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Executive Summary Learning and succeeding in school requires active engagement whether students are rich or poor, black, brown, or white. The core principles that underlie engagement are applicable to all schools whether they are in urban, suburban, or rural communities. Yet although engagement is impor- tant for all students and all schools, the consequences of disengagement vary substantially. When students from advantaged backgrounds become disengaged, they may learn less than they could, but they usually get by or they get second chances; most eventually graduate and move on to other opportunities. In contrast, when students from disadvantaged backgrounds in high-poverty, urban high schools become disengaged, they are less likely to graduate and consequently face severely limited opportunities. Failure to earn even the most basic educational credential or acquire the basic skills needed to function in adult society increases dramatically their risk of unemployment, poverty, poor health, and involvement in the criminal jus- tice system. Schools do not control all of the factors that influence students' aca- demic engagement. Particularly in disadvantaged urban communities, academic engagement and achievement are adversely influenced by the economic and social marginalization of the students' families and commu- nities. These disadvantages can be lessened, however, by participation in an engaging school community with high academic standards, skillful instruction, and the support students need to pursue their educational and career goals. Engaging adolescents, including those who have become disengaged 1
2 ENGAGING SCHOOLS and alienated from school, is not an easy task. Academic motivation decreases steadily from the early grades of elementary school into high school. Furthermore, adolescents are too old and too independent to follow teachers' demands out of obedience, and many are too young, inexperi- enced, or uninformed to fully appreciate the value of succeeding in school. Although there are important exceptions, as a group urban high schools fail to meet the needs of too many of their students. In many urban high schools with large concentrations of students living in poverty, it is com- mon for fewer than half of the ninth graders who enter to leave with a high school diploma. Dropping out of school is but the most visible indication of pervasive disengagement from the academic purposes and programs of these schools. Many of the students who do not drop out altogether attend irregularly, exert modest effort on schoolwork, and learn little. To address these problems, the committee was charged to "review, synthesize, and analyze research on academic engagement and motivation that might apply to urban high schools." The committee examined how curriculum, instruction, and the organization of schools can promote in- volvement of urban youth in the academic program and the broader school community, also taking into account influences such as peer culture, family, and community resources. A system of schools that has fully implemented the core principles needed to provide engaging, rigorous education for all students is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, the evidence reviewed in this volume demonstrates that much has been learned about the conditions in schools that enhance student engagement, and that there are many examples of schools in which students deemed at risk of disengagement and failure are productively engaged and achieving at high levels. Although far too rare, these success stories prove that schools can engage the enthusiasm for learning of economically disad- vantaged students. The committee drew on psychological research on motivation, studies of the effects of various educational policies and practices on student en- gagement and learning, and students' own voices. This research base is mostly qualitative, correlational, or quasi-experimental, thus falling short of the random-assignment design that is believed by some researchers to be necessary for causal conclusions. Nevertheless, the evidence is consistent enough to give credibility to the committee's recommendations. A common theme among effective practices is that they address under- lying psychological variables related to motivation, such as competence and control, beliefs about the value of education, and a sense of belonging. In brief, engaging schools and teachers promote students' confidence in their ability to learn and succeed in school by providing challenging instruction and support for meeting high standards, and they clearly convey their own
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 3 high expectations for their students' success. They provide choices for stu- dents and they make the curriculum and instruction relevant to adolescents' experiences, cultures, and long-term goals, so that students see some value in the high school curriculum. Although learning involves cognitive processes that take place within each individual, motivation to learn also depends on the student's involve- ment in a web of social relationships that supports learning. The likelihood that students will be motivated and engaged is increased to the extent that their teachers, family, and friends effectively support their purposeful in- volvement in learning and in school. Thus a focus on engagement calls attention to the connection between a learner and the social context in which learning takes place. Engaging schools promote a sense of belonging by personalizing instruction, showing an interest in students' lives, and . . . . . creating a supportive, caring social environment. This description of engaging schools applies to few urban high schools. Instead, the picture that emerges is of schools that engender low expecta- tions, alienation, and low achievement. Resources are lacking and services are fragmented. The teachers are the least qualified, and the buildings are the most dilapidated. The curriculum and teaching often are unresponsive to the needs and interests of students especially students of color, English- language learners, students from high-poverty neighborhoods, or those who entered high school with weak skills in reading and mathematics. Students often do not get to know or to be known by their teachers. As a result, many experience schools as impersonal and uncaring. Because few urban schools are well connected to the communities they serve or to the educa- tional and career opportunities potentially available to their students, many students fail to see how working hard in school will enable them to attain the educational and career goals to which they aspire. Improving the quality of urban high schools in the United States is critically important, not only to the futures of the students who attend them, but also for the future prosperity and quality of life of cities and for the nation as a whole. Fortunately, knowledge derived from research and practice provides more than a sufficient basis to proceed with urgently needed reforms. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS The evidence reviewed by the committee leads to a number of conclu- signs and recommendations as a means to achieve the goals of meaningful engagement and genuine improvements in achievement. Because our delib- erations revealed significant limits in the available evidence, the committee also outlines in its full report some recommendations and directions for future research.
4 ENGAGING SCHOOLS Recommendation 1: The committee recommends that high school courses and instructional methods be redesigned in ways that will in- crease adolescent engagement and learning. The evidence is clear that high school courses can be designed to engage urban high school students and enhance their learning. The instruction typical of most urban high schools nevertheless fails to engage students cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally. Evidence indicates that when instruction draws on students' preexisting understandings, interests, culture, and real-worId experiences, the curricu- lum becomes more meaningful to them. Students stay engaged when in- struction is varied and appropriately challenging for all students, when students are active participants, and when teachers allow students to use their native language abilities and other resources to master the material and complete tasks. Recommendation 2: The committee recommends ongoing ciassroom- based assessment of students' understanding and skills. Instruction that is appropriately challenging for all students in a class requires that teachers have information about each student's current knowI- edge and skills. Teachers' instructional decisions about tasks and next steps will be more effective when they are informed by daily or weekly data about student progress. Standardized testing done annually does not pro- vide enough useful information for teachers to make instructional decisions in their classrooms. Teachers should monitor continually the effectiveness of curriculum and instructional practices, not only for progress in learning, but also to see whether students are staying engaged behaviorally (e.g., attendance, comple- tion of work), cognitively (e.g., efforts to understand and apply new con- cepts), and emotionally (e.g., enthusiasm for learning activities). Recommendation 3: The committee recommends that preservice teacher preparation programs provide high school teachers deep content knowI- edge and a range of pedagogical strategies and understandings about adolescents and how they learn, and that schools and districts provide practicing teachers with opportunities to work with colleagues and to continue to develop their skills. Teaching in a way that engages students requires a complex set of skills and knowledge. High school teachers need to know about different meth- ods of teaching and about adolescent learning, and they must have a deep understanding of the discipline they teach. High-quality teachers need to have a range of available strategies to use with their students and skill at adapting instruction to the needs of individual students.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY s Teacher education programs should provide beginning teachers with an understanding of student-centered pedagogy that is focused on under- standing, and teach them strategies for involving students in active learning. New teachers need explicit preparation in order to be effective with diverse, heterogeneous groups of high school students as well as those who have special needs, including English-language learners, students with special disabilities, and students who are substantially behind in their basic skills. Teachers already working in high schools cannot meet the needs of their students unless they also have opportunities to learn and develop new skills. District- and state-level administrators need to provide resources- time and experts for teachers to continue to develop their teaching skills. These opportunities for professional development have to translate into new practices and their effects on student learning need to be discussed among colleagues who can hold each other accountable. Recommendation 4: The committee recommends that schools provide the support and resources necessary to help all high school students to meet challenging standards. Standards and high expectations are critical, but they must be genu- inely achievable if they are to motivate student engagement. Students are most likely to be academically engaged when they are challenged with demanding learning goals and when they have opportunities to experience a sense of competence and accomplishment about their learning. Setting high standards and holding students accountable for reaching them can serve as an incentive to exert effort, but only if students know what to do to meet the standards and believe that they can succeed and that the standard is achievable. Simply asking students especially low achievers to attain higher standards without providing the assistance and support they need is more likely to discourage than to motivate them. Thus, for example, we urge districts and school administrators to pro- vice individualized instruction, tutoring, and summer programs for stu- dents who are behind to help them progress in their skills. Teachers need to help students develop short-term goals that are calibrated to their preexist- ing knowledge and skills, while students work toward meeting the high standards. Recommendation 5: The committee recommends that tests used to evaluate schools, teachers, and students assess high-level, critical think- ing and that they incorporate broad and multidimensional conceptions of subject matter that includes fluency, conceptual understanding, analysis, and application. The tests that are used for accountability have substantial impact on what gets taught and how, and these in turn affect student engagement. It is
6 ENGAGING SCHOOLS unrealistic to expect teachers to exert effort to provide a coherent and integrated curriculum and focus on understanding and critical thinking and writing if the tests used to evaluate them and their students measure only fragmented, decontextualized, basic skills. Recommendation 6: Districts should restructure comprehensive urban high schools to create smaller learning communities that foster person- alized, and continuous relationships between teachers and students. Supportive personal relationships are critical in promoting and main- taining student engagement. Although learning involves cognitive processes that take place within each individual, motivation to learn also depends on the student's involvement in a web of social relationships that support learning. Most urban high schools are too large and fail to promote close personal relationships and a sense of community between adults and students. Restructuring can be achieved by starting new schools, by breaking up large schools into new and completely autonomous schools, or by creating smaller connected but somewhat autonomous units in large schools. Block scheduling and looping (teachers staying with the same group of students for multiple years) are promising strategies for promoting longstanding, respectful, and mutually accountable relationships. Creating small learning communities may be necessary, but it is not sufficient to improve student engagement. The social climate of the school and the quality of interactions are critical. Principals and teachers need to promote an environment of trust and respect of each other and of students. They need to mode! these behaviors and refuse to tolerate disrespectful behavior among students. A social context centered on learning in which all administrative decisions are made with student learning in mind and teachers leverage their closer relationships with students to ''press''] students to challenge themselves and develop deep understanding is also critical. This focus can be conveyed by implementing school policies that recognize students who respond to academic challenges quickly and that provide preemptive inter- ventions when problems of poor attendance, failure to complete home- work, and poor performance arise. Recommendation 7: The committee recommends that both formal and informal tracking by ability be eliminated. Alternative strategies should be used to ensure appropriately challenging instruction for students who vary widely in their skill levels. 1''Academic press" has been defined as offering demanding curricula and having high expectations for learning, without pressuring performance or undermining autonomy (Phillips, 1997 and Shouse 1996a, 1996b, 1997).
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 7 Currently, students who are most at risk of disengaging from school have too little contact with peers who have high expectations for academic success. Groups of students with similar achievement levels are often tracked, formally or informally, into different courses, thus isolating and grouping the relatively low-performing and disengaged students with one another. In addition to preventing interaction among low and high achiev- ers, tracking precludes for some students access to the curriculum needed to prepare for postsecondary education. Tracked courses, especially at the low achievement levels, can also reinforce lower standards and engender in students the belief that they lack academic competence. Classes that do not prepare but prevent students getting on to rigorous grade-level work should be eliminated, and challenging courses, including Advanced Placement courses, should be as available to students in urban schools serving low-income students as they are in schools serving more affluent students. A more challenging curriculum with heterogeneous grouping can only be successful if teachers are well trained to address individual student needs. Teachers need support to develop instructional approaches that will meet the needs of a class of students who vary dramatically in their skill levels. We suggest, in particular, training in individualized and peer group learning strategies that have been shown to be effective in promoting learning in a heterogeneous class. Another strategy, used previously only at the college level but which merits experimentation in high schools, is connecting help from a reading or English-as-a-second-language specialist directly to sub- stantive courses. Thus, rather than isolating students with special needs, the additional assistance that some students need is provided in the context of a regular course with more skilled peers. The committee also recommends that school administrators create op- portunities for low-achieving students to interact with and develop friend- ships with more academically successful peers. Because students tend to choose to interact with students with the same ethnicity and similar achieve- ment levels, concerted efforts must be made to create activities that will attract diverse students, and to promote a climate in which students feel comfortable venturing beyond familiar peer and instructional contexts. Recommendation 8: The committee recommends that school guidance and counseling responsibilities be diffused among school staff, includ- ing teachers, who are supported by professionals. Serious social or psychological problems can interfere with adolescents' own academic engagement as well as undermine a positive learning climate. Currently many problems go unnoticed or untreated. Professionals who have relevant expertise are responsible for far too many students and they have too little time to provide the support and intervention students need.
8 ENGAGING SCHOOLS The problem is especially serious in urban high schools serving low-income students, where social and psychological problems are more prevalent. A climate of learning is also undermined when students do not under- stand the consequences of disengaging from school. Many urban high school students are poorly informed about postsecondary educational and career options. In particular, they have only a vague understanding of what they need to learn during high school to have a realistic chance of achieving the ambitious educational and career goals to which many aspire. Because they don't see the connections, students are not motivated to engage in purpose- ful and challenging academic activities. In most schools, helping students make these connections is the responsibility of guidance counselors who oversee large numbers of students and have little opportunity to know their individual interests and needs. A promising new strategy is to provide every student and family with a member of the school staff who can act as an adult advocate and who in turn has a trained expert (like a counselor) to consult and to whom students or families with serious problems can be referred. To help students achieve a realistic understanding of how what they are learning in high school is related to their educational and career options after high school, we suggest also providing students with experiences in work settings, teachers with curriculum materials and instructional supports to integrate rigor and rel- evance into the core curriculum, as well as close coordination with post- secondary educational institutions. Recommendation 9: The committee recommends that efforts be made to improve communication, coordination, and trust among the adults in the various settings where adolescents spend their time. These set- tings include homes, religious institutions, and the various organized extracurricular activities sponsored by schools and community groups. High schools cannot, by themselves, achieve high levels of engagement and academic standards for all students. Most urban high schools function quite independently of the other adults in adolescents' lives, such as parents, health care providers, and those involved in extracurricular or religious activities. Many efforts to improve schools are too "school-centric" in the sense that they focus exclusively on school resources and programs and fail to take advantage of the resources in the larger community. School administrators and teachers should also expand and enrich the high school curriculum and help students see the real-worId meaningfulness of school learning by taking advantage of resources in the community. For example, artists, civic leaders, and community members and parents with cultural or historical knowledge and experiences can be invited to schools to share their knowledge and interact with students. Teachers and adminis-
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 9 trators should also provide students with opportunities to engage in service learning and internships that take them into community contexts. Recommendation 10: The committee recommends that schools make greater efforts to identify and coordinate with social and health services in the community, and that policy makers revise policies to facilitate students' access to the services they need. The committee finds that most urban schools are unable to deal with the many problems (e.g., poor physical and mental health, instability in parenting, substance abuse, homelessness) that some low-income adoles- cents face and which interfere with their engagement in academic work. Schools cannot be expected to compensate fully for problems associated with factors such as economic and social inequalities and the lack of effec- tive policies to address them. However, such problems cannot be ignored in urban communities with high concentrations of poverty. Although person- alized, supportive high school communities can help protect adolescents from environments that place them at risk for negative academic outcomes, some high school students need additional services. Policy makers can and should do more to help students whose personal circumstances interfere with their ability to learn, and school administrators can make better use of the resources that are available. School administrators often encounter barriers to partnerships and col- laborations with community service providers. Federal, state, and local policy makers should remove barriers to coordination. Schools and social service and health agencies should seek ways to improve communication among school personnel and service providers who see the same adolescent. CHALLENGES OF IMPLEMENTATION The urgency of reform must not lead us to seize upon quick fixes or silver bullets. The research reviewed in this volume illustrates repeatedly that student engagement and learning are directly affected by a confluence of organizational factors and instructional practices in particular schools, by family and community influences, and by a wide range of national, state, and local policies. No single educational policy or practice, no matter how well grounded in research, can be expected to increase students' academic engagement if the policies and practices in which they are embedded are ignored. For example, small, personalized schools may not enhance mean- ingful cognitive engagement and learning if they do not also provide effec- tive teaching and a strong press for achieving high academic standards; the most engaging teaching practices may have little effect on a student who is homeless, has serious untreated health problems, or faces the chronic threat
10 ENGAGING SCHOOLS of violence. Allowing students to choose among different small, thematic learning communities can recreate tracking based on social class, ethnicity, and achievement levels without policies and special efforts to avoid this. Teachers cannot be expected to provide meaningful and engaging instruc- tion if they do not have deep knowledge of their subject matter and prin- ciples of effective pedagogy. Student engagement and learning are affected by a complicated set of nested variables. Some factors affect the motivation of individual students in specific classrooms of specific high schools, while others stem from broad federal or state policies that may affect a large number of very diverse high schools. The array of policies and practices that affect student motiva- tion and learning must be aligned so that efforts in one area (e.g., the classroom) are supported rather than undermined by policies at another (e.g., broader educational and social policies). Although it is neither neces- sary nor realistic to expect that all potential policy conflicts can be resolved before students can engage productively in learning, educators and policy makers should, at the very least, consider how their policies and practices interact to affect student engagement. A fundamental transformation of American high schools and the policy contexts in which high school education is embedded is needed to engage all students in learning and to ensure high standards of achievement. There are no panaceas, and some of the simple solutions that have been proposed, such as raising standards, can alone do more harm than good. Realistically, the reforms that are needed will require greater resources than are currently provided. At the very least, the inequities in resource allocation, with schools serving students with the greatest needs having the fewest resources, will need to be redressed. In addition to increased funding of high schools, we suggest investigation of ways to use current resources more effectively. The committee did not address ways to acquire resources because it was beyond its charge. Although the focus is primarily on what can be done in high schools, the policies and practices described in this volume have important implica- tions for many issues beyond its scope including, for example, policies that affect who is attracted into the field of teaching, preservice teacher and leadership training and credentialing policies, state and federal testing poli- cies, graduation requirements, and school funding and resource allocation. Policy makers and educators must not become discouraged or give up when they encounter difficulties. Difficulties are inevitable, and overcoming them will require persistence, continuous evaluation, and using what is learned to fine-tune, and possibly to alter the course of, but not to cast aside, their efforts.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 11 As a society, we should not fail our youth by failing to provide them with the kind of educational program they need to achieve high standards of learning. Much is known about what needs to be done, and we are learning more every day about how to do it. What is needed now is the will to use this knowledge where it is most needed in our urban high schools.