give space for district-level behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement efforts. They can also boost accountability to ensure that schools are acknowledging nonacademic factors in their improvement efforts, it adds.

How school success is defined and measured is an “essential area of influence” for state policymakers and one of the key ways they can encourage schools to make student engagement a priority, the report says.

Practically, that means more carefully measuring and tracking factors like attendance and survey data about student perceptions of their schooling experiences. Those data should include student and educator surveys, and they should be incorporated into schoolwide accountability measures, the report says.

In Illinois, for example, the state board of education administers a survey called 5Essentials to gather student input on issues like school climate that is later incorporated into school report cards posted online. The report also cites examples of statewide student assessments of school safety, student engagement, and environment that are being used in California and Maryland.

States must also incorporate best practices for student engagement into teacher-preparation programs and ongoing professional development, the report says.

“We can tell teachers all the things they can do to increase engagement, and I think that’s important, but if we don’t deal with the system-level factors … it might be all for naught,” said Jennifer Fredericks, the director of the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., whose input helped shape the report.

That teacher training will be more effective if states foster school environments that are more conducive to engagement by adopting and promoting positive school climate guidelines and specifying noncognitive skills that schools should emphasize, the report says.

What States Are Doing

Kansas, for example, has adopted social and emotional learning standards that identify how meeting student’s emotional needs relates to academic standards in the classroom. And other states, including Idaho and Washington, provide guidance to teachers on nurturing factors related to behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement, the report’s authors said.

They also recommend that state policymakers “invest in school structures that personalize student learning” to boost engagement.

That could take the form of individualized learning plans, which are mandated for students in 6th grade and beyond in Kentucky, or the promotion of competency-based learning, the report says.

Finally, the report recommends that states encourage schools to collaborate with each other, as well as with parents and community groups to identify the best ways to meet students’ needs.

West Virginia’s state education board did this by creating local school improvement councils—groups of school staff members, parents, and community members that develop solutions to problems schools face and recommend policy changes, the report says.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as States Should Play Role in Fostering Engagement, Report Says

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