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Are We Actually Engaging Them? A Key Lens for Educational Investment

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This post is by Ace Parsi, project director for deeper learning at the National Association of State Boards of Education.


Education is a $600 billion a year industry, but that investment means little unless students are physically and mentally present and engaged to benefit from it. The unfortunate fact is that too many students are often not. According to a Gallup poll, nearly half of American students report that they are not engaged or actively disengaged from schools. Other studies have shown that disengagement is one of, if not the largest, factor leading to students' decision to drop out.

The urgency of these facts was the primary motive behind the National Association of State Boards of Education's (NASBE's) most recent study group--a group of twelve state board of education members and executive directors from ten states, the District of Columbia, and Guam--to explore a key question: How could we ensure our students were meaningfully engaged in their learning so that they are ready to face the challenges and opportunities before them? The report of the group, which will be released on a March 12th webinar that you can register for here (shameless plug), attempts to present policy remedies to this important question.

Informed by research of Jennifer Fredricks and others, our definition of engagement highlighted the concept's different dimensions: "student engagement represents the capacity and inclination for students to take ownership of their past, present, and future educational experiences by enlisting their cognitive, behavioral, and emotional investment in learning." This definition highlights that, to consider our students meaningfully engaged, those students must feel a sense of belonging and safety in school (emotional engagement), feel empowered to actively and constructively participate in their education (behavioral engagement), and be provided cognitively rich experiences that lead to deeper learning (cognitive engagement).

What we found throughout the course of three two-day meetings and discussions among ourselves and with national experts was that engagement is influenced by a number of actors including students' peers [UPDATE: New link added], educators, school environments, parents, and communities. That presents both a challenge and an opportunity. To seize the opportunity, the group developed a set of policies aimed at reducing barriers and enable ways for these actors to play a more significant and positive role in enhancing engagement for students. These policies include:

  1. Promoting measures of educational success that emphasize student engagement, by examining what gets measured, whose success is measured, and how that success is measured.
  2. Providing a preparation, learning, and support continuum that empowers school leaders, teachers, and other staff to facilitate more engaging experiences for students by reflecting on the state's entire educator preparation and support continuum--including teacher preparation, work environment structure, professional learning, and evaluation--to ensure that teachers have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to support student engagement effectively.
  3. Advancing school climate guidelines and professional learning that leads to an educational environment more conducive to student engagement through such means as school-related standards to promote healthy, safe, and engaging learning environments for all students.
  4. Investing in school structures that help personalize student learning and thereby expand student engagement through means such as promoting individualized learning plans and competency-based education initiatives that expand where, when, by whom, and how learning is delivered.
  5. Encouraging collaboration between schools, parents, and other community stakeholders to address students' comprehensive needs that underlie engagement  through strategies ranging from providing schools "how to" guides on building partnerships to more direct incentives to enable  collaboration between schools and parent and community groups.

Throughout our learning, we came to believe that the challenges of engagement highlighted earlier aren't an epitaph for our education system--they are a call for help. By ensuring that all of us, students, parents, educators, community members, and policy makers begin to more deeply assess how our decisions impact student engagement, this is a challenge we can overcome, in the process maximizing both education dollars and student experiences.  


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