Most students start school with a strong desire to learn. But over the years, that desire seems to wane. One study of 1,500 classrooms found that in 85 percent, fewer than half of all students were “engaged” in learning. In other words, only 15 percent of these classrooms had most of their students focused on learning.
The lack of student engagement manifests itself in many ways. A recent analysis published by the Center for American Progress (CAP), based on student surveys from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, found that students are general not engaged in what they are learning. Large percentages say their schoolwork is “too easy.” Many say they are rarely engaged in deep or rigorous learning activities—and students from disadvantaged backgrounds are even less likely to say they are challenged in class. So it should not be surprising that more than one in four students leaves school before graduating.
Yet in a world where US students must compete not only with their peers from neighboring states, but also from students around the world, it is critical that students are engaged in what they are learning. The authors of the CAP study suggested that students may be doing poorly on tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment “because they’re not challenged in school.” So a failure to engage students is not only a personal imperative . . . it is an economic necessity.
Student engagement is also an equity and diversity issue. Four conditions that create engaged people as adapted from Glasser’s choice theory are: 1) some component of fun, 2) the ability for the participants to choose and exercise an appropriate amount of personal power, 3) the sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, and 4) a sense that, although not yet able, they have a fighting chance at gaining competence at a given task. Disadvantaged students, students who do not fit the standard mold, students with learning disabilities, and all of those who are perceived and treated as such are much more likely to suffer a lack of all four. To advance equity and inclusion in our nation’s education system demands that we attend to student engagement and the components that foster it.