Meet Morgan, the kid in class who is always asking off-topic questions. The kid who finds any way possible to distract himself and other students from the task at hand. The one who is typically "managed" instead of being considered one of the learners. Most adults can remember a Morgan in a class they took. In today's education system, Morgan would typically be a student who is categorized as disengaged.
Morgan is not alone. In 2014, the Gallup Student Poll found that among the 825,000+ public school students surveyed across the country, 47% were disengaged in school. Though the Gallup Student Poll is not a nationally representative sample due to schools opting in to have students take the free assessment on their own, the results anecdotally make it very clear why students' test scores in the U.S. are falling behind those of other nations in math (27th), reading (17th) and science (20th). They also help explain why the event dropout rate -- the percentage of those who drop out in a single year -- among public high school students has stayed consistent (3.3%), why the high school graduation rate is hardly improving (up by two percentage points over three years), why our nation's economy is slowing down and why job growth is not increasing as much as it has in decades past. The good news is that ideas like measuring student engagement, creating a culture that develops entrepreneurs and providing students and teachers with the opportunity to use their strengths every day can change all of that -- and change it fast.
I met Morgan while teaching a strengths and entrepreneurship program in the summer of 2012. The program was designed to provide students of lower socio-economic status with the opportunity to discover their strengths using the Clifton StrengthsExplorer, develop teamwork and collaboration, receive one-on-one strengths coaching, interview successful entrepreneurs across the country and visit local entrepreneurs at their own place of business in the Washington, D.C., area. At the end of the program, students worked together to use their strengths and build a prototype for a business they hoped to create.
In the strengths and entrepreneurship program, Morgan started out as the distracting, off-task student he would have been in any classroom setting. However, near the end of the first week of this course, there was one very small conversation that changed his entire experience.
During a project, Morgan was asked about what he liked to do at home. His answer: Help his mother and grandmother in the kitchen. A follow-up question caused the shift that immediately took him from being that distracting student to one of the most engaged, focused and positive kids for the rest of the program: What did he like about being in the kitchen? Morgan stopped working on his assignment and started explaining the types of food he cooked, his mom's favorite food that he made, his favorite food, how he made all of it and how much fun he had doing it. Morgan immediately went from being a constant distraction in class to a motivated learner and an engaged student.
Even at 11 years old, it was easy to see what Morgan had a passion for. It was something he knew and did well and wanted to do all the time. After Morgan explained his passion for cooking, he was ecstatic to find out that what he loved to do could be what he got to do all day, every day, and that he could make money doing it! Once Morgan heard this, he started asking questions about how he could pursue cooking as a profession. Every assignment or project became exciting for Morgan instead of just another school task. Morgan had transformed from a disengaged student to one of the most engaged in the program, and all it took was asking Morgan what he liked to do every day.
This success story about Morgan's experience is something we need to replicate over and over again in our school systems. To expand the impact that the best teachers have on students, we need to build engaged schools from the ground up. To achieve this, a school or district can focus on multiple areas -- the first being the recruitment and selection of a great principal and great teachers. Gallup's PrincipalInsight and TeacherInsight assessments increase school districts' ability to hire great principals and teachers by predicting the potential a principal or teacher has to be successful and engaged based on multiple school factors, including evaluations from principals, teachers and students and student academic success.
Second, a school or district can measure its employee and student engagement, as the former directly affects the latter. Gallup research has found that engaged teachers create engaged students, and that student engagement is directly related to student achievement outcomes. The Gallup Student Poll -- an instrument administered for free every fall to any school or district that chooses to sign up -- produces reports highlighting students' levels of engagement, hope and well-being for each grade and for the school overall.
Third, a school or district can create a strengths-based culture. The Clifton StrengthsFinder and StrengthsExplorer provide adults and students with their top three (StrengthsExplorer), top five or all 34 strengths (StrengthsFinder) that can be used to cultivate positive, successful learning and work environments for students, teachers, principals and parents alike.
If there were more "Morgans" being engaged within our school systems every day, the number of dropouts would decrease, the graduation rate would increase, test scores and grades would improve dramatically and our economy and available jobs through entrepreneurs would see steady growth again. Hopeful and passionate students like Morgan can be cultivated to start more businesses based on what they love to do. It's a simple fix that starts with engaging our students.
Jessica Stutzman, a Writer and Editor at Gallup, contributed to this piece.