Teaching Profession

Report Examines Motivation Among Students

By John Gehring — December 10, 2003 3 min read

A report unveiled by the National Research Council last week paints a grim picture of high schools unlikely to surprise teachers and students, but argues that those schools can learn from an array of promising changes taking root across the nation.

Drawing on years of research in psychology, education, and sociology, “Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn” shows that by the time many students reach high school, they often lack any sense of purpose or real connection with what they are doing in the classroom.

Read “Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students’ Motivation to Learn,” from the National Academies Press. Copies can be ordered online or by calling (800) 624-6242.

Although the best high schools are filled with well-qualified and caring teachers in a setting where all students are valued, the book-length report says, for too many teenagers, high school has become an impersonal place where low expectations are common.

The report, released Dec. 2, encourages teachers, administrators, policymakers, and the wider community to think more creatively about how school settings and instruction can be tailored to address that sense of alienation.

The problem, the analysis says, is even more acute in large urban schools, where many students come from low-income families.

“When students from advantaged backgrounds become disengaged, they may learn less than they could, but they usually get by or they get second chances; most eventually graduate and move on to other opportunities,” the report’s executive summary says. “In contrast, when students from disadvantaged backgrounds in high-poverty, urban high schools become disengaged, they are less likely to graduate and consequently face severely limited opportunities.”

‘An Alienating Place’

While the National Research Council, which produces research and advises the federal government on a range of issues, has for years worked on education-related topics, this is the first time it has addressed the issue of student motivation.

The report is a joint project of the research council and the Institute of Medicine, both arms of the National Academies of Science. A committee of more than a dozen scholars and educators in the fields of education, psychology, and pediatrics from institutions such as Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard universities worked for 1½ years on the 300-page report.

The committee described the research on academic engagement and motivation it examined as “mostly qualitative, correlational, or quasi-experimental.”

Deborah Stipek, who chaired the committee and is the dean of the school of education at Stanford, said she hopes the report will serve as a resource for school systems as they continue to address establishing more effective high schools.

While it has been harder to break the mold in high schools, compared with successful school improvement strategies in elementary schools, she sees that trend changing.

“There is a new interest in high schools,” Ms. Stipek said. “We have learned from some really promising developments that we want to seize upon. We want to see these promising practices shared.”

Naomi Housman, the coordinator of the Washington-based National High School Alliance, which represents 44 partner organizations and advocates more personalized experiences for high school students, said student engagement is an important issue.

“This is what is motivating us to try and change the way business is done at the high school level,” she said. “What’s important is really making sure both the academic rigor is solid and the relationships are there at many levels. High schools have become a place where relationships are not strong. It’s an alienating place for adults and kids.”

The report offers several recommendations for ways that high schools can do a better job of engaging students.

Among other measures, the committee urged school officials to tailor instruction to draw on students’ culture and real-world experiences; make greater efforts to coordinate with social and health services in the community; break down comprehensive high schools into smaller learning communities; eliminate formal and informal tracking of students; and pair every student and family in the school with an “adult advocate” who can help them navigate academic and personal challenges.

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