Engaged Students

Students must engage.   Students have to do the work that's designed by teachers.  We want teachers to create work that is engaging, interesting, and inherently satisfying in some way, while still helping students achieve.  But, students have to do the work.  The non-profit organization Public Agenda reported a few years ago on a survey of what a representative sample of high school students thought about their high school experience.  The report was subtitled "They Practically Hand You a Diploma."  

A New England system did a unique survey of parents/community, students, and teachers/administrators.  43% of "A" students were negative about their school and education.  An even greater number of lower-achieving students said they were "bored with classes that are too easy for me.  82% of the students reported getting mostly A's or B's.  (93% of the students planned to go to college.) More.

Students in Tennessee think school is too easy also.  The Tennessean ran a story on what valedictorians and salutatorians in the mid-state thought about the challenges they received in high school.  Same responses.  Not much challenge.  Many observers have reached the conclusion that one of the real obstacles to achievement in the middle and high school years is our lack of high expectations for student effort.  We have to change that.

Note that I am not talking about hours of homework for elementary students.  Such burdens for young children have not proved beneficial and should not be encouraged.  But, at all levels, students have to do the work that is designed by teachers.

There can be no effective teaching without student effort.  The best teaching often engages students through interest and curiosity.  (For some perspective on how hard and creative such teaching is, read ALL of  "Gold Star Junkies.")   But, learning sometimes requires willful effort.  We must have high expectations for such effort, and communicate those expectations.  Philip Daro, head of the New Standards project, said at a Vanderbilt conference in 1997 that standards are “a statement of the students’ academic responsibilities.  He suggested that we can tell what our standards are by asking, “What does it take to get a ‘B’ in Mrs. So-and-so’s class?”  The answer would be our standard for that class.  We need to make sure the answers are based on honest, conscious effort.  How can this be accomplished?

First, communication.  Communities need to talk about it Teachers need to know that students are expected to engage with their studies.  Students need to hear that they must engage to learn, and that they will have support in that effort.  And schools must  communicate to parents very early when a student’s lack of effort begins to create problems for academic achievement.

Second, study other systems.  Look at the efforts of other systems to develop standards for student effort.  St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, has made a strong push to get students to read 25 books per year.  Jacksonville, Florida has set this a similar goal.  This is a goal with strong research backing as well as common sense:  students who read more know more, have a better understanding of the world around them, and are more prepared for college or other post-secondary opportunities.  Seattle has set a goal of 20 books for high school graduation, plus a 2.0 grade-point average.  They are looking at revamping their graduation requirements to focus on demonstrated student proficiency, not just seat time.  

Third, develop external components for grading student work.  Clear statements of expected student competencies are a start toward a culture of student engagement,  but there must also be external components of the assessment process.  Such external components help make teacher and students a team aimed at achieving the standard.  Where state developed tests can serve this role, use them.  Where a state-wide program does not provide sufficient or appropriate data, develop other alternatives.  Some suggest the community discussion can feed back here through the involvement of community members in assessing student performances or portfolios.

Fourth, develop policies that support high expectations of student effort.  Policies on grading, homework, attendance, promotion and other such topics should always support a focus on student effort.  And, since effort is expected, a mechanism for students and parents to provide feedback on the quality of work offered should also be included.

Further Reading:   Apathetic Students Risk Their Futures by Christine Baron

Students assemble their own robots - out of lots of Legos, Boston Globe, 12/3/2001