Teaching Profession

Polling Group: Student Success Linked to Positive Outlook

By Liana Loewus — August 23, 2012 4 min read
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Roughly half of American students today are hopeful about their futures, according to data collected by Gallup Inc., while two-thirds of students are engaged in their learning and two-thirds have high well-being. Those three positive traits are closely linked to academic success and should be focal points for educators, the polling group contends.

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

Speaking at the event, Shane Lopez, a senior scientist at Gallup, said 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 markers such as attendance, credits attempted and earned, and graduation). “That’s a significant chunk,” he said.

For purposes of Gallup’s annual student survey, Lopez said, hope means students “believe the future will be better than the present, and that they have the power to make it so.” Surprisingly, he noted, hope among students has almost no correlation to family income (in contrast to findings on hope for the nation as a whole).

Engagement Dips

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

“When students walk out the door to elementary school, that’s where the slide starts,” he said. Then 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 school level, but that is not how students tend to explain it, he added. Instead, students are more likely to say that they are “not known, not valued, not recognized” at the secondary level, as they were in elementary school. They also indicate that their school days are stripped of “play” in middle school. Suddenly there are no more monkey bars or swing sets, Lopez said.

Event attendees seemed most surprised when Lopez noted that, based on findings from other Gallup surveys, U.S. teachers overall show less engagement than their students—with only 40 percent of educators indicating they are engaged in their work. Such findings are noteworthy because “engagement is local,” said Lopez, meaning people in proximity influence each others’ engagement levels. “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.”

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

‘Joy Juice’ in School?

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 United States. The poll results indicate that five out of six teachers are “thriving,” said Lopez.

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

By contrast, about two-thirds of U.S 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.

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. “There are inter-correlations.” 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, noted Lopez, 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. Individual 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 representative national sample.

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