• by Kristin Grayson, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2008 • Dr Kristin Grayson

Student engagement that promotes access to curriculum is at the core of educational equity. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Supreme Court ruling in Lau vs. Nichols in 1974 are just two examples of directives that address educational equity.

In 1974, the Supreme Court stated: “Providing students the same desks, books, teachers and curriculum did not ensure that they had equal educational opportunity” (Lau vs. Nichols, U.S. Supreme Court, 1974).

Schools must adapt the curriculum to fit the needs of diverse students so that all students succeed academically. Schools are accountable for educating all learners to high academic standards and outcomes regardless of differing characteristics of those learners.

Engaging students in instruction helps give them access to the curriculum. It also consistently correlates to higher student achievement (Sciarra and Seirup, 2008). Thus, there are good strategies for teachers to use at the classroom level to engage students (see “The Fourth Grade Slump and Math Achievement” in the last issue of the IDRA Newsletter for example).

But, student engagement cannot happen only at the classroom level. It also has to happen at the broader school or system level. Commenting on the high number of students that schools lose to attrition, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA’s President and CEO, stated recently that “since this problem is systemic, the solution must address schools as systems” (2008). A focus on student engagement at the systems level is one lens through which we can view the issue of access to a quality curriculum.

A useful guide is the Six Goals of Educational Equity, developed by IDRA’s South Central Collaborative for Equity. The six goals are: comparably high academic achievement and other student outcomes, equitable access and inclusion, equitable treatment, equitable opportunity to learn, equitable resources, and accountability. With the vision of all students succeeding in schools, the goals of educational equity can be facilitated by studying research on the broad concept of student engagement.

This article reports on some of the latest findings research has to offer about student engagement at an organizational level and about strategies that schools and/or school districts can use.

The report on the High School Survey of Student Engagement describes a study of 81,449 students from 100 schools in 26 states (Yazzie-Mintz, 2007). The researcher describes student engagement as “the student’s relationship with the school community: the people (adult and peers), the structures (rules, facilities, schedules), the curriculum and content, the pedagogy, and the opportunities (curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular)… the degree to which a student is ‘engaged’ in school is dependent on the quality, depth and breadth of the student’s relationship with these various aspects of the life and the work of the school.”

These areas are then measured in the study in the broader categories of cognitive, social and emotional engagement. Findings show that, generally, girls self-report as being more engaged than boys, White students and Asian American students are more engaged than other races across all three dimensions, students in advanced classes are more engaged, non-low-income students report more engagement, and students who begin and stay at their high school starting in the ninth grade are higher across the dimensions of engagement.

James Connell and Adena Klem report on a framework for secondary school reform and describe systemic strategies in addition to instructional approaches that promote student engagement (2004). These practices build and strengthen each student’s relationship with one or more specific adults in the school who support and advocate for the student and his or her family. Significant school adults also provide for “continuity of care” by being involved with the student throughout several years of the student’s education. Small learning communities are recommended as a way to build systemwide student engagement. Teachers who are part of the student support system above are the core teachers for the student’s academic work throughout their school years.

This framework was developed following previous research by Klem and Connell where they describe this support by teachers in the overall system of the school as critical to the students’ ongoing engagement and their engagement as a reaction to challenge (2004). Ongoing student engagement is defined as having behavioral (effort, on-task, concentration), emotional (motivation), and cognitive dimensions. Student engagement as a reaction to challenge is the optimism and motivation that they can overcome difficult obstacles as opposed to being threatened and withdrawing from challenges.

A similar study was conducted at the college level. It sheds light on the concept of student engagement from a systems level. As reported in the article, “Student Engagement at Minority-Serving Institutions: Emerging Lessons from the BEAMS Project,” there is a great need to use triangulation of data to define the institutional practices that impact successful student engagement and help students achieve and stay in school until completion of their degree program (Bridges, et al., 2005).

Researchers advocate for data to be used to build and support institutional structures that promote engagement. Data also should lead faculty to take specific actions for transformational changes. Their review of the literature shows that organizational student engagement is based on seven principles, including “student-faculty contact, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback, time on task, high expectations, and respect for diverse talents and ways of learning” (Bridges, et al., 2005).

Another study conducted at the university level is the Documenting Effective Educational Practices (DEEP) project. In this project, student engagement is found to relate to the theory of ethos, the creation of a culture that connects individuals to a group.

Kezar (2007) reports on the project by describing successful campuses that have employed certain strategies, such as building a shared vision and understanding, students co-creating in the group culture, orientations and activities that include students in the culture of the school, listening to students and the community about students, and building relationships among students and between students and faculty.

IDRA has developed the Quality Schools Action Framework that details a schema for systems change in schools that includes student engagement as a key element. School-level indicators are delineated as parent and community engagement, student engagement, teaching quality, and curriculum quality and access. While diagramed as discrete elements, it is easy to see from the research on systemwide student engagement that all of these components are connected and intertwined. Each school indicator enhances the other dimensions, and none exists without the other.

Research on student engagement at the level of school systems can be the lens with which to focus on quality schools that provide an equitable education that leads to academic success.

Strategies for Increasing Student Engagement Across the School

Student engagement is the relationship a student has with all aspects of the school. Here are some strategies identified by research for increasing student engagement at the schoolwide level.

  • Establish the school as a community. (Yazzie-Mintz, 2007)
  • Provide opportunities for participation. (Yazzie-Mintz, 2007)
  • Ensure there are significant adults in the school who support and advocate for each student and his or her family. These adults should provide “continuity of care” throughout the years students are in the school. (Connell and Klem, 2004)
  • Set up small learning communities. (Connell and Klem, 2004)
  • Use data to inform and determine effective strategies within a specific school system, such as:
    • Support student-faculty communication,
    • Encourage cooperation among students,
    • Use active learning strategies,
    • Set high expectations for all students, and
    • Respect diverse talents and ways of learning. (Bridges, et al., 2005)
  • Create an ethos culture that connects students to the larger group by:
    • creating a shared vision,
    • having students co-create in the culture,
    • ensuring students are oriented into the school culture,
    • listening to the students,
    • listening to the community about students,
    • building relationships among students, and
    • building relationships between students and faculty. (Kezar, 2007)

Compiled by K. Grayson, Intercultural Development Research Association, 2008.


Bridges, B., and B. Cambridge, G. Kuh, L. Leegwater. “Student Engagement at Minority-Serving Institutions: Emerging Lessons from the BEAMS Project,” New Directions for Institutional Research (2005) 125, 25-43.

Connell, J., and A. Klem. “First Things First: A Framework for Successful Secondary School Reform,” New Directions for Youth Development (2006) 53-66.

Kezar, A. “Creating and Sustaining a Campus Ethos: Encouraging Student Engagement,” About Campus (January 2007) pp. 13-18.

Klem, A., and J. Connell. “Relationships Matter: Linking Teacher Support to Student Engagement and Achievement,” Journal of School Health (September, 2004) 74 (7), 262-273.

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

Sciarra, D., and H. Seirup.”The Multidimensionality of School Engagement and Math Achievement among Racial Groups,” Professional School Counseling (2008) 11 (4), 218-228.

U.S. Supreme Court. Lau vs. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563, 94 S. Ct. 786 (1974).

Yazzie-Mintz, E. Voices of Students on Engagement: A Report on the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement (Bloomington, Ind.: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University, 2007).

Kristin Grayson, M.Ed., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2008, IDRA. The following article originally appeared in the September 2008 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]