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What Students Really Think of Their Education, Teachers


When 414,000 grade 6-12 students speak, educators should listen. A student survey showed that while many students enjoy school and learning, they want their education to be more relevant to their everyday lives. Included: Results from largest student survey to date.

Adults ideas about students attitudes toward their educational experience often are based on speculation and assumptions. The result is a disconnect between what educators think students need and how to meet those needs and what students consider important.

That is why the results of the My Voice Aspiration Survey -- the largest study to date of student perceptions from grades 6 to 12 of the current academic environment -- are so critical. The final report is based on responses from 414,000 students within 569 schools in 32 states from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

What the report indicates in part is that many students enjoy school and want to succeed, they also want their education to be more relevant to their everyday lives and teachers to show more interest in them as individuals.

Among the positive findings, according to a press release released about the results:

  • Seventy-five percent of students reported enjoying learning new things, and that same percentage felt that what they learn will benefit them in the future.
  • Eighty-four percent of students agree that getting good grades is important, and 69 percent feel testing is an important part of their education.
  • Sixty-five percent of students said they have a teacher who is a positive role model.
  • Forty-nine percent of students taking the survey enjoy being at school, 54 percent enjoy their classes and 64 percent believe learning can be fun.

On the other hand:

  • Only 38 percent of students felt their classes help them understand what is happening in their everyday lives.
  • Forty-seven percent felt school is boring and only 31 percent felt teachers make school an exciting place to learn.
  • Just 48 percent felt teachers care about them as individuals and even fewer -- 45 percent -- felt teachers cared if they were absent from school.
  • Only 30 percent of students respect their fellow students.

The survey was conducted between fall 2006 and spring 2008 by the educational assessment group of Pearson and the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) an educational research organization.

Dr. Russell Quaglia, the founder of the My Voice survey, Aspirations Unlimited, and QISA, talked with Education World about the studys findings.

Dr. Russell J. Quaglia

Education World: What was most surprising about the studys results?

Dr. Russell J. Quaglia: Many of the studys results are alarming, if not surprising. If we had to pick two things that surprise us, one would be that only 65 percent of students believe school is preparing them well for the future. One might expect students to see a lack of relevance in the present, but students loss of confidence in school as the place that prepares them for success later in life, is both surprising and alarming.

Second, despite a decade of calls by everyone from leading educators to leaders in the business community to shift our schooling from fact-based learning structured by academic disciplines to one that develops creative, flexible thinkers using a more interdisciplinary approach, this change is still not happening in any widespread way. For example, the survey found that just more than half -- 57 percent -- of students say they are encouraged to be creative in school. This actually gets worse as students pass from middle school -- 67 percent -- to high school, where the figure is 54 percent. Why is creativity being squeezed out when it is the very thing everyone says we need most?

EW: How can educators and policymakers apply the studys findings?

Quaglia: They can begin by taking the voice of students seriously. So many people want to dismiss the findings as just what the kids think as if what students think and believe doesnt affect the way they relate to their teachers, engage their academic work, or develop meaning in their lives. Once educators see this data as a valid source of information for how students are experiencing school, they can begin to take steps to improve students sense of self-worth, active engagement, and purpose.

At the policy level, we need to re-authorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in a way that broadens accountability beyond academic achievement to the full spectrum of what we expect schools to do. Academic achievement is an effect of a number of causes, not the least of which is whether or not students are inspired to work hard to reach their goals.

Students loss of confidence in school as the place that prepares them for success later in life is both surprising and alarming.

Arne Duncan, the new U.S. secretary of education, got this right in Chicago when he made "student connection" one of four outcomes that need to be measured in his school improvement plan efforts alongside student outcomes, academic progress, and school characteristics. Elements of his Human Capital Initiative are also in this vein. If he brings that same broad perspective about what can be measured as school outcomes to the national level, we will start writing policies that improve not just test scores, but raise students' aspirations.

EW: How would you respond to the findings that only 48 percent of students feel teachers care about them as individuals and only 45 percent felt teachers cared if they were absent?

Quaglia: This is disturbing, especially since nearly 100 percent of teachers say they care about their students. Our findings are sometimes discouraging to teachers and that is understandable. The discrepancy lies in how teachers define caring about their students. For example, while teachers may view planning lessons and getting tests and papers back on time as caring, students describe these efforts as teachers doing their job. One student said, They get paid to do those things. Students tell us that the teachers who care about them ask how they are and take the time to listen, they show up at games or pop into practices, they know they take ballet and ask about the recital even though there is no ballet club at the school. These little things take a few minutes and have an enormous impact on a students experience of school.

One teacher we worked with spent just 15 minutes talking to a D-student she knew could do better in her math class. She didn't spend that 15 minutes lecturing him or giving him extra help. She spent it learning that the student played guitar in a garage band and liked the Beatles. Turns out the teacher also played guitar and liked the Beatles. The student became a B student in her class almost overnight.

EW: The findings indicate that many students dont find their classes relevant to what is going on in their lives. What are some ways educators could address that concern?

Quaglia: Educators need to think through and then articulate the relevance. We need to step away from flip because it will be on the test kind of answers. English teachers need to convince the student who wants to play the blues guitar that reading Charles Dickens is relevant because Dickens is the blues in Victorian literature. We need to explain to the football player studying calculus that he may never integrate an equation again, but that integration is like bench pressing for your brain. Its relevance is in adding muscle. How you apply that muscle in your life will be up to you. The student who wants to be a carpenter will obviously need geometry if he doesnt want to waste money on lumber stock; the future hairdresser will need algebra if she wants to be sure her suppliers are treating her fairly. I think in many cases teachers simply have not thought the relevance of what they are teaching through. If its not relevant, why are we teaching it?

"Once educators see this data as a valid source of information for how students are experiencing school, they can begin to take steps to improve students sense of self-worth, active engagement, and purpose.

EW: Do you think todays students have a greater need than in the past to feel teachers take a personal interest in them? If so, why?

Quaglia: Students today have fewer adults in their lives who take a personal interest in them than in the past; aunts, uncles, and grandparents are not as accessible, and neighborhoods are not the places they used to be. Teachers should not nor can they stand in for parents; teachers need be concerned adults-who-are-not-parents. If teachers took as much personal interest in a student as a good neighbor used to, that would fulfill many of the needs revealed by the study. Young people need adults as heroes, as guides and as role models. What we see as they turn to one another to fulfill those roles are the blind leading the blind.

EW: What, if any, gender differences did the findings show?

Quaglia: A narrow focus on the academic and the lack of attention to the affective and social causes of academic achievement is having a detrimental effect on both boys and girls. That focus has led to a teach to the test mentality and tactics that have classrooms in five-by-five rows, students sitting up straight, filling out worksheet after worksheet. This does, in fact, produce higher test scores, but it has the unintended consequence of disconnecting students from school and learning. Students may be able to score higher on tests, but we need to question whether they are really learning anything.

The gender differences revealed in the study indicate that girls are coping better with this approach. That may be due to greater maturity or a better tolerance for sitting for long periods of time. Youve never heard a 12-year-old boy say, Lets play school, but girls play school all the time. The most effective teachers we see are using an interactive, multi-disciplinary approach that values and involves students at all phases of curriculum from choice of content and learning strategies to assessment. These teachers are not teaching at or even to students, but are teaching and learning alongside and with students.

This e-interview with Dr. Russell Quaglia is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World


Published 04/15/2009