The Gallup organization released a poll recently that measured student engagement among nearly 1 million U.S. students from over 3,000 public schools in grades 5-12. Students were questioned to determine their level of interest in what they were studying, whether they found school-work to be relevant, and if they felt valued at school.
The findings should concern everyone who cares about education. On average, only 50 percent of American students felt engaged in school. Unfortunately that’s the good news. The bad news is that engagement peaks early, with fifth graders reporting the highest level at 75 percent. After this, the level of engagement continues a steady downward trend until it bottoms out in grade 11, where only 32 percent of students surveyed reported they were engaged. There is a slight uptick in senior year but the trend is clear: As students progress through the grades, they are engaged less and less in what they are doing in school.
Should we be surprised? Education reforms over the past three decades have focused on standards and standardized assessments. Promoting rigor and measuring student progress are commendable goals, but by themselves do little to spark curiosity and engender a passion for learning.
It would be wrong, however, to blame the education standards movement as the main culprit. Taking on the engagement crisis will require a reconsideration of many long-standing assumptions about education and the business of school. A good place to start might be to consider this paradox. On the one hand, it is abundantly clear that the people who teach, counsel, and advise our children are incredibly humane and care deeply about their students.
On the other hand, it’s not always clear that the institutional side of education—the intense competition and narrow emphasis on grades, the relentless ranking and sorting of kids—promotes happiness, fulfillment, or engagement. Of course we in public education are not running utopian experiments and some degree of standardization is inevitable, even desirable. Yet I wonder if institutionally our schools are as humane as the people who work in them.
Addressing the crisis of engagement will require fresh thinking and a shift in priorities. Schools should strive to administer programs—as we do at RBR—that empower young people and connect students to the world. Teachers should be supported in designing experiences that emphasize individual growth and understanding. Families can assist by reminding children that the purpose of education is not “to get into college” but to develop their capacities as creative and critical thinkers, empowered to improve the world.
A shift in education that prioritizes engagement is not idealistic fluff. Virtually every national study examining success after high school places a high priority on the curiosity, engagement, and attitude of the student. These attributes are ranked far above other more customary predictors of success, such as standardized test scores or GPAs. Making progress in these areas will only be possible if students truly care what their learning about. In the end, education is deeply personal, requiring both intellectual and emotional commitment that is not possible without engagement.
We are a nation of immigrants, and cultural diversity has always been a vital aspect of our society. “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,” proclaimed the great poet of American democracy, Walt Whitman. Even in these contentious times, the moral correctness of tolerance retains a grip on our thinking.
This consensus continues to be reflected in what we teach. Over the past three decades, schools have significantly increased their efforts to foster tolerance and celebrate cultural diversity. History, literature, as well as other subjects, now offer vastly more inclusive curriculums than they did in the past.
This outcome was not easy to achieve and the debate still rages, reflected in the current conflict between the new isolationists and their critics. In these discussions, the former usually assert that immigrants are taking away jobs from the native-born and are hurting the economy. Advocates of openness, meanwhile, frame the issue primarily as a moral one.
A slew of recent and influential studies, however, have shed new light on the topic, demonstrating that immigration and cultural diversity actually deliver powerful economic benefits. Last fall, a report by the National Academy of Sciences determined that immigrant labor and talent are essential to the overall health of the economy. Moreover, despite myths to the contrary, immigrant families quickly produce net revenues for local and state governments. *
Additional studies have found that diversity itself brings lasting economic payoffs. Societies that are open and culturally diverse typically experience significantly more economic growth than isolationist ones. The evidence is clear: diversity and openness accelerate growth; uniformity and isolation puts the brakes on. **
It is also becoming increasingly apparent that diversity in schools produces positive educational outcomes. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, tracks 100 school districts around the country that are using a variety of strategies to achieve socioeconomic integration and push back against segregation. The findings show that poor students attending integrated schools perform significantly better than those attending segregated institutions. Moreover, middle-class students in these schools perform as well as their peers in segregated settings. In short, all students are better prepared to succeed and contribute. ***RBR is an excellent example of how diversity benefits everyone in a public school. Our diversity enriches us and we are consistently ranked as one of New Jersey’s best high schools.
The ability to thrive, collaborate, and create in a diverse society will be essential in our own state. New Jersey already boasts the third highest population of foreign-born residents in the United States and estimates predict that the Garden State will be majority non-white in less than 15 years. Considering this reality, the persistence of intensive segregation in New Jersey public schools is not only immoral but also educationally and economically unsound.
For educators and everyone, the challenge is to accelerate--not retreat from--efforts to prepare young people to thrive in a culturally diverse society. It turns out that Walt Whitmanwas an insightful economist as well as our nation’s greatest poet.
It’s no secret that the cost of a college education is bound to generate “sticker shock.” Student debt continues to mount and the United States has fallen to 11th place worldwide in regard to post-secondary education attainment. Against this backdrop, the catchphrase that “college is not for everyone” often elicits nods of agreement, reflecting the sentiment that it’s foolhardy to encourage so many of our young people to pursue a Bachelor’s degree.
Yet despite its high costs, a 4-year college degree still delivers enormous economic benefits. Studies repeatedly demonstrate that those who attain a Bachelor’s degree have substantially lower rates of unemployment over those who do not.
Moreover, not only are 4-year college grads more likely to hold a job, their career earning potential is also much greater. A recent report by a leading compensation analysis firm identified 128 colleges and universities whose graduates on average earned at least $500,000 more than high school grads over a 20-year period even after the cost of tuition was taken into account. What’s more, many of the high performers on the list outpaced the Ivy League schools and other “elite” institutions. For example, Stevens Institute of Technology outranked both the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard; NJIT outperformed Columbia. Rutgers, which was ranked 89th nationally, outdid Northwestern.
At the same time, many colleges continue to be powerful engines of social mobility. At NJIT, for example, over 30 percent of students from families at the bottom fifth of the income distribution scale advanced at least two income quintiles as graduates; at Rutgers that figure was 22 percent. Sadly, these gains are threatened by cuts in support for higher education over the past decade. In New Jersey, per-student funding for higher education has declined 23 percent since 2008. The average reduction for the country as a whole across the nation is 18 percent.
Beyond the financial considerations, earning a 4-year degree produces a range of social and individual benefits. Thomas Jefferson advised us that the strength of our democracy depends on a well-educated citizenry. More than ever, a Bachelor’s degree is the best gateway to full participation in an increasingly complex and interdependent global economy and society.
Of course, this is not to suggest that merely attaining a Bachelor’s degree from any institution is a panacea. Not all degrees will deliver the same benefits. In addition, the benefits also vary greatly from institution to institution. Students need support to explore career options and college choices while critically evaluating the costs and benefits.
But for families, schools, and our country, the evidence should be clear: the task at hand is to prepare more – not fewer – of our students to pursue and earn a Bachelor’s Degree after high school. Is college for everyone? Perhaps not everybody but it’s still the best option for most. For a wealth of information on college opportunities please see our March Guidance Update.