To Overcome Poor Schools, Students Need to be Engaged

Imagine that you’re the parent of 13-year-old twins. One thrives in school: His test scores place him in the top quartile of his peers. The other struggles: He’s not motivated to learn what schools want to teach, and his test scores put him in the bottom quartile.

It’s time to select high schools. You decide that the boys would benefit by going to separate schools, and you live in a place (such as Washington, D.C.) where they can choose schools through a lottery. You feel lucky when that lottery gives you slots in two schools – until you discover a disturbing truth.

No matter which school you choose for which child, you are virtually condemning one of them to drop out before graduation. That’s because one of the schools available to them is high-performing and one is low-performing. When it comes to whether a student will graduate on time or drop out, the quality of the school often trumps the abilities and the interests of the student.

That’s one of the findings in a  recent report from Raise D.C. that focuses on schools in Washington, but that is applicable to school systems around the country. Among the findings: For a struggling 8th grader – let’s call that twin Offtrack – there is a  70 percentage point difference in on-time graduation rates between the best and worst performing schools in the city.

As the parent, you figure you should send Offtrack to the better of the two high schools, thus balancing the odds that both boys will graduate. But here’s another finding: For high-performing 8th graders – let’s call that twin Ontrack – a low-performing school slashes his chances. If you send Ontrack to a low-performing school, he is  half as likely to graduate on time as his low-performing twin who attends the high-performing school.

Your decision could flip the odds for your children: Ontrack could go off track; Offtrack could get on track.

No parent should have to make this decision. More importantly, no parent should have this decision made for them. That, in effect, is what happens to most American teenagers, because they and their parents have few good choices for schools.

There is, however, one thing that the twins’ teachers, families and communities can do to improve their odds, no matter where they go to school: Make sure they are engaged in learning something important with someone who cares about them.

Engagement is one of the most powerful determinants of success and well-being for people of any age. In the Raise D.C. report, engagement was an ingredient that helped the academically weaker 8th graders in strong high schools graduate on time; the absence of engagement allowed the stronger students to fall behind.

The report analyzes student and school data to create basic profiles of individual student engagement, using data on attendance, disruptive behavior and course progress. Here is how engagement throughout the high school years broke down within a cohort of 8th graders:

  • Twenty-five percent arrive at high school already disengaged or disengage quickly in their first year, then spiral down toward truancy and course failure.
  • Forty percent remain engaged throughout high school. They are on track academically and are bound for college.
  • The remaining 35 percent either drift into disengagement, stay engaged but struggle to earn credits, disengage but recover, or earn credits but aren’t on a sure path to college.

There are ways to increase engagement. A Gallup-Purdue Index Report,  “Great Jobs, Great Lives,” lays out indicators that a youth is engaged: 1. having at least one teacher who made learning exciting; 2. knowing that teachers are personally concerned about their students; 3. finding a mentor; 4. working on a long-term project for at least one semester; 5. having opportunities to put classroom learning into practice through internships or jobs; 6. participating in rich extracurricular activities.

Each year, the Gallup Student Poll asks 5th through 12th graders throughout the country about their hope, engagement and well-being, through statements that reflect those indicators. If we assume that virtually all kindergarteners start school enthusiastic and ready to be engaged, the data collected through this poll suggest a rapid and steady erosion of engagement. By 5th grade, only two-thirds report being engaged. By 10th grade the percentage is down to one-third.

Engagement is the by-product of strong relationships. Strong relationships keep young people in school and on track. Schools that acknowledge the critical importance of engagement in school and out and that work with parents and community organizations to make this a priority can change the odds for their students.

(For an example of how a low-performing school district is using the Gallup data to increase student supports and engagement, see this  short story.)

Look at the  20 questions asked on the Gallup Poll. Look at the overall drop in engagement scores by grade in this chart for last fall’s survey:

Then imagine what the scores would be in the low-performing high school that one of the twins would attend.

It’s hard not to see how Ontrack could go off track and Offtrack could get completely derailed. For countless young people in our communities, those are the only options.