'Anybody? Anybody?' What Ferris Bueller Got Right

Students definitely begin losing interest in school somewhere between first grade and 12th. But is the drop-off really as dramatic as a new Gallup poll shows?

Let's do a mental exercise. I'm going to ask you to picture a series of school classrooms full of students and their teachers. First, imagine a class of second graders. Got it? Now fifth graders. Now ninth graders. And finally, picture a classroom of high school seniors.

If you're like many people I've spoken with, your image of the elementary school classroom is of happy, engaged, enthusiastic kids, perhaps with hands raised, clamoring for the teacher to call on them to answer a question. Perhaps something like this:


And your image of the high-school seniors in class probably isn't much different from this iconic, devastatingly funny scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the 1986 hit film by John Hughes:

Even if your mental images aren't quite at these polar extremes, you probably sense that there's a big difference between the early years and the later ones when it comes to what's called student engagement -- essentially, how invested kids are in their learning, how much delight they take in their work, and how eager they are to participate.

Our impressions apparently are not just figments of our media-infused imaginations. New research from the Gallup organization indicates clearly that student engagement declines steadily and dramatically with each successive year in school from grade 5 through grade 12. This graph shows the dramatic drop in student engagement over time:


In 2012, the Gallup Student Poll surveyed almost a half-million students in grades 5 through 12, drawn from more than 1700 public schools in 37 states. The poll measures three different constructs that have been deemed important predictors of student success: hope, engagement, and well being. It found that a strong majority of elementary students, nearly 8 in 10, are engaged. By middle school, that figure falls to about 6 in 10. And by high school, only 4 in 10 students qualify as engaged.

As executive director of Gallup Education Brandon Busteed comments in The Gallup Blog:

If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less. ... The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure,. Imagine what our economy would look like today if nearly eight in 10 of our high school graduates were engaged -- just as they were in elementary school.

Speculating about possible causes for the lack of student engagement, Busteed points to "our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula [and] 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."

Those seem like perfectly plausible, even likely, explanations. I certainly won't gainsay them. But just as you would probably add some other items to that list, so would I, including the following:

  • An outdated and broken paradigm of assembly-line formal education. There may be something fundamentally wrong, especially in the secondary years, with the way we try to educate our kids (as Sir Ken Robinson has argued). How can our schools foster engagement when for so many kids they fail a basic relevance test?
  • Inadequate resources. Because of the inequities inherent in our method of financing public education and our failure as a society to take education seriously (spending far less on education than on, say, the war on drugs), our schools lack the resources necessary to be inviting, enlivening, and truly stimulating places for learning.
  • A cultural failure to value teachers. Surely there are boring teachers out there; actor Ben Stein didn't invent his character for Ferris Bueller out of whole cloth. But most teachers work harder and are more skilled than the public believes. Even so, we certainly could do better in attracting to this profession people who might help spark students' imagination and love of learning.
  • Student transition from childhood to adolescence. Finally, it seems disingenuous, when talking about the decline in student engagement, to neglect to mention developmental changes in kids as they move from childhood to adolescence. It's not just constipated schools and boring teachers that lead many high-school students to cop the posture of being "too cool for school."

Are you starting to get depressed as you read this? Starting to think you might click back to pieces about the debt-ceiling crisis, horrific air pollution in Beijing, or your computer's vulnerability from having Java enabled in your browser? Let's try a different mental exercise. Let's imagine the Gallup folks didn't get it right. Any chance of that? Possibly.

Gallup's public announcement of the study through its blog leaves out any mention of the study's methodological limitations. One has to go to the official report itself to find those. Here are a few of them: Schools participating in the study were not randomly selected; the participating schools did so voluntarily; participation rates varied by school; the overall data did not reflect responses from a nationally representative sample of students; and the overall data were not statistically weighted to reflect the U.S. student population. I'm no statistician, but these shortcomings seem considerable.

Moreover, one could ask whether the questions the pollsters used to measure students' engagement were the best ones they could have devised for that purpose. While they correspond roughly to the questions Gallup uses to measure employee engagement in the workplace, one still can wonder about their appropriateness here.

In other words, if you were trying to ask your daughter some questions that probed her level of engagement at school -- her investment in learning, her delight in doing her work, her eagerness to participate in class, etc. -- the questions you'd come up with would probably be quite different from at least some of the ones Gallup asked (listed here):

8. I have a best friend at school.

9. I feel safe in this school.

10. My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.

11. At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

12. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.

13. My school is committed to building the strengths of each student.

14. In the last month, I volunteered my time to help others.

So, it's possible that the Gallup study didn't get it quite right. (Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo on these points.) Perhaps the decline in student engagement is not as precipitous as the research suggests. Unfortunately, anyone who has spent much time in schools can verify that the general downtrend in student engagement from elementary through high school described by the Gallup data is real.

I don't know how to solve this problem. But I repeat this assessment by Brandon Busteed because I think he's correct: "The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure." In my view, education reformers are wasting a lot of time on things like the Common Core standards, when this decline in engagement may be our biggest educational problem.

What would you do about it?