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April 2010
This Month: Student Engagement

It’s a cliché alright, but quite frankly, student engagement is by far the greatest indicator of success in a classroom.  Students who tune out, drop out.  Thus, every educator’s primary goal should be to ensure that students are engaged in meaningful, life changing work . . . every day.   This month, we focus on student engagement as the central objective in keeping kids on track for post-secondary success.  A case study from Reagan High School, a long-time partner of Houston A+ Challenge, an interview with A+ Executive Director Scott Van Beck, and a brief look at a great resource in student engagement get the conversation started. 

From the Office

Scott Van Beck, Executive Director of Houston A+ Challenge, on Student Engagement

Scott Van Beck, executive director of Houston A+ Challenge, knows a thing or two about student engagement—enough to say, "Student engagement is the holy grail.  We’ve got to figure this out."

As a regional superintendent of Houston ISD’s West Region, Van Beck and his executive staff visited campuses to collect data on school performance using a unique protocol titled, "ARE we there yet?"  Van Beck, his team, and school personnel would visit three classrooms to assess performance in three areas: A-Alignment, R-Rigor, and E-Engagement.  After almost 1,000 classroom visits over three years for this purpose, the findings were clear and obvious.  "Even in high scoring classrooms with what would be considered highly effective teachers, we found that engagement scores were usually the lowest. In fact, they were usually 50% of the alignment scores," Van Beck concludes.

The data also showed that elementary teachers generally had higher scores in engagement than secondary teachers did.  Van Beck suggests that one of the reasons for this disparity has to do with the  issue of skills versus content.  "Elementary schools tend to spend more time building skills," says Van Beck, "whereas secondary schools expect kids to know the 'how' as opposed to the 'what.'" 

At Houston A+ Challenge, Van Beck keeps coming back to a key finding from this earlier work: "with student engagement, you have to begin with the learner in mind. You can't look at content or teaching practice—you must focus on learners' needs and interests, and that's tough in an environment of accountability based on standardized tests.  Accountability is built around curriculum and teacher practice, not around learners’ behaviors and needs."

For Van Beck, then, the future of student engagement depends on the transformation of school design.  "School bureaucracies will have to get aggressive in designing schools to include technology and relevant material that directly impacts a child's life."  Pausing a second after he says this, he pulls out his Blackberry and continues, "See, students are learning in spite of us.  They’re pulling out these tools and they are playing games and learning without us.  I think my kids learn more about history from the game Band of Brothers than they do from me."  The new world of student engagement is teaching beyond the classroom with tools that extend well beyond the city and well beyond the school bell.

But the system has to adjust to engage the learner.  "If I can teach through a smart phone or a gaming system," Van Beck says, "that changes the whole schematic of school—property, personnel, books, they all change. The question then is, 'Are we willing to give up all of this for better learning?'  That’s going to be the challenge for us."

The WOW Factor: Student Engagement
An oldie but goodie still flies off the shelves at Houston A+ Challenge on a regular basis: Phil Schlechty's Working on the Work from 2002.  It still circulates among staff and those A+ works with because it remains the best resource on student engagement that educators can lay their hands on. 

Building on his previous work, Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, Schlechty begins by categorizing student engagement in the classroom into five behavioral responses: authentic engagement, ritual engagement, passive compliance, retreatism, and rebellion.  These responses underscore the book’s strategic intent, which is to transform classroom practice into meaningful, engaged instruction.  The remainder of the book examines the ways in which leaders at all levels in a district can transform schools, and the thread through all of this is student engagement. 

For Schlechty, "Student engagement should be a central concern of the teacher . . . ritual engagement may produce good test scores, passive compliance may produce improved test scores—especially where retreatism and rebellion have been the norm—but real improvements can occur only as authentic engagement increases" (41-42).  To put it simply, classroom engagement must drive the work of schools.  In Schlechty's view, engagement requires meaningful, relevant subject matter that can be utilized both immediately and in the not-so-near future.  The book lends itself naturally to a group read, as it includes easy-to-use strategies and planning tools.  School leaders at any level would be remiss to overlook this excellent resource.

Purchase Working on the Work on Amazon.com

Purchase Shaking Up the Schoolhouse on Amazon.com

From the Field

An Apple a Day Keeps the Kids at Play
When asked what is different about his new Apple class, Michael Shea of Reagan High School responds in all seriousness (and with not the least bit of arrogance):  "This is the chance to see education in a way that’s not all paint-by-numbers."

Shea, a veteran teacher, became interested in making instructional videos for his ESL classes a few years ago, and this interest has blossomed into a passion.  With support from Houston ISD, Shea and his students have created two highly successful video series, English with Sound & Lights, that are now used throughout the district.  It would be enough to discuss how the production and use of this video series engages students in meaningful work, but even beyond this is the story of student engagement in the new Apple Final Cut Pro lab in Shea’s classroom — one of only seven such labs in the nation. 

To read more about the innovative and engaging work that Shea is doing with his students in the first year of the new lab, click here.

From the Headlines

Engage Them with Projects:  Though John Dewey is long gone, his emphasis on the power of connected, hands-on learning is still alive and well.  Meaningful, connected project-based learning keeps kids engaged, exploring, and learning.   For some excellent tips on how to make it happen in the classroom, see: Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement

Blackboard as a Tool:  Universities have long piloted Blackboard web technology to engage students outside the classroom.  Now, with advances in technology and much cooler, more robust tools, Blackboard needs a good look from the K-12 market.  Click here for more information

Teacher Effectiveness = Student Engagement: In a recent survey, educators held that student engagement in the content was a better, more accurate measurement of teacher effectiveness than student performance on standardized tests.  This finding, along with other results from the survey, can found on Ed Week here.

Engagement Doesn’t Stop at the Bell: Check out Citizen Schools to see how after school is just as important as during school.  Reports on their effective student engagement can be found here.

Teacher Resources and Grants

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Contact Mike Webster,
Teacher Leadership Coach

Houston A+ Challenge's support for teacher leaders is made possible through grants from:

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ExxonMobil Foundation

and other supporters