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US students become disengaged with school as they age

According to the most recent Gallup poll of student engagement, U.S. student engagement in school—their enthusiasm for and involvement in school—drops sharply as students get older. By the time students reach 12th grade, only about a third are engaged in school. This sharp decline in U.S. student engagement—what Gallup calls the “School Engagement Cliff”—suggests that U.S. students may be struggling with the relevance of what they are learning.

In sharp contrast, a recent survey from Tallinn University found that Estonian students are more likely to “like to go to school” as they get older, so that by the time students reach 12th grade, more than half of Estonian students say they like going to school and enjoy learning. Not only do Estonian students outperform U.S. students on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment, they also seem to increasingly enjoy school as they progress through their school career and become independent learners.

Addressing the disengagement of older students in the U.S. is especially urgent now as extended remote learning in many classrooms due to the pandemic is likely to further erode students’ connection to school and engagement in their studies.

Learn more about Estonia’s learning system on NCEE’s profile of education in Estonia and how top-performing countries are responding to challenges posed by distance learning in this NCEE paper.