The District

Survey results: Findings from 2,600+ engagement-minded educators

The Newsela Team
Feb 10, 2021

While district leaders have cause to put standards and test scores at the very top of their priority list, teachers who spend their days working with students know that meaningful learning cannot happen if students are not engaged and motivated for daily instruction. When students are engaged, measurable learning outcomes can follow.

In November of 2020, amidst unprecedented disengagement and disruption, we launched a survey about the drivers of student engagement to give educators a way to reflect on their practices, and to reframe how district decisions may contribute to student engagement and motivation (and ultimately learning) going forward. Over 2,600 educators completed the survey, and the results shed light on how the education landscape may take shape over the coming months and years.

By understanding the trends revealed in these responses, we hope you’ll have a better picture of where your district stands when it comes to student engagement and motivation, too. Check out what we learned below.

Most educators believe their students play an active role in setting their learning goals

One of the most important contributors to learner motivation is autonomy, or the ability to self-direct one’s own learning. This is why it was promising to see many educators agree with this statement. When teachers provide students with choice and ownership, they boost student engagement at the same time. 

While educators must ensure instruction is meeting requirements and mandates, it’s important to remember that most learning standards articulate what students must learn while leaving room for choice and ownership in terms of how students reach goals.

Surprisingly few districts prioritized student well-being as the top priority last fall 

If you follow education publications, then you know Social-Emotional Learning was at the center of many reopening conversations. Despite how often we hear that it is a top priority, it was unnerving to see fewer than 20% of respondents say they started the Fall of 2020 with a focus on student well-being and building relationships as the top priority.

With almost 40% of respondents focusing on purely academics this fall, it is clear that districts have been concerned about learning loss that school closures have caused.

While learning loss needs to be addressed in 2021, it is essential that educators recognize the multi-faceted trauma that students have faced in recent months. Districts need concrete SEL plans to get students in the right mindset to engage in learning and address the learning loss that may have occurred in 2020. CASEL just published second semester guidelines, and it isn’t too late to focus on SEL as a way to drive engagement and learning.

Educators were uncertain about how many students regularly participated during spring school closures

When students are outside of the four walls of the classroom, it’s no surprise that it’s harder than ever to keep them engaged. Nearly 40% of survey respondents said that student participation during spring school closures was below 80%. However, the number is likely even lower because many another 36% were unsure how their districts even measured student participation in the spring.

To increase visibility into participation, especially during disruption, schools must equip teachers with quality resources to engage students virtually. Relevant, appropriately-leveled content can help. When that content also provides built-in tools for measuring interaction, formative assessment, and close reading, teachers gain a big leg up in tracking student participation during distance learning.

Districts are split on how to address complex current events topics in class

Students have more access to digital devices and content than ever, and it's clear they know what's happening in the world and have questions about these issues. Shouldn't school (virtual or in person) be a place that allows students to work through and navigate complex current issues?

When lessons are relevant to students’ lives and they can see connections between classroom content and the real world, students are more motivated to engage and learn, as one district showed in 2020. What’s more, students practice productive discourse and perspective taking skills, which are more critical than ever. 

Because of this, we think every school should spend time discussing complex topics, with trustworthy, accessible content providing the foundation for success. 

The majority of districts have broadened their ELA content to include works outside the traditional canon

While results were split, the majority of districts have moved away from only teaching classic canonical texts in English language arts classes. Because students are motivated by stories and topics that reflect their own experiences, it is no surprise that a growing number of ELA departments are choosing content that is diverse and culturally responsive.

As the results suggest, this isn’t an either-or situation. There's a popular in-between option (the most popular, in fact) where districts still teach the classics, but supplement them with high-quality contemporary texts rich in diversity and relevance for students. Relevant nonfiction articles connected to canonical texts are one option.

Most districts take five or more years to update instructional material for social studies and science

Too many students still receive dusty, outdated textbooks in science or social studies class. Even when a digital facsimile is provided, the fact remains that these resources are often stale on arrival, despite these subjects having numerous connections to modern life.

Unfortunately, most respondents shared that their districts take five or more years to update instructional materials for these subjects, with over a quarter of respondents’ saying that timeline is over seven years. This means teachers must put extra work into searching for supplemental materials to keep content relevant and engaging for students.

The events surrounding the 2020 election and the pandemic remind us how critical it is for schools to provide current and relevant instructional content, so students can directly see the value of the lesson and why it is meaningful to their lives today.

A high-leverage boost to motivation and engagement

Student motivation, a critical ingredient in learning, is driven by 4 basic factors: belonging, self-efficacy, student agency, and value of work. Selecting the right instructional content for students is a high-leverage action to increase student motivation and engagement.

Ask yourself: how is our curriculum giving students choice, and is it inclusive, identity affirming, appropriately challenging, and relevant? Audit your instructional materials for these same factors and select content that promotes motivation across all four criteria. By emphasizing student engagement and motivation for the remainder of this school year, you’ll create the foundation students need to recover lost learning and get back on track.

Check out our Leaders Who Innovate discussion with 3 district leaders on how they’re making engagement a priority.

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