A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Student Engagement

Researchers increasingly conceptualize poor educational performance as the outcome of a process of disengagement that may begin as early as a child's entry into school (Finn, 1989; Kelly, 1989; Merchant, 1987; Rumberger, 1987; Natriello, 1984). According to this model, students who do not identify, participate, and succeed in school activities become increasingly at risk of academic failure and dropout. In order to improve student achievement and persistence, the model suggests that the school climate must foster "investment" behavior -- schools must encourage student involvement in academic and extracurricular activities by stimulating their interest, increasing their personal resources (e.g., remediating skill deficiencies), and rewarding their efforts.

Although models of disengagement often employ sociological concepts (e.g., alienation) to explain student behavior, they are usually used to analyze student performance in the context of school interactions rather than as symptoms of social maladies. Lacking the politically charged nature of terms such as "cultural disadvantage" or "socioeconomic oppression," the relatively neutral concept of disengagement has become a part of the lexicon of diverse groups of researchers, policymakers, and educators.

In an early and influential model of student engagement, Tinto (1975) blends elements of cost-benefit analysis and Durkheim's theory of egoistic suicide to explain the "pull" and "push" of external factors on dropout decisions. Although Tinto uses the model to explain college student attrition, similar models have been applied to younger students (Finn, 1989; Wehlage et al., 1989). Tinto argues that "social conditions affecting dropout from the social system of the college resemble those resulting in suicide in the wider society; namely, insufficient interactions with others...and insufficient congruency with the prevailing value patterns." Simply stated, people who feel they do not "fit in" tend to withdraw. Students who fail to find a satisfactory niche in the academic or social system of the college develop low levels of commitment to the institution and/or to college completion.

To give this description of the process of dropping out predictive power, Tinto incorporates elements of cost-benefit analysis into the model. He asserts "a person will tend to withdraw from college when he perceives that an alternative form of investment of time, energies, and resources will yield greater benefits, relative to costs, over time than will staying in college (p. 98)." In other words, if external activities become more attractive than college completion, a student will drop out.

In a review of the research on high school dropouts, Finn (1989) explicates a model of engagement that shows high school dropout as resulting from low levels of participation and identification with school:

According to this formulation, the likelihood that a youngster will successfully complete 12 years of schooling is maximized if he or she maintains multiple, expanding forms of participation in school-relevant activities (p. 117).

Similar to Tinto's conceptual framework, the participation/identification model concentrates on variables within the school setting that have a longitudinal influence on academic engagement. Attendance problems and disruptive behavior are early signs that a student is disengaging from school.

Expanding Tinto's model of disengagement, Bean and Metzner (1988) identify environmental variables (e.g., family responsibilities, work) to explain dropout in older, nontraditional college students. Environmental variables may push students out of school by putting too much pressure on their time and resources. Bean and Metzner's model may apply to high school students who have job or family responsibilities.

Models of engagement offer powerful explanations for academic progress and student persistence to graduation. As discussed in previous chapters, no matter the quality of educational opportunities, if students are not engaged with schoolwork, the likelihood of academic success is low. However, to determine the value of student persistence, that is, the degree to which students learn useful skills, we must incorporate assessments of educational quality into measures of engagement. Otherwise, we may design "engaging" reforms that do little more than encourage students to persist in schools and along academic tracks that are still separate and unequal, and to succeed in educational programs that may be irrelevant to the intellectual and social demands they must face as adults.

[Chapter 5: An Integrated Perspective for Understanding Student Performance] [Table of Contents] [An Alternative Model of Student Performance]