“It’s Disengagement, Stupid”



This post is much more than the alarming statistics about America’s high school drop-outs and their likelihood of becoming incarcerated, such as the 1.3 million young people who leave per year without a high school diploma.

One of the more chilling reads is Adam Gopnik’s “The Caging of America,” which goes very deeply into the realities of this topic, where “more than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today . . .”

Could it be that the system has been kicking the can down the road?
Is it now ready to address the deeper issue of student disengagement?
-Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning


After reading the Gopnick piece, you may understand how serendipitous it was to find the essay, “It’s Deeper Than You Think,” by Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning, who  takes an alternative path addressing this problem than what is typically being discussed in policy-land.  He not only offers a different kind of framework, but makes the case that this also applies to the many students who actually do receive a high school diploma, yet who slip through the cracks, still disengaged, not ready for college-level work, without the necessary life-long learning skills and motivation.  Washor also has hands-on experience and success in the realm of school innovation globally:  Big Picture has now fifty schools throughout America and forty in the European Union, the Middle East, and Australia.  (The Daily Riff has featured Big Picture Learning previously, so do check out the related links below.)

Excerpts (bold emphasis mine):

Like the president, we have been paying attention for many years and have come to see the problem of dropouts as part of a much larger and more pervasive one: student disengagement from their schools, communities, and from productive learning. This disengagement is particularly strong and pervasive in poor urban and rural communities, where the forces for disengagement are more formidable, and the resources for engagement more limited.

Through our work, we have identified several reasons for high levels of student disengagement. Young people feel that who they are and what they want to become does not matter much to schools. While students are required to fit into a restrictive school structure, culture, and curriculum, the schools do little to fit themselves to their students. Students feel their talents are ignored and that schools provide few opportunities to develop them.

By no means is Washor lessening the urgent need to address drop-outs over non-drop-outs, but points to the magnitude of student disengagement and how inter-related both groups may be in reality.  Sure, receiving a high school diploma – the credential – is certainly better than not, but are we not missing much deeper ramification(s)? Again, bold emphasis mine:

Many students drop out because of academic failure, behavioral problems, and life issues, but many more students stay in school but drop out in their heads, gradually disengaging from what the schools have to offer.Students pass the tests, get passing grades, and eventually graduate. They limp to a tainted graduation and a diploma that papers over their lack of readiness for successful postsecondary learning and work. These students are just off the radar screen of those early warning systems schools have devised to detect potential dropouts.

Researchers have calculated the cost of dropouts to society but have missed the significantly larger cost of disengaged students who actually graduate from high school but who are, nonetheless, unprepared for lifelong learning and whose talents and potential have been sadly ignored, often because those talents reside just outside the traditional subject matter bins of a cognitive-abstract curriculum.

Thankfully, Washor offers 10 specific “rules for engagement.” In fact, he lays out “The Essentials” which are student expectations for the “new relationship that young people want with their schools.”  Bold emphasis and numerals mine:


1)  Relationships: Do my teachers, and others who might serve as my teachers, know about me and my interests and talents?

2)  Relevance: Do I find what the school is teaching to be relevant to my interests?

3) Authenticity: Is the learning and work I do regarded as significant outside of school by experts, my family, community members, and employers?

4) Application: Do I have opportunities to apply what I am learning in real-world settings and contexts?

5) Choice: Do I have real choices about what, when, and how I will learn and demonstrate my competence?

6) Challenge: Do I feel appropriately challenged in my learning and work?

7) Play: Do I have opportunities to explore and to make mistakes, and learn from them, without being branded as a failure?

8) Practice: Do I have opportunities to engage in deep and sustained practice of those skills I need to learn?

9) Time: Do I have sufficient time to learn at my own pace?

10) Timing: Can I pursue my learning out of the standard sequence?

When looking at these ten, I just think how far away many schools are from fulfilling even one or two of these student “essentials.”  Methinks we have some work to do. More excerpts:


Might the key to addressing the dropout problem be to not address just the dropout problem alone? We think so.  . . . (snip)

The education system focuses on dropouts, which it attempts to solve by creating early warning systems that tag potential dropouts for special attention. But we should not fool ourselves. This is an old magician’s trick. We are watching the dropout issue but getting distracted from the deeper and more pervasive problem of student disengagement.


“Could the misdirection of our attention be motivated
by an unconscious unwillingness to undertake the much more fundamental changes that would be necessary
to deliver the Essentials and
thereby engage all students in productive learning?”

Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning


The relationship between schools and their students is going south and reaching epic proportions within our nation’s high schools. Hundreds of alternative schools around the country are attempting to change that relationship, but they typically constitute a stick-on patch for a system that requires fundamental redesign, a safety valve that inadvertently reduces the pressure for more fundamental and widespread reform.


As one last juxtaposition to the Big Picture Learning approach, check out this video report below about measures taken in Stockton County, California.  It shows an impressive decrease in this community’s high school drop-out rate, which involved law enforcement, attendance-tracking, and the like.  I thought  “Is this what school has become?  Is this what it’s come to?”  Some basic impressions: it takes several adults in a room asking a high schooler why he’s not going to school (What are they all doing there?);  law enforcement officers pulling kids out of their homes called in by parents;  a teacher asking her class in frustration to show some enthusiasm (none of the students looked particularly engaged)  . . . Again, we can lay blame on the student, parents, teachers – – – or we can take a hard look at what and how schools are structured.   Maybe we should start with “The Essentials.”

What do you think?

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