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Dear Hilltopper Community,

 

As we have continued these conversations throughout the school year, I have enjoyed the opportunity for dialogue. Thank you for your ongoing efforts to reach out with your thoughts and reactions. I am glad to hear from you.


Kind regards,

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Creative Solutions: The Next Level of Student Engagement

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Marshall should feel good about the numerous school districts promoting "engagement" in their current TV spots. We made engagement a top priority in 2014, when we participated in a national study and published a strategic plan emphasizing social, emotional, and cognitive engagement. Our goal then was quite simple: we wanted our students to be as engaged as the students in the nation's very best schools. When we achieved that goal in 2016, we raised the bar again and began speaking of engagement at a higher order. These days, in place of the word engagement, Marshall uses phrases such as risk-taking, creative tension, and problem-solving.

 

When it comes to offering empirical support for aspirational outcomes, educational institutions are relatively new to the game. Test scores and college placement have long offered some statistical evidence of academic achievement. But studies have proven that the best indication of future test scores is past test scores, meaning these metrics give some indication of how smart your students might be, but do little to measure a school's impact. If we wish to determine how well our students solve problems, and then stake a claim that we nurture that skill better than other schools, we must find ways to measure ourselves.

 

Next month, we will participate in the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) and the Middle School Student of Student Engagement (MGSSE) for a third time. These national, longitudinal surveys allow us to measure our progress and compare ourselves to both a public school and an independent school norm. The eventual report is quite sophisticated and the findings provide great detail and insight. For instance, in 2014, we learned that our 10th and 11th graders were not asking many questions during class, so we made that a point of emphasis. We also realized that our students were not as socially and emotionally engaged as were the students at the best independent schools, an issue that required a more complex solution.

 

To build social and emotional engagement, we made our Upper School advisory system more robust, built an academic commons and a coffee house, created more student leadership opportunities, introduced a social skills inventory in the Middle School, added group work in the classroom, and started the school year with leadership and ice-breaking activities. When we tested again in 2016, over 95% of our students reported that they "felt safe," and that they "belonged" here at Marshall. And, nearly 80% agreed with the statement, "I am an important member of my community," while only 53% of public school students felt that way.

 

Why does this matter? From 2014 to 2016, as our social and emotional engagement improved, our cognitive engagement followed suit. Our composite score of 34.1 improved by one full point surpassing the independent school mean (and widening the gap with public schools). Specifically, we made notable progress in these important areas:

 

  1. How often do you work on a project that requires you to interact with people outside of school?
  2. How much does your school emphasize: Analyzing ideas in depth for classes?
  3. How much has your school contributed to: Thinking critically?
  4. How much has your school contributed to: Developing creative ideas and solutions?

What strikes me after five years of using empirical data is that the numbers often mirror the "eye test." Two things bothered me when I first joined the Marshall community: our students rarely wore their Marshall gear, and the upperclassmen were often slumped and apathetic at school assemblies. Today, I would guess a third of our students are wearing black-and-gold athletic gear and our assemblies are now run by upperclassmen.

 

When we measure ourselves again this spring, we will determine whether our students truly are engaged at that next level: solving problems with creative solutions. My guess is that we will fare quite well. As I walked these halls during iTerm, I saw problem solving at every turn. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if problem solving and creative tension are the very buzz words we see other schools begin to use in their TV spots a few years from now.

(c) 2018 Marshall School 

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