To tackle school climate, rethink student engagement


Feb 26, 2016

Last week, Hillary Clinton’s campaign proposed a $2 billion plan to reform K–12 school disciplinary practices. The plan marks a crucial effort to both ameliorate school climate and reduce the ratcheting up of law enforcement’s involvement in school discipline practices, particularly among minority children. Clinton specifically proposed funding School Climate Support Teams, composed of behavioral health specialists, social workers, and educators, to work with districts with high suspension and in-school arrest rates. These teams could strategically revamp school disciplinary measures with the goal of giving students more opportunities to reform their behavior—without sacrificing classroom learning or exacerbating their risk of run-ins with the law.

The proposal calls for much-needed attention to the growing crisis of schools’ punitive disciplinary practices. But simply bolstering schools’ support systems may not tackle the heart of the issue. In part, this has to be a conversation about race: harsh disciplinary practices represent just one barrier to ensuring that schools provide students of all racial backgrounds with a safe environment where they can learn and succeed.

But schools’ dysfunctional disciplinary apparatus also has emerged in part because of fundamentally predictable patterns of student disengagement in school. Indeed, schools were never purposefully constructed to kindle student engagement. And until they are, we will be forced to fund expensive support structures that treat the symptoms of poor school design, rather supporting new school models that deliberately foster engagement.

One way to rethink student engagement is to better understand students’ “jobs to be done”—that is, what students are trying to get done in their lives. Schools can then design experiences and environments to increase the likelihood that students will “hire” school to get those things done.

We’ve seen this method play out across all sorts of contexts, in which consumers “hire” products and services to do a specific job. For example, in an early study of how to best boost milkshake sales, Clay Christensen and his team found that a fast food chain sold a disproportionate number of milkshakes first thing in the morning to busy commuters. These customers “hired” the milkshakes to occupy them while in traffic and to keep their stomachs satisfied until lunch. To get these jobs done, the commuter could realistically hire all sorts of products: bananas, bagels, even the radio. This meant that to outcompete not only other fast food chains’ milkshakes, but also all the other foods and experiences that might fulfill commuters’ jobs, the restaurant needed to design milkshakes that nailed this particular circumstance and job. To get there, the restaurant tweaked milkshakes to optimize for the commuter experience: it made the product more viscous so it would last longer and added tiny pieces of frozen fruit for an added amusement factor. The redesigns paid off.

Put broadly, in the consumer goods market, jobs-to-be-done theory indicates that rather than building products that optimize for some nonexistent platonic ideal, products should optimize for their customers’ particular circumstances and goals. Once a business understands customers’ jobs, it can redesign its product to garner greater returns.

Students may look quite different from milkshake-toting commuters, but importing this framing to education reform can refocus our efforts on students as agents and consumers of their education. If we can focus on students’ circumstances and what motivates their decisions—decisions to come to school every day or to skip school, to finish a project or to put off work, to remain focused on coursework or to goof off—we can design school with these motivations in mind. Motivation research suggests that students have at least two key jobs they are trying to get done: to have fun with friends and to experience a sense of success and progress (Clay Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson have written more on student motivation here). Ironically, all sorts of built-in functions of our factory-model of school run counter to helping students accomplish these ends on a daily basis. Indeed, rigid school schedules, grading policies, and current disciplinary models tend to do just the opposite of these jobs. It’s not surprising, then, that school climate is suffering—students are firing school and hiring all sorts of other outlets that can better get their jobs done.

So how do we transform schools into learning environments that students will be more likely to hire in the first place? Emerging new school models, particularly those trying to design competency-based and student-centered school environments, offer an important antidote to disengagement that sits at the root of current school climate and discipline challenges.

For example, as I’ve written before, the Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) is one powerful alternative school example that successfully drives disengaged young people to hire school back into their lives. BDEA’s competency-based model encompasses efforts to build a strong school culture in which students feel safe and feel that their teachers care about them. The school masterfully meets its students’ jobs to be done. For instance, students gain a sense of success through peer-to-peer teaching and in a grading system where an “F” doesn’t exist—only “not yet competent.” BDEA also engages students by offering them diverse course options and providing catch-up supports to students who have missed classes.

BDEA’s practices demonstrate that there are feasible opportunities out there for educators to reformulate school from the bottom up so that young people both get excited about learning and feel supported—sure-fire foils to the chronic impulse toward disciplinary action in the current system.

Clinton is right to push our education reform conversation beyond high stakes tests and to refocus on critical climate and culture factors that influence student success. But to truly tackle the root of the discipline crisis, we will also need to invest in new school structures fundamentally redesigned to offer learning experiences that students actually want to hire in their lives.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • Absolutely on target. Another federal categorical program to improve school climate would be ineffective and waste money. The root cause of student alienation and/or boredom in high school is their century-old factory model design.

    To have a chance at success, our high school teens have to care, which means the staff has to care even more and be able to offer incentives to the ones who do the work and achieve at acceptable levels.
    Following are links to articles that describe a program that engages students by rapidly bringing up basic skills and work habits. It’s not the entire academic program, yet it provides a template for how to phase out the factory design that persists in 85% of high schools. Schools that turn off students with obsolete and what they perceive to be irrelevant curricula are unlikely to succeed, even with good principals and competent caring teachers.

    A curricular framework that is opposite of the factory model would include several of the following features:
    * Simulated high performance collaborative workplace with curriculum that is team-taught, computer-assisted, project- and competency-based.
    * Cross-disciplinary lessons and projects that integrate reading, math, oral and written communications, computer, and employability skills;
    * Students support classmates through knowledge of their respective thinking styles and high performance patterns,
    * Integration of academics with emotional intelligence training and career development.
    * Staff assistance to achieve a post-program outcome the student values such as a career-track job, entry into college without needing remediation, or more rapid progression through the high school curriculum.

    It remains to be seen whether schools are ready to redirect their resources, scheduling and credentialing practices to support this framework that has been proven to be highly effective and popular with out-of-school teens and young adults.