Engaging Students Who Have Lost Faith in School
In Annapolis, and at many high schools across the country, there is a large subgroup of students for whom the work-for-grades exchange is simply not working. Educational policymakers often forget that high school students have agency – they have their own beliefs, goals, and agendas that may or may not align with the educational system’s goals for them. For complex reasons – perhaps a sense that school has nothing to offer them, perhaps a fiercely independent nature, perhaps personal or school-based trauma, perhaps learning style differences – many students see the reward structure as too uncertain and the cost of compliance as too high to justify following the expected path of high school “success.”
Carrots and Sticks…and Resistance
The students we fail to reach are more susceptible than ever to checking out of school altogether - they cruise the hallways, lose themselves in their phones, or sleep through class after class, if they show up for school at all. Many of these students are extremely bright and capable, but they reject the work for grades exchange and simply opt out, doing the absolute minimum to pass or just resigning themselves to summer school and bridge projects to fudge their way through high school. Trying to address this problem within the current structures of high school, teachers threaten and coax, call parents, and modify the work to be easier and easier (and less and less meaningful) so students can pass with minimal effort or fill in make-up worksheets without needing any new learning to complete them. Administrators chase students they don't even know by name around the hallways, issue penalties for tardiness and rewards for showing up, and spend inordinate amounts of time managing the behavior of students who are passively (or actively) resisting control. This approach undermines student agency, wastes time, and leaves everyone feeing frustrated and defeated. High school can be a wonderful experience for some students - especially for many scholars and athletes - but is utterly dysfunctional for too many other students who don't see school as meaningful or designed for them.
What Students Need
We already know from extensive bodies of research what can make a difference for underserved or under-motivated students. Students who don’t arrive at school already trusting its value for their future need several conditions to succeed: