Student Engagement: The Overlooked Factor in College and Career Readiness

Virtually every school is committed to graduating all students college and career ready. Teachers are asked to help students meet higher standards than ever before to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Standardized test scores hover ominously above the entire educational community, ready to label a student as exceeding standards or needing support and a school as exceeding expectations or in need of improvement. In the current high-stakes educational climate, few stop to take the temperature and ask how students are doing. Are they attentive, persistent, and committed? Do they value and find meaning in school work?

The Schlechty Center argues that if schools want to graduate all students college and career ready that students must be engaged in the classroom. As a teacher, I acknowledge that much of what I do in the classroom does not engage all students at high levels all the time.  Using the continuum of engagement provided by the Schlechty Center, I have to admit that the majority of my students exhibit ritual compliance (school work has no meaning to students and the emphasis is on minimums and exit requirements) or strategic compliance (school work is instrumental in getting to the desired outcome--grades, class rank, college acceptance, parental approval). Don't get me wrong; my students are overall good people. They are generally kind to me and their peers. They tell me that they think that I am a good teacher. Nevertheless, if I am honest with myself, few students would see the activities in my classroom as personally meaningful or highly interesting such that they believe them to be work worth doing at an optimal level of performance.

What then is the solution to declining student engagement? Eric Jensen outlines four mindsets to address the challenge of preparing all students to be ready for college and careers: the relational mindset, the achievement mindset, the rich classroom climate mindset, and the engagement mindset. Starting with the premise that change is the new constant, Jensen suggests that teachers' (awesome) responsibility is to develop positive personal relationships with all students, help students to set and achieve gutsy goals, foster a climate that provides optimal conditions for learning, and purposely engage every student, every day.

Simply put, engagement is the lifeblood that runs through the classrooms of highly effective teachers. Engagement is not an add-on. It is built into all learning activities by adhering to two overarching design principles: (student) voice and choice. In other words, I need to focus on providing learning experiences for students that are personally meaningful and where students can choose either what they are to learn or how they are to go about learning. My classroom will not become purposely engaging for all students overnight or even in one school year; however, by working on modifying one element or by implementing one strategy at a time, I seek to eventually lock in the four mindsets of change so that all students will be learning at high levels, be retaining what they learn, and be able to transfer what they learn to new contexts. Only then will all my students be college and career ready.

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