Helping Students Avoid the “Engagement Cliff” through High School Redesign

“I take history because I like it, and I take science because it’s relevant to what I want to do,” expressed Garett, then a junior with engineering aspirations at Cañon City High School (CCHS) in Colorado. “Pre-calc isn’t fun, but it’s important for life.”

Garett’s desire to take courses related to his goals is shared by students across the country, and research confirms that relevance and interest are critical components of student motivation. Unfortunately, in survey data from more than 230,000 students, only about half of respondents said they thought what they learned in school was relevant to the real world. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 74 percent of 5th grade students reported being engaged at school, while only 32 percent of 11th graders said the same—a phenomenon referred to as the “engagement cliff.”

In a fall 2020 report, my colleagues and I at the Center for American Progress explored the influence of a “purpose and relevance” mindset—a student’s belief that school is related to their values and experiences—on education outcomes. We found that this mindset could be especially important for STEM persistence. Specifically, students in the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 who expressed more interest in their 9th grade math and science courses (evidenced by their responses to questions like “You think this class is boring”) and students who indicated that they found math and science more useful (by agreeing with statements such as “What students learn in this class is useful for everyday life”) also had higher rates, on average, of high school graduation, four-year-college enrollment, and pursuit of a STEM major.

A 2016 Gallup poll found that 74 percent of 5th grade students reported being engaged at school, while only 32 percent of 11th graders said the same—a phenomenon referred to as the “engagement cliff.”

Garett’s school district in Cañon City, Colorado, is an example of how to incorporate mindsets research into a comprehensive high school redesign that puts student engagement front and center. Cañon City is a small, rural town about two hours south of Denver, where the primary industries include tourism and corrections. For a long time, students who were interested in pursuing STEM fields felt they needed to leave the area to do so. That had an impact on local economic development. The town realized that it had to rethink the value that students were deriving from school and how they could fit their interest and skills into the community.

Led by Superintendent George Welsh, Assistant Superintendent Adam Hartman, and Principal Bill Summers in partnership with the local business community and support from organizations such as the Colorado Education Initiative, Cañon City School District has spent the past few years rethinking its entire curriculum to engage students and build a skilled workforce with a pipeline to employers in the community. Guiding this work is what Hartman calls a “12-K” approach. District leaders created Cañon City’s “profile of a graduate,” a list of traits (such as agility, innovation, and integrity) and skills (such as collaboration, leadership, and empowerment) they believe students should possess by the time they finish 12th grade. Working backward from high school graduation, they have redesigned the student experience to not only improve the link to local companies and careers but also give students more opportunities to pursue their interests and graduate with qualities that will be important both in and out of the workforce.

Today at CCHS, students choose one of four “pathways” (health; science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and math (STEAM); skilled trades, security, and industry; or arts, hospitality, and education) that guides the courses they take throughout high school. And all students, beginning with the current senior class, also participate in a local internship and complete a capstone research project about a topic of their choice.

The idea is that by giving students real-world experience and letting them choose that experience based on their interests, they will better understand how content they learn in class is related to their future careers and opportunities to contribute to their communities. For example, student Kodee S. credits her internship at a local history museum with helping her realize she was more interested in pursuing a career in anthropology than archaeology. “I had no way to know what the reality of those two jobs would actually look like from my regular high school classes,” she explained.

An important feature of Canon City’s approach is that these experiences are requirements for all CCHS students, with appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities or families for whom taking on an unpaid internship would create a financial burden. Hartman stresses that this is the best way to ensure equity. Instead of providing additional opportunities for already the most successful or motivated students, the district is committed to developing these skills for all students and allowing them to demonstrate them in ways that align with their goals and interests. This kind of effort is especially important given recent qualitative work from our colleagues, who found that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students face specific barriers to integrated K–12 and workforce systems and a lack of funding for college and career preparation that addresses modern industry trends.

Making these experiences a requirement is especially important for students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, such as female students, who are more likely than male students to leave the STEM pipeline regardless of ability, and students of color, who face implicit grading biases. In fact, in our analysis of High School Longitudinal Study data, the relationships between early high school math and science mindsets and postsecondary outcomes were much stronger for female students than for male students. For example, a one standard deviation increase in perceived science utility was associated with an 11 percent increase in the likelihood of female students pursuing a STEM major, compared with only a one percent increase for male students.

There are also national consequences when students lack engagement with their courses. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is best known for its nationwide, standardized math and reading assessments, but also includes a survey asking about student perceptions of their classes and learning. Our analysis of NAEP data revealed a statistically significant, moderate correlation between math test scores and student engagement. Specifically, states where a higher percentage of 8th grade students believed “making an effort in math is worthwhile” on average also reported greater gains in math test scores between 4th and 8th grade.

To be sure, we cannot infer causation from these relationships, and it’s still too early to know definitively how Cañon City’s school redesign is impacting students’ graduation rates and college matriculation. The work also hasn’t been easy. Assistant Superintendent Hartman shared that getting everyone involved aligned on a new approach is still a work in progress. One made more difficult by the lack of funding for sufficient training opportunities to rethink curricula and demonstrate where the core graduate profile traits and skills show up in traditional classwork. Furthermore, Hartman noted that not all parents are convinced that their child spending schooltime outside of the classroom in a work environment is a productive use of time. Some students were resistant at first to a pathway model they felt boxed them into choosing a profession as early as 9th grade. The high school has responded to these concerns by allowing students to switch pathways, and by emphasizing how the skills they learn from their classes and internship experiences can be applicable to a wide range of future pursuits.

Approaches like Cañon City’s take a lot of community buy-in, and it is no simple feat to make all the pieces come together at once, but with time and care we believe widespread adoption of these practices can help thwart the engagement cliff.

Approaches like Cañon City’s take a lot of community buy-in, and it is no simple feat to make all the pieces come together at once, but with time and care we believe widespread adoption of these practices can help thwart the engagement cliff and enable schools across the country to fully prepare all students for college, career, and citizenship.

There is no one size fits all solution to redesign schools to tap into purpose and relevance; it’s a process that can and should be locally driven and look different across schools and districts. But there are a number of ways educators and policymakers at the local, state, and federal level can begin. School districts and local communities should ensure that they are expanding and providing equitable access to high-quality career and technical education, internships, and apprenticeships as well as offering advanced courses. Making their graduation requirements more rigorous could also help ensure students have what they need to enter college. Currently, many states don’t require enough math and science courses for graduation as students need for college entrance.

Districts should develop graduate profiles to guide their efforts. States can provide resources and technical assistance to support equity in these redesign efforts across districts, and should also consider redesigning the K–8 experience to ensure students enter high school prepared for more rigorous work. At the federal level, Congress should increase investments in career and technical education and the Student Support and Academic Enrichment block grant in order to improve equitable access to high-quality career pathways and advanced coursework.

High school redesign efforts like what Cañon City has done can help build a strong local workforce while also re-engaging students and encouraging them to start thinking about their future goals. Providing internship and research opportunities with local industries also strengthens connections between school and community, helping students build citizenship skills in addition to college and career preparation. As schools think about recovery from the pandemic, it is important to not simply reopen schools as they were. But rather we should design schools that ensure equitable access to opportunities by improving students’ interest in, and the relevance of, what they’re learning. This will help re-engage students after many months of remote learning and could hold long-term benefits for students, schools, and communities.