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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Without Student Engagement, Nothing Else Matters

We have data proving that school kills student engagement. Bill Gates has the answer.

October 1, 2014

Earlier this year, in a post titled “An Open Letter to the Education System: Please Stop Destroying Students,” I declared that we have a “curiosity crisis” in our schools.

My evidence was experiential, observational, and anecdotal. I see it in my students, who arrive at college often lacking passion and curiosity, having been defeated by a system that wants them to be standardized[1] in the search of “college and career readiness.”

I followed up this notion earlier this week by noting that traits like curiosity and passion are more important than academic skills[2] when it comes to being successful in my college classroom and that the current mania over assessment of students, of teachers, of schools, is actively working against the development of these traits.

But again, my argument is experiential, anecdotal. My inbox and Twitter responses tell me I’m not alone, but I can just imagine education reformers asking “Where’s the data?”

It turns out that the data exists in the form of the annual Gallup Student Poll.

I just wasn’t aware of it[3].

Each year (the poll for 2014 is actually being conducted as we speak), Gallup uses a 20 question test to measure three core criteria:

Hope: the ideas and the energy we have for the future

Engagement: the involvement and enthusiasm for school

Well-being – how we think about and experience our lives

Gallup’s data is pretty clear. Starting in high-school, we see a significant decline in student engagement.

The grandmean for the seven Engagement questions on a 5-point scale is 4.38 for 5th graders.

For 12th graders? 3.80.

The questions inside that grandmean are even more telling and troubling.

“My teachers make me feel schoolwork is important”

5th = 4.56            9th = 4.10            12th = 3.89

“At this school I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”

5th = 4.25            9th = 3.90            12th = 3.74

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

5th = 4.44            9th = 3.84            12th = 3.50

“I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future.”

5th = 4.51            9th = 3.98            12th = 4.09[4]


This data matters because without engagement, we have nothing. All of the time, money and effort put into teacher and school accountability measurements is pointless without engagement.

What school reformers are peddling now and have been peddling for 20 years is cart.

Engagement is horse.

Without engagement, universal standards are meaningless. Without engagement we are consigning our students to lives where they spend a majority of their waking hours doing something they don’t care about.

Is this what we wish for them?

One of the additionally heartbreaking aspects of the survey is that despite this systemic malpractice, students remain relatively hopeful about their lives. The grandmean for this metric is 4.40 for 5th graders and 4.41 for 12th graders.

We owe it to students to do better. We don’t deserve the resiliency of their hopefulness.

And engagement does not mean injecting iPads or adaptive learning software into the classroom[5]. Engagement is passionate teachers working closely with curious students. We’ve known this for a long time. The existence of technological gewgaws doesn’t change fundamental human nature.

The best schools know this. Just check out the mission statement of one of the top college preparatory schools in the country:

“Lakeside’s 5th- to 12th-grade student-centered academic program focuses on the relationships between talented students and capable and caring teachers. We develop and nurture students’ passions and abilities and ensure every student feels known. 

Each student’s curiosities and capabilities lead them to unique academic challenges that are sustained through a culture of support and encouragement. All students will find opportunities to discover and develop a passion; to hone the skills of writing, thinking, and speaking; and to interact with the world both on and off campus. Lakeside trusts that each student has effective ideas about how to maximize his or her own education, and that they will positively contribute to our vibrant learning community.”

“Passion.” “Unique academic challenges.” “Trust.”


Lakeside is Lakeside School in Seattle, the alma mater of Bill Gates and where he sends his children to school.

If it’s good enough for Bill Gates and his kids, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

The data say so.


I found out about the Gallup School Survey via Twitter.


[1] Bill Gates was at it again on this front this week in an interview with Politico where he compared educational standards with the width of railroad tracks. http://www.politico.com/story/2014/09/bill-gates-common-core-111426.html See Peter Greene for why this is somewhere between naïve and idiotic. http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2014/09/gates-at-politico-wrong-so-wrong.html

[2] Once they pass what I believe is a relatively low – but certainly open to debate - threshold.

[3] That I didn’t know of this survey makes me want to pull my hair out by the roots in frustration. Fortunately, I have a lot of hair.

[4] This number hits its nadir in 10th grade at 3.95. It’d be interesting to figure out what accounts for the increase among seniors. Perhaps liberated from SAT/ACT and college admission pressure , there’s a rebound effect.

[5] Ask L.A. Unified School District how their billion dollar iPad initiative went. http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-me-deasy-ipads-20140826-story.html



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