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Engagement: The Most Important Measure of Student Success

Let’s keep our students excited about learning, not bore them to death

Just over two decades ago, corporate creativity guru Gordon MacKenzie pretty much described the entire K-12 experience of millions of students in a couple of paragraphs about the enthusiasm of school children.

MacKenzie, in “Orbiting the Giant Hairball,” described the reaction of elementary children when he visited their schools with his menagerie of metal bird and animal sculptures. He’d describe himself as an artist and ask the students, “Who here is an artist?”

In first grade, children leapt from their chairs like electric eels in a lightning pond to thrust their hands in the air and assert their artistry. In second grade, about half the children raised their hands. Third grade, about 10 of 30. By the sixth grade, just one or two would cautiously, almost surreptitiously, give a little bit of a half-hearted wave in fear of being observed and criticized, said MacKenzie.

MacKenzie’s experience matches up perfectly with Gallup Student Poll results that find fewer than one half of students engaged in their classwork, 29 percent disengaged, and nearly a quarter of students ACTIVELY disengaged. Every teacher in America can tell you what that looks like. So, too, can parents who have a teen who mopes about the house and has no interest in family activities.

Gallup has surveyed millions of students in recent years, and the results are similar most every year. Engagement declines each year from sixth through 11th grades, and increases slightly for 12th grade students whose enthusiasm grows as they near graduation. Other surveys, like the High School Survey of Student Engagement, finds two thirds of students report being bored in class every day.

Boring the Excitement Out of Kids 

We’ve all seen it. Kindergartners and first graders are irrepressible. They’re full of life, of inquisitiveness and joy for learning. Then it happens. The gravitational pull of all that is school — the increasing rigor, the worksheets, the tests, the expectations of their parents, teachers and peers — turns what was at one time the most exciting thing in their life into a daily grind. We all know what we’ll hear if we ask a seventh grader, “What did you do at school today?” Drum roll please: “Nothing.”

Why? Because they are being prepared for, and measured on, questions like this sixth grade language arts question on the M-STEP, Michigan’s standardized assessment for measuring school and student performance:

Scientists couldn’t figure it out at first. To make matters stranger still, the fish in Yoro were very much alive when they rained down to the ground, but they were all blind. In England, it rained fish, frogs, spiders, and snakes and none were blind. In Lajamanu, Australia, the fish were not only alive, but some were large enough to eat. It was difficult to puzzle out, but the blind fish in Yoro gave them a place to start.

Scientists knew that some fish that lived in deep, underground caves with no light sources often lost their eyesight over generations of adaptation. They simply no longer needed to see. So when blind fish rained down on Yoro, scientists began to connect some dots. Clearly, these particular fish were pulled from an underground water source by force. The waterspout theory began to seem more and more possible.

Which statement summarizes the central idea of the paragraphs?

  • Scientists were interested in knowing why the raining animals differed from place to place.
  • Details about animals affected by the unusual event led to an understanding of how it was happening.
  • The presence of unusual animals brought about the belief that the event was rare and due to special situations.
  • Understanding how animals change to match their environments helped scientists determine why particular events happened to them.

Some might consider this a fun little brain twister, something we might want to puzzle over with a cup of tea on a snowy weekend afternoon. For most of the sixth grade students taking the test, however, it’s further evidence what they “learn” in school bears little resemblance to the real world.

‘We know how to create exciting learning opportunities for students. Unfortunately, they’re not always available to the kids who need them the most.’

Some may contend questions like these measure critical thinking, the ability to discern meaning from informational text and come up with the correct answer (which is B). Fair enough. But why not use examples that relate to real life? Examples that might mean something to a 12-year-old?

Life Experience Matters 

Or, perhaps more pertinent are the questions asked of third grade students, as they are now subject to being held back if they fail their English language arts test. Here’s an example:

My family went to a state park to seek sandhill cranes. Sandhill cranes are noisy creatures who stick close together in flocks. The birds are grayish with a touch of dark red on their forehead. Sandhill cranes live in marshes, which are low-lying areas often covered in water. My sister saw one crane eat a worm it found on the dirty ground. We were amazed that the cranes got along with each other. The cranes threw their heads back and sang loudly. We liked watching the cranes dancing and leaping high in the air. My sister and I were thrilled to see how these cranes behaved.

The writer wants to replace the underlined word to make her meaning clearer. Which two words would make her word choice better?

  • Dusty
  • Lousy
  • Ugly
  • Muddy
  • Soggy
  • Sticky

Can you see a third grader just a little confused or disoriented by that question — one who has never been out of the city like many low-income students? For that kid, the only low-lying areas covered with water are vacant lots, back alleys or streets that flood in heavy rain.

The answers are D and E, but they’re far easier to discern by a child whose life experience provides some clues to the correct answers. For many students who could potentially be held back, the question bears no resemblance to their experiences, making it difficult to relate, to discern, and to answer correctly.

Testing Rules Schools

More importantly, the consequences of these tests — with the exception of Michigan’s new third-grade reading law — are more important to the teacher, the school building and district than they are for the students. Parents will get a report on their results, but it’s not the students’ report card. It is, however, the report card for their teacher and their school. Disengaged students know that and apply themselves accordingly.

Because the stakes are so high, teachers are forced to “teach to the test.” There are far more engaging forms of instruction, but they are rarely used — especially for at-risk students — for fear the district will be penalized if students do not achieve proficiency.

We know how to create exciting learning opportunities for students. There are options in many of the 20 districts within Kent ISD. But they’re not available to all and, unfortunately, they’re not always available to the kids who need them the most.

Engagement and hope are the true measures of student success, according to Gallup and the many millions of students the company has surveyed. Doesn’t that ring true? Would anyone choose disengagement and despair as better options?

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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