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October 03
Measuring What Matters: Student Engagement

​"Anyone? Anyone?" In just a word, repeated over and over, the actor Ben Stein captured the gulf between high school teachers and their students in the teen classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Doesn’t anyone in this class care to respond to my question? Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Dead Poet's Society, even the just-completed cable TV sensation Breaking Bad, with its disaffected chemistry teacher—the image of teens bored in high school and teachers struggling to reach them is a staple of popular culture.

It might be totally entertaining, were it not in fact consequential. For decades research has documented teen apathy toward school. Research has shown relatively little time devoted to homework compared to hanging out with friends, watching television, and networking online. Recent research has shown how much that apathy matters. If students do not feel emotionally connected to their school,  if they do not feel that adults at the school care about them, if they don’t feel that teachers are trying to teach them, and not just the content, students simply do not put in the requisite effort—and they do not learn, at least not up to their potential.

The problem is widespread, but it is not universal. Some schools and teachers succeed in capturing the hearts and minds of their students. (The Robin Williams character in Dead Poet's Society comes to mind.) Researchers have been able to identify how schools successfully connect with their students and the attitudes and behaviors that connected students display. For many years, researchers at Indiana University have been among the leaders in this work. Through the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE), they have validated a battery of 119 indicators that predict overall student engagement, the umbrella concept for all manner of student connections with their schools. They have shown that students and schools that measure high on these indicators do better academically—standardized test scores, high school graduation, college matriculation—than students and schools that score low. This relationship holds regardless of the backgrounds of students.

In the spring of 2013, 54 NAIS member schools participated in the High School Survey of Student Engagement, employing the 119 indicators for student respondents in grades 9-12. The individual schools and NAIS just received the results. They are extremely encouraging, indicating plainly that our schools are on the right track. HSSSE has been administered to large samples of public and private schools, allowing us to benchmark against other schools nationally.  A number of independent schools are part of the national private school sample. Some may object to this comparison of public and private schools, given that independent schools serve more affluent students on average than public schools serve. More affluent children from better educated families may be more engaged regardless of the efforts of their schools.  But most of the HSSSE indicators ask about what schools do to promote engagement, not just how engaged students feel. All schools should strive to engage all students.

The HSSSE survey tallied responses by grade level and for the school overall, making for 595 measures of engagement. On 569 of those measured—96 percent—NAIS schools posted engagement scores that were higher than public school scores by statistically significant amounts. In most cases the level of significance was 99.9 percent. That is an overwhelming difference.

The differences were affective, such as:

  • "I feel supported by the administrators, teachers, and counselors at this school."
  • "I feel comfortable being myself at this school."
  • "I am an important part of my high school community."
  • "I care about this school."

Differences were also evident in classroom practice:

  • "Teachers engage me in classroom discussions."
  • "My school emphasizes very much:
    • understanding information and ideas for classes (35 percent of public school students agreed "very much" with this statement, compared to 69 percent of NAIS students), and
    • "analyzing ideas in depth for classes" (22 percent of public school students agreed "very much," compared to 60 percent of NAIS students)."
  • "During this school year, how often have you received feedback from teachers on assignments or other class work" (37 percent of public school students responded "often," compared to 67 percent of NAIS students).

Differences were also clear schoolwide:

  • "There is at least one adult in this school who knows me well."
  • "My school emphasizes participating in school events and activities."
  • "My opinions are respected in this school."
  • "I am encouraged to build positive relationships with students of different backgrounds."

The last of these differences may reflect the greater diversity of the NAIS sample—while 65 percent of respondents from public schools identified themselves as white, only 59 percent of NAIS school respondents did.

These differences only scratch the surface of the HSSSE findings. The results validate decisions of hundreds of thousands of families who choose independent schools for the positive—and engaging—learning environment that the schools provide. Families want their children to love their schools and to be loved back in return. They want their children to be taught to think and create, not just master. They want them to become good and not just smart. In fairness, all educators want schools that share these attributes. For reasons inherent to independence, beginning with the freedom to be mission driven, our schools have shown more success promoting engagement, which in turn promotes learning.

This is important to understand, and to have documented by HSSSE, but it is not the main point. The great virtue of HSSSE and instruments like it is that they give schools detailed feedback on the conditions that make for successful school experiences. Unlike standardized tests that provide measures, imperfectly, of whether a school has succeeded academically, the HSSSE indicators give schools countless indicators of what they are doing and could do better to improve the work they do for their students. The schools that participated in HSSSE this year look very good on average. Each school also knows areas of strength and areas where it could improve engagement. As a school community, we should be looking for more measures like HSSSE that can help us improve what we offer students and their families. These are measures that matter.
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student engagement plus

John, thank you for this great post on school engagement. I’d like to add one comment to your summary statement about HSSSE and conditions that make for successful school experiences:

“Unlike standardized tests ... the HSSSE indicators give schools countless indicators of what they are doing and could do better to improve the work they do for their students.”

One of the reasons CSEE published Breaking into the Heart of Character last spring was precisely to detail some of those “hows” for improvement.  You note, for example, that 67% of NAIS students (vs. 37% in public school) responded “often” to the query “how often have you received feedback from teachers on assignments or other class work?”

It’s GREAT that 2/3 of independent school students receive frequent feedback on their work. But we also know from a quarter century of research (much, in this case, at the University of Rochester) what elements in feedback best foster engagement, in addition to student motivation and better learning. How much more powerful when “frequent” feedback is also “positive, ‘effectance promoting,’ and coming from a teacher perceived as warm and supportive”! And how much better if teachers in our schools could fine tune their frequent feedback for even greater benefit.
i:0#.f|crmmembershipprovider|ds@csee.orgNo presence information on 10/3/2013 9:34 PM

The Local Connection


Thanks for the informative piece. For many years I have conducted constituent surveys and it never fails that I find a positive empirical link between satisfaction and engagement. It will be even more useful to put my findings into a larger research context.


Jeff Mitchell
Jeffrey MitchellNo presence information on 10/4/2013 1:21 PM



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