Planning to get engaged

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The world watched as Harry and Meghan announced their engagement. Yes, Harry Stephens and Meghan Johnson were engaged with their school. School engagement is a key aspect of ensuring successful student learning. Encouraging and nurturing engagement with school becomes more and more difficult as students progress through their k-12 education. At the high school level, engaging students can be a particularly difficult task.

Why is school engagement such an important trait to foster? Well, higher school engagement is associated with numerous positive student outcomes, including achievement, attendance, decreased teenage pregnancy rates, and increased graduation rates . Some of the recommendations for improving engagement highlight focusing on learning activities that support student independence, provide appropriate challenges for students, and promote school relevance.

Can high school career and education plans promote engagement?

One potential means to help improve student engagement is through encouraging students to complete career/education plans early in high school. In a recent study in the American Journal of Education, I ask whether completing a career/education plan by the ninth-grade year is related to increased school engagement later in high school. I find that completing a career/education plan early in high school is associated with a boost in engagement by the junior year.

It is important to understand just how these plans operate and how they might help improve student engagement. First, what exactly do plans entail? These plans tend to serve as a road map as a student progresses through school. They help students more clearly identify their goals later in life and what they need to do in high school to achieve these goals. Next, why might this help? There are three components that plans might help address: increasing students’ belief in themselves, helping students identify person goals, and helping students more clearly see the consequences of their behaviors. Each of these three components helps to meet the recommendations mentioned above – independence, relevance, and challenging coursework.

In looking to answer my question about plans and engagement, I realized there might be some key differences between students who do and do not complete a plan. To deal with this potential issue, I used an analytic technique (propensity score matching) that matches students on a wide variety of characteristics. Doing so allowed me to have more confidence I was indeed comparing apples to apples.

Plans are good!

As mentioned above, even after these rigorous techniques of analysis, I found a positive relationship between plans and engagement. Since understanding a student’s engagement score isn’t quite as straightforward as understanding, say, a student’s score on a math test, it is difficult to conceptualize exactly how much a plan helps. The best way to put it is to say that completing a plan is related to a boost in engagement of about one tenth of a standard deviation (like I said, tough to conceptualize).

Final thoughts

There are a few implications from this work that may be of interest to both practitioners and policy makers. First, plans tend to help engagement. Therefore, students should be encouraged to complete career/education plans that help them identify their goals. Additionally, schools that choose to require students to complete plans need to encourage students to see the true value in planning, not simply have them complete a plan “because they have to.” Finally, plans can, and should, be used by many different staff and faculty at the schools. Teachers and counselors can use the plans as a means of showing students the relevance of each course as well as a way to guide coursetaking. Plans can be very useful tools to encourage engagement – and all the benefits that come from being engaged. However, they need to be used as tools for learning as opposed to simply another piece of paper to complete to receive a passing grade.

About the Author

Jay Plasman is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Barbara in the Department of Education. His studies focus broadly on education policy with a more specific focus on college and career readiness and career and technical education. Jay can be reached at jplasman@ucsb.edu.

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