How to Avoid Falling Off the School Cliff

A recent Gallup Poll article gives us one more thing to worry about: falling off the school cliff. According to the report, students become less and less engaged with every school year.

The data shows that in elementary school nearly 80% of children are engaged in their classes. By middle school that engagement decreases to 61% of students and then plummets to 44% by high school. Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education says, “The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure.” So what can we do to fix it?

1. Build community partnerships.

Part of the problem is a lack of opportunity for kids to spread their creative and entrepreneurial wings. Gallup shows that 45% of kids from grades 5-12 want to start a business when they grow up. But shockingly, only 5% spend more than one hour a week exposed to a real business.

So let’s bring the businesses to them. At Citizen Schools, 31 middle schools bring in professionals from big businesses like Google, Bank of America, Fidelity and Cognizant to give the kids the exposure and inspiration they need in middle school to get them excited about their futures. By leading hands-on classes called “apprenticeships” the kids aren’t just being exposed to potential careers, they’re doing them by investing in stocks, building robots and editing blogs. 80% of Citizen Schools students who experience a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) related apprenticeship report being interested in pursuing a career in STEM compared to only 33% of 8th graders who are interested in STEM careers nationally. How’s that for boosting engagement?

2. Focus on the middle grades.

Middle school is absolutely critical for keeping kids engaged. As kids transition from elementary school where they are typically most engaged, keeping them on a path to success is imperative. According to research by Robert Balfanz in his Putting Middle School Grades Students on the Graduation Path report, the first year of middle school is the “make or break year” when the largest number of students develop potential indicators for dropping out.

The silver lining there is that his findings also show that 6th graders who develop “off-track” indicators tend to stay in school for at least 5 more years– allowing time to reinvest in them and change their trajectories. By capitalizing on those important middle grades, those students can be re-engaged and put back on track.

3. Expand the learning day. 

It’s not easy to give students the inspiration and exposure they need in the confinements of a traditional school day. Expanded learning time (ELT) allows schools more time to enrich and re-engage students by bringing in a second shift of fresh-faced educators. Kids who don’t necessarily have the chance to play on sports teams, take piano lessons or join the chess club still need the opportunity to get their feet wet in trying new things. By adding on time at the end of the school day and using it wisely– schools have the chance to reinforce learning through hands-on projects.

But does it work? In a recent New York Daily News article, Executive Director of Citizen Schools New York Nitzan Pelman pointed to the impressive results of the beginning stages of a three-year ELT pilot initiative. Over two years, Citizen Schools partner schools averaged a 10.4 percentage point gain in proficiency on math and English standardized tests. That meets the U.S. Department of Education standard for successful turnaround in three years. And it was done in only two!

Brandon Busteed says, “For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.” And they can be. We’ve seen it happen. Find out how can you help change education in America.