Listening to Students: Beneficiary Feedback in Education

Hannah Bartlebaugh

Funders care about American education. Foundations of all sizes, locations, and ideological beliefs aim to improve education and support young people, and, in 2012, foundations spent $5 billion on education. With all of this investment, don’t we want to know whether or not it’s working for the intended beneficiaries — the students themselves?

At YouthTruth, we believe that in order to effectively improve schools, we should go directly to the source and ask the students themselves about what is and isn’t working. Since CEP developed YouthTruth in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008, we’ve surveyed more than 620,000 students to learn about their experiences in school. This feedback data can serve as an insightful pulse point to understand how students are feeling on a national scale about a variety of topics, including bullying and college and career readiness.

One thing that educators and education funders have historically found difficult to measure and monitor is student engagement. We know that engagement matters. Research shows that it is a leading indicator of academic achievement and persistence in school, as well as a key element of school climate. While outcome data such as academic test scores and attendance rates can be used to track engagement, these measures are much less useful once students have stopped turning in assignments or coming to school — and they don’t necessarily tell us why those things are happening.

By asking students directly about their feelings of engagement, educators and education funders can get a more nuanced understanding of where things are going well and where this is room for improvement.  With these questions in mind, YouthTruth analyzed survey data from more than 230,000 students in grades 3-12, collected between the fall of 2012 and spring of 2017, to more deeply understand students’ feelings of engagement in school. The data revealed some eye-opening insights.

Across all grade levels, most students feel engaged.

Seventy-eight percent of elementary, 59 percent of middle, and 60 percent of high school students report feeling engaged. This is a positive finding, but it’s important to dive a bit deeper and understand the nuances of students’ experiences.

Most students take pride in their school work.

Most students — 72 percent of middle schoolers and 68 percent of high schoolers — report that they feel proud of their school work. This is encouraging. In the words of one student, “Everything I do in school helps me become a better person. The activities and projects I do in school are things I can be really proud of. I always want to talk about the amazing things my school does to my family and friends, and how much hope it gives me for my future.”

But less than half of secondary students feel that what they’re learning in class helps them outside of school.

Despite positive feelings about engagement and pride in their work, when students were asked about the relevance of their work, the responses are less rosy. Only 48 percent of secondary students feel that what they are learning in class helps them outside of school. When we disaggregate the findings by grade level, we see that high school students are slightly less likely than middle school students to feel that their school work is related to their life outside the classroom. This disconnect between engagement and the perceived relevance of in-school learning to life outside of school is concerning. We can imagine hundreds of thousands of students across the country wondering, “When will I ever use this in real life?”

Only about half of secondary students enjoy coming to school most of the time.

Only 52 percent of secondary students say they enjoy coming to school most of the time. This finding is particularly concerning when trying to understand why students may not be coming to school, given the recent national conversation about chronic absenteeism and its focus under many states’ ESSA plans. Students who are chronically absent — those who miss at least 15 days of school or more in a year — may be missing school for a variety of reasons over which schools have little control, such as poverty, health challenges, community violence, and difficult family circumstances. But building a school environment in which students enjoy coming to school is an important place to start.

These findings demonstrate the type of powerful insights that leaders in schools, communities, and foundations can garner when they ask students about their experiences. After all, as the ones in the classroom each and every day, students have a unique vantage point into what’s working and what’s not. It is our job to listen and learn from them. 

Download “Learning from Student Voice: Are Students Engaged?” here.

Hannah Bartlebaugh is senior marketing and external relations coordinator for YouthTruth. Follow YouthTruth on Twitter at @Youth_Truth.

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