Let students do what they do best

Survey of district leaders shows growing focus on hope and engagement
By: | Issue: March, 2019
February 21, 2019

When it comes to engagement, there are few who know more than Gallup. Valerie Calderon, senior consultant at the organization known for its public opinion polls and research analysis, says the same principles of engagement that have been applied in the corporate world for years can be applied in school districts as well. Calderon is co-author of a recent report titled “Superintendents Say Engagement, Hope Best Measure of Success” (DAmag.me/03vc). The 2018 report addresses a variety of issues, including the challenges facing K12 education, and how to evaluate the effectiveness of public schools, student preparedness and school safety measures. “I find that even in my world outside of Gallup, but certainly through our data, that people are thinking hard about what we need to do for students to help set them on their own best pathway to a great life,” Calderon says.

Your research shows superintendents give less weight to standardized test scores than they do to other measures.

We really think of these as noncognitive measures. People call them lots of things—soft skills, nonacademic measures. We would say that these belong in the framework of measures around school effectiveness.

I serve on the board of education in my city. I wouldn’t say that standardized tests are not relevant, nor would any of my colleagues. We see in our survey that 6 in 10 superintendents say that they’re important.

But we haven’t been able to find effective ways to talk about noncognitive skills from a measurement standpoint, and I think that’s reflected in the data. We want to better understand how to “do school” so that students can map a great pathway to their future. That isn’t indicated only by their standardized test scores.

How often do you conduct this superintendent survey?

We’ve run the superintendent survey at least four or five times since 2013. In fact, this latest survey ran the same set of items in 2016, so it was interesting to see that we had some important movement. We did have a higher proportion of superintendents saying that hope and engagement, for example, are a little bit more important in helping students prepare for their future beyond academic preparation.

Explain what you mean when you talk about engagement.

We think of engagement as involvement and enthusiasm. It isn’t just that you’re involved in the learning process. It isn’t just that you’re turning in assignments. It isn’t just that you’re listening. It’s that you are enthusiastic. And our thinking and our science around engagement in schools is really part of Gallup’s broader science. We study what engaged workers look like.

It really does involve that feeling component. You’re enthusiastic and excited and psychologically invested in your work. All of us have been in schools where you look around and the kids are excited, and you can almost see those proverbial lightbulbs above their heads just clicking on when they’re learning.

Did any of these survey results surprise you?

The surprise for me was just how broad the gap was between the percentage of graduates from schools where the superintendents favor hope and engagement, versus from those where they said standardized tests are very important. The difference is what surprised me. Not that it was there, but just how much it jumped out. Again, I’m mindful that we still have 6 in 10 superintendents saying these tests are important. But it shows that we need to find other ways to help us know how students are doing, and can map the best pathway to their future. It really just highlights that we have to continue to get really good at that in our schools.

We haven’t been able to find effective ways to talk about noncognitive skills from a measurement standpoint.

You write that student enthusiasm falls as high school graduation nears. At about what point does that drop-off begin?

This is a trend that we’ve seen for a good long while in our polling of students. I have found pretty consistently that there is a big change in engagement around those middle school years, between sixth grade and seventh. It’s not the lowest point of engagement as we measure it, but the biggest difference in engagement occurs during those years.

We’re certainly not the only ones studying that, of course. I know you’ve seen lots of other good work around engagement. The work shows, pretty much, that the difference in engagement happens around those middle school years. Those middle school years present some opportunities to think about the ways we do school.

What are some ways to measure and build engagement among students, staff and parents?

We have systematic ways that we define and measure engagement. It starts with getting systematic feedback, in which you’re asking people how they feel about their schools, about their work, about their future.

It’s really just a first step. I should say that it’s important that you don’t conduct a survey without having some kind of plan. That’s really important. In fact, I would recommend not conducting surveys. I know that sounds terrible coming from a survey designer.

I love quantitative data, but I say it’s only a compass that kind of points you in a good direction. There’s much more to be done.

You have to follow that up with good additional listening. Boosting the engagement of your core constituencies in schools really requires active listening, not just measurement.

Measure, ask, listen and listen some more. Then, invite people to the table to talk about how we—and “we” is very intentional—can make this the very best place to live, learn, serve and work. Involve your parents, your students, your educators, your staff members—anyone who listens.

The engagement of the transportation workers matters as well. They’re critical district ambassadors. They’re the first folks kids see when they start a school day.
Help them understand that they play a critical role. They keep students physically safe, but let’s help them learn good ways to help students feel emotionally and psychologically safe as well.

When you inspire people to that great mission, so they can contribute to the engagement of students, it’s something that is passed on. These are really powerful conversations that can result in concrete actions and steps.

Sometimes the actions don’t cost a lot; sometimes it’s just awareness, a little bit of education and sharing good ideas.

You have a pretty good example of that kind of engagement in one of your articles.

Right. My daughter is a pretty competitive kid, and she had a career-ending injury in gymnastics. But I was so grateful for this educator who recognized that her competitiveness needed an outlet. I would never have thought about what else she might do because being a gymnast was all she knew. This educator moved her into pole vaulting.

I use that as an example because it aligns with what we see in our research. When kids have chances to figure out what they do best, they shine.

My daughter was a gymnast and pole vaulter, but what she really loves is competition. She loves the pressure. She loves to test herself and to be put in situations where she can do that.

Now, she’s studying to be in the health care profession, which can be pretty intense. But she’s had a lot of practice being in intense situations, and she’ll carry that through her life.

How is that reflected in your research?

We find in our data that kids who say they’re involved in at least one activity can test-drive their future.

Helping kids find and practice their strengths in ways that can benefit them in the future is pretty powerful. We have to give students chances to practice—through a sport, a skill or an internship. That’s what we can do for students.

They can move into the future with just a little bit more confidence, and a little bit more certainty that, “Yes, I may fail some days, but I’m going to have a different pathway that I can try, and move toward success.”

We call that hope building.

Tim Goral is senior editor.