Researchers studying the problem of young people dropping out of school have heard it many times. Students who drop out disengaged from school at some point, and schools may have done little to re-engage them. So, the thinking goes, maybe educators should measure engagement, and do something about it if it seems low.

A recent report from the Southeast Regional Lab provides exhaustive detail about ways to measure student engagement and the research underpinnings of various approaches. And a trend du jour develops.

Whether to measure engagement is a complex issue for a variety of reasons. As the research suggests, students appear to value aspects of their school that enhance their engagement, such as teachers taking a personal interest in their development and the social milieu of the school being interesting and satisfying to them. However, it needs to be kept in mind that adults are accountable for school performance and are not directly rewarded for improving engagement. They are rewarded for standardized test scores, high school completion rates, college-going rates, the quality of colleges attended, and sports and club performances.

Communities do not punish students who fail to do well on standardized tests (though parents might), but as No Child Left Behind clearly specifies, schools can be sanctioned for weak student performance and harshly so if schools cannot improve their performance.

Which brings us to a key point. Improving engagement might be an antecedent to improving test scores and academic achievement. It’s not a well-tested path, however; the “First Things First” model, which focuses heavily on student engagement, has shown initial promise, and researchers have found that the Talent Development model can lead to improved academic achievement. It’s not a lot of research, though. And whether to measure (and possibly intervene on) engagement ultimately is a decision with resource implications. It’s a natural question to ask whether it’s cost-effective to try to improve school outcomes by focusing on engagement. Maybe other approaches for improving schools offer more for the dollar.

The field has only begun to focus on understanding and measuring engagement, so these kinds of “comparative effectiveness” analyses are likely to be a long way off.  Even in health care, which devotes a much larger share of resources to research than education, comparative effectiveness analyses are relatively new and sometimes controversial. Here the issue is joined. Administrators face hard choices of what is going to give to make room for efforts to promote student engagement. Without clear evidence that engagement leads to achievement gains, why would they make room for it?

Ultimately, as researchers we believe in evidence and cumulated knowledge. From the research perspective, we should welcome efforts to build sound theory and measures of student engagement and seek to advance knowledge on the topic. At the same time, we need to recognize other forces at work that push educators to yearn for a quick fix. These forces are contrary to much of what makes research valuable—its enthusiasm for getting the logic right above all else—but they cannot be wished away. They can be blunted by advocating the merits of patience and of taking the long view, my version of which is:

  • Improving educational outcomes is likely to be a slow and laborious process
  • Longstanding educational issues do not have singular solutions that can be found by reading research or listening to a presentation at a conference
  • Grasping for panaceas has a long history and little of it is positive.

The promise of “engagement” needs more testing and analysis. At this point, as researchers it’s about all we can say to educators. Testing means some schools and districts may want to pilot programs and see how they fare. That’s to be applauded, but let’s not imagine we’ve discovered a cure because probably we haven’t. But we need to keep looking for them.


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