Student engagement declining

What can 5- and 6-year-olds learn from building a playground, or high school students learn helping to produce a play, writing a history of their community, creating YouTube 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?

•According to Traci Schellinger, Princeton High School National Honor Society adviser, NHS students have carried out many service projects. For example, students organized and hosted two blood drives for high school students and staff that collected almost 200 pints of blood. They also organized a “Box City” where students “rented a box” that people slept in overnight. All rent collected was donated to the Princeton Pantry (a little under $1,000).

•Jill Overby, career specialist at Princeton High School notes that she has a list of about 30 places, including Elim Care and Rehab Center, Rum River Health Services, Fairview, and 2nd Chance Pets, where students volunteer.

•Students in many communities, including Rogers, produced musicals that won awards from the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

•Monticello students produced a major history of the community.

•Little Falls students in a combined biology/English/social studies class read and wrote about the history of the Mississippi. They also tested river water, discovering at one point that there was an unacceptably high level of bacteria in the water.

•While interviewing local residents for an area history, Houston students discovered one elderly woman had been a member of the French Resistance during World War II. This caused them to compare  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 truckloads of sand that they had arranged for, arrived.

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

But Gallup points out, “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 percent to 44 percent. 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.”

You can read the report here:

There are great examples of  “hands-on” projects at

Many families and employers want youngsters who have strong academic skills and are active, positive, able to work with others… engaged. Academic skills are important, but not enough. We need to measure whether students are developing “3-R” skills, and with hope and a sense that they can accomplish important things. — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: directs the Center for School Change. E-mail him at [email protected])