Student “engagement” declining dramatically – and what schools can do

What can five – six year olds learn from building a playground, or high school students learn helping produce a play, writing a history of their community, creating You-Tube videos about the value of Dual (High School/College) credit courses, conducting water quality testing, or planning and then building a community garden?

The answer is clear:  students who participate in such hands-on, active learning generally will be more “engaged” in their learning.  And a 2012 Gallup poll of almost 500,000 American students, grades 5-12, helps explain why student engagement is so important.  The poll also shows a dramatic decline in student engagement as students move thorough our public schools.

How do we “engage” students?

  • Students at the School for Environmental Sciences have researched and help create exhibits for the Minnesota Zoo.
  • Students in many communities, including Apple Valley, Eastview, Eagan, Lakeville,  the Main Street School for Performing Arts in Hopkins,  and Richfield have produced musicals that won awards from the Hennepin Theatre Trust.
  • In Little Falls, students in a combined Biology/English/Social Studies class read and wrote about the history of the Mississippi.  They also did water quality testing on the river discovering at one point that there was an unacceptably high level of bacteria in the water.
  • In Houston, students interviewed local residents for an area history.  They discovered one elderly woman who had been a member of the French Resistance during World War II, causing them to do a lot of reflection about what her, and their high school years.
  • In St. Paul, students researched, planned and then built a playground with a zero budget.  It was a very big day in the life of the 7 year old co-chairs of the “sand committee” when six truck loads of sand, that they had arranged for, arrived.

Let’s be clear.  This is NOT an attack on teachers.  That’s because teachers are being pushed hard to focus on standardized, multiple-choice tests.

But as the national Gallup organization, points out, we should care about this because “Hope, engagement and well being of students accounts for one third of the variance of student success.  Yet schools don’t measure these things.  Hope, for example, is a better predictor of student success than SAT scores, ACT scores, or grade point average.”
* Gallup found that from elementary to secondary school, student engagement drops from 76% to 44%. 

*  Gallup concluded “There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening — ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students — not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.”

We want students to read, write and do mathematics.  We also want them to be active, constructive citizens.  We need to measure whether they are developing hope and a sense that they can accomplish important things.

You can read the report here:

There are great examples of these applied projects at

Many families and employers want youngsters who are active, positive, able to work with others…engaged.  Not just people with academic skills.  Academic skills are important, but not enough.  Being “engaged” helps many students see the value of and develop those “3-R” skills, along with a belief that they can set goals and make a difference.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,