For all the yammering about the fiscal cliff, another cliff might present a more perilous danger — what the folks at Gallup call the “school cliff.”

Never heard of that one?

Take a look at chart below — and you’ll grok it immediately.


As this Gallup blog post explains: “[Our] research strongly suggests that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become.” Primary school kids begin their educations deeply engaged — but by the time they get to high school, more than half are checked out. And the problem is even worse for our most entrepreneurial students.

Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education, points to several factors for the decline. An “overzealous focus on standardized testing.” Not enough project-based or experiential learning. Too few pathways for students who won’t, or don’t want to, attend college.

But whatever the reasons, he says, “The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure.”


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The To Sell Is Human Book Tour begins this week.  Here are 3 events you might enjoy:

Washington DC: Politics and Prose, Tuesday January 8 at 7pm

Seattle: Town Hall Seattle, Wednesday January 9 at 730pm

Portland: Powell’s Books, Friday January 11 at 730pm

16 Responses to “Does the “school cliff” matter more than the fiscal cliff?”

  1. COD says:

    I’ve been advocating for years that formal one size fits all schooling should end around 8th grade. Teach the kids to read, write, and handle math up through about Algebra I and Geometry, then get out of their way and let them figure out and follow their passions.

    It worked for both of my kids, but you have to homeschool or maybe Montessori to make it happen. It’s pretty much impossible within the confines of the traditional educational establishment.

  2. Rick Bentley says:

    Part of this dilemma is due to the insistence of “leaders” creating education policy designed to destroy the public education system and replace it with a for profit model. The insistence on standardized testing has led us down the primrose path thinking we were doing the right thing with legislation like NCLB. The long term end game is here and right in the grasp of vulture philanthropists like Philip Anschutz and his ilk (include Bill Gates). I am a career educator who started as a classroom teacher in 1978 and retired as a superintendent in 2011 and have had a little experience with these monsters. Here’s an interesting website and I hope you will take a look at it.

    • Cathy says:

      I agree with you Rick! Diane Ravitch is great to follow on Twitter. She’s a fighter for the soul of public education in the US!

    • Jenifer P. says:

      Well said, Rick!! I totally agree! This is my 8th year of teaching at the elementary level and it saddens and worries me the direction that education has taken in such a short time.

  3. My senior year in high school may have been my MOST engaged, but that’s because I took a bunch of AP classes that challenged and interested me. The overall trend isn’t surprising.

    The good teachers who really care are the greatest thing about our education system. Given a better system, they’d be able to deliver a lot more value.

  4. Daniel Gabriel says:

    Valuable responses here, though I take exception to the generic “It worked for both of my kids, but you have to homeschool or maybe Montessori to make it happen. It’s pretty much impossible within the confines of the traditional educational establishment.”
    Bollocks–it worked for both my kids & they spent their entire careers in the public schools. But then, our large-city district DOES offer choices. I get tired of people writing off all public schools, as if there is one monolith doling out the opportunities. Some public schools are terrific (though, clearly, many decision-makers long ago decided that poor students, or kids of color, didn’t need “terrific.”)
    That said, I fully agree with the premise that masses of kids disengage as their school career progresses. We do need lots & lots of change & reorientation, but let’s not imagine that homeschool parents (or even the “me-first” Montessori model) are the only options out there.

  5. Eye-opening and useful info. Thanks Dan!

    This is truly sad and tragic and doesn’t bode well for us. Here in Florida the drop-out rate is obscene. But you know what, I’m really struggling with the notion of what we as citizens can do about it.

    What can we do?

    I’d love to hear ideas from this community.


  6. Katherine says:

    As a high school teacher, I agree with the thought about standardized testing, but the one thing that I would add is that most of my kids have in their pocket a box with all of the latest gossip from their friends, scores, fashions, etc. on it. It is SO much more easy to disengage than pre-cell phone/handheld computer. They have changed the way we have to look at how we educate. There is a lot more to say about education, and teachers, and leadership – but for me on a day to day basis – the cell phone has changed the classroom.

    • Great point Katherine. The mobile phone has definitely changed things. I hear this from my sister and brother-in-law who are junior and high school teachers in Miami.

      But what worries me is that many of the teachers I talk to, it would seem to me, are committing the Innovator’s Dilemma. That is, they face a disruptive innovation and yet are almost unwilling to accept it. They fight it with more of the same.

      I wonder, wouldn’t be better for teachers to embrace the new technology to empower kids’ creativity? What matters now is whole-brain thinking and solving big problems, why not allow the students to use the new tools as we teach them to bring their creativity and rational mind to bear on tough problems?

      • Alexis Robin says:

        I love the idea of embracing technology. Imagine if a teacher said, “Okay, take out your smart phones, the first person to find out what the latest polls are in the Senate Race get’s to ask the next political question”. Imagine if an option to researching was putting it out on Facebook and reporting in findings to class a week later and comparing polls.
        Why not use it? So many times my 7 year old twins ask a question, “How old are pyramids” And I say, “I don’t know, let’s google it”, and they ask Siri.

        The reality is all of our kids aren’t ADHD or Dyslexic, they just learn a different way. Maybe the current system keeps them from working from a place of strengths and that is why they are not engaged. Not so far off from what’s happening in the workplace.

  7. John Chase says:

    Thanks for posting this Dan, just shared on FB. I agree Katherine, and think we should have a national conversation and even a “Distracted Learning” PSA campaign on the dangers of texting while learning.

  8. Daniel says:

    Um, this shouldn’t be surprising. School is a lot less fun as you get older. In the beginning it’s all games and new people. By high school it’s standardized tests and constant discussions about “your future” and “reaching your potential.” Of course lots of students are less interested in school over time, that’s because there’s more pressure and fewer rewards for fewer people.

  9. Daniel says:

    Also, that graph doesn’t indicate a cliff, it indicates a steady decline over time.

  10. Clover says:

    Interesting. Being home educated, I’ve not had this problem…it probably just comes from coercing intelligent beings into doing monotonous tasks. Hard to stay engaged for very long when you realise there’s No Way Out. If lessons were optional and school buildings were less stifling, I’m sure this trend would vanish.

  11. Robert says:

    Well that explains why I day dreamed so much and why oldest child don’t think school is “fun” or relevant. And my youngest so admitted he day dreams after five minutes of school. Perhaps we can make school engaging like social media, xbox or PS3 games. But not everything in life is exciting. Challenging problem that WE as a community needs to solve. The children who are supposed to be our next generation of leaders are under achieving or checked out as the article states. I’m very concerned. Actually, I’m down right scared about these new generation of kids.

  12. Fishritewillie says:

    The information provided by Gallup Poll is both interesting and frustrating. Yes, schools and teachers spend more time focusing on standardized test and assessments. Yes, cell phones and technology play a small roll in the declining engagement numbers (Why not embrace technology and use it as a tool to help promote student engagement). But the frustrating part or information that is not shown is parent engagement! Parents have to be willing and active participants in the entire educational process K-12 or longer……I wonder what a Gallup Poll would say if “Parent involvement in education” was the topic?