Why we need to change schools (right now).

Chris McNutt
June 27, 2023
We need to recognize that youth and educators are in crises – and that schools need to change. It’s no longer warning bells – we are in a state of emergency.

This article is a follow-up to our 2019 post: I use evidence to inform my teaching. There is overwhelming research (documented on the Human Restoration Project website) supporting common sense initiatives to reimagine education. The current system isn’t working and we can do better. We’re past the point of waiting for change and hoping that a single policymaker or political party will “save” education. We must demand better right now.

The Issue

Young people are struggling. The vast majority of students spend their days “tired” “stressed” or “bored.” (1) Nearly all teenagers report that school is a somewhat or significant source of stress. (2) Teenagers face an unprecedented mental health crisis: feeling sad, helpless, depressed, and anxious. (3) This crisis has gotten worse over the last two decades, especially in middle school and high school – a problem before the pandemic which was exacerbated after 2020. (4) The APA has written that, “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.” (5)

When surveyed, 96% of teenagers report that anxiety and depression are a problem their peers face, with 70% identifying them as major problems. (6) And horrifically, the suicide rate of students increases between 30 to 43% during the school year. (7)

A Pew Research Center report finds that the vast majority of young people feel their peers are facing anxiety and depression (alongside bullying, drug addiction, drinking alcohol, and poverty).

Gallup scientists categorized 1 in 10  students as both disengaged and discouraged, and reported that older students “feel less cared for by adults and see less value in their own work.” (8)

Alongside these mental health statistics, we find a crisis of engagement. Children ask fewer questions as they proceed through school. Children aged 14mo to 5 years old have been found to ask an average of 107 questions an hour, but by the time those children reach elementary school they may only ask 2 to 5 questions over 2-hours. (9)

In what is described as the “school engagement cliff”, a steep drop in engagement occurs from 5th to 6th grade (8 points); 6th to 7th grade (12 points); and 7th to 8th grade (9 points). In total, engagement drops from 74% prior to the typical middle school years (5th grade) to 40% after these years (9th grade). A 34% decrease. (10)

A 2016 Gallup Poll notes the "school engagement cliff" from 74% engagement at Grade 5 to 40% at Grade 9.

Likewise, test scores and absenteeism (shown below) worsen in middle school as engagement plummets. (11) Similar studies have found the same findings. (12, 13, 14, 15, 16)

These figures, measuring students who remain in an elementary school building (K-8) versus students who attend a middle school (6-8), highlight negative test score and attendance trends across the intermediate school ages.

These crises has been compounded by the devastating impact of COVID-19, where more than 140,000 US children lost a primary or secondary caregiver to the pandemic. (17) Although disparities in engagement and mental health among race, gender, gender identity, disability, and other demographics existed prior to the pandemic, these disparities were made worse, leading to drastic mental health disparities facing BIPOC students (18, 19) , LGBTQIA+ students (20, 21) , Latinx EL students (22, 23) , Disabled students (24, 25) , and underserved students generally. (26, 27, 28, 29)

This mirrors how schools have always inequitably served youth, causing many cited instances of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination (30) , leading to less engagement and participation in schools. (31, 32, 33, 34, 35)

What Can We Do?

Incorporating interdisciplinary project-based learning, designed to take action within communities and act for the social good, leads to more involved and engaged youth (with specific impact for those who have been historically disenfranchised from education). (36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44) Study after study, it is completely clear that designing for those at the margins leads to greater learning experiences for all.

When we incorporate alternative assessment metrics – such as portfolios, narrative-based grading, learning labor contracts, and other forms of moving away from grades (e.g. “ungrading”) – we engage youth. (45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52)

When young people and educators learn together, moving away from sit-and-get content and toward a framework of social emotional justice, they emerge with greater self-actualization, more purposeful lives, and greater engagement in their communities. (53, 54, 55, 56, 57)

Experiential learning, such as high quality project-based learning, is associated with higher academic outcomes and interest across all subject areas, including science (58, 59, 60, 61, 62) , mathematics (63, 64, 65, 66, 67) , social studies (68, 69, 70), and English language arts/language learning (71, 72). PBL has been associated with improved equitable outcomes (73, 74, 75) , improved social-emotional health (76, 77, 78, 79) , and more agency, self-efficacy - a generally better overall experience. (80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87)

Implementing community-driven, project-based learning shifts the roles of educators and young people. Instead of reinforcing teacher-driven control that is typical in most schools, these systemic shifts require a movement toward self-determination theory (SDT). Instead of the pursuit of rewards, punishments, and other mechanisms for compliance, SDT adopts instruction and assessment methods that lead to greater motivation, purpose, and autonomy. (88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94)

As could be assumed, designing learning environments and experiences that bring people together, which celebrate peer relationships and academic success, directly correlates to less engagement drop-off and better well-being. (95, 96) When we design relevant coursework where students choose what matters most to them, they are more engaged. (97) The more student-centered our practices (and the more teachers/schools provide direct support to students), the more students academically achieve in coursework and in test scores. (98, 99, 100) (Albeit, test scores are not necessarily a great indicator of academic success to begin with…(101))

A circular diagram showing Families and Communities, Schools, Classrooms, then Social and Emotional Learning. Full text available on the CASEL framework website (linked below).
The CASEL framework for systemic social-emotional learning.

Of course, this is all common sense. Shifting to a “doing with” from a “doing to” model that involves hands-on, meaningful, authentic projects that value all learners (as opposed to simply completing entirely fact-driven worksheets and tests all day) is going to be more engaging. And it’s not that we don’t know better – hundreds to thousands more of these studies exist dating back more than one hundred years ago – It’s just the will to change. We need to recognize that youth and educators are in crises – and that schools need to change. It’s no longer warning bells – we are in a state of emergency. We need educators who are willing to push beyond the bureaucratic “tow the line” systems that most districts tend to reinforce every day. It’s going to take mitigated risk-taking of thousands of educators and young people who have the willingness to take actionable hope. It’s only then that we’ll truly start to restore humanity to education.

(Human Restoration Project works with schools to reimagine systems and build systems alongside students. Learn more here!)


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There are so many citations that could be included here. Here’s a summary of research and findings from the Human Restoration Project research database:

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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