What Teens Want From Their Schools

A National Survey of High School Student Engagement

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Among high school students who consider dropping out, half cite lack of engagement with the school as a primary reason, and 42 percent report that they don’t see value in the schoolwork they are asked to do. In What Teens Want from Their Schools: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Crux Research tackle the question of what truly motivates and engages students in high school.

Our nationally representative survey of over two thousand high schoolers in traditional public, charter, and private schools finds that nearly all students report being motivated to apply themselves academically, but they also primarily engage in school through different levers. Specifically, we identified six subgroups of students with varying engagement profiles: (Hover over each illustration to read their characteristics!)

Subject Lovers


Hand Raisers

Social Butterflies

Teacher Responders

Deep Thinkers

We’ve heard it a million times: a “one size fits all” education system all but guarantees that some students will be left out and ultimately left behind. Given that students are motivated to learn via different levers, student engagement and choice—among schools, teachers, courses, delivery options, instructional strategies, and so on—need to go hand in hand. 

This report was made possible through the generous support of the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, and our sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.


June 27, 2017
Foreword and Executive Summary
June 27, 2017
Complete Survey Results
June 27, 2017
Information Graphic

The Right Tool for the Job

Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom

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Although it’s been almost seven years since many states took the important step of elevating their academic standards by adopting the Common Core, teachers and administrators across the country still bemoan the lack of reliable information about which instructional materials are high-quality and best aligned to the new standards.  

One recent survey found that a whopping 90 percent of districts reported having major or minor problems identifying high quality, well-aligned resources. A second study found that the majority of textbooks had substantial alignment problems. In response to these reports, several entities such as EdReports, the Louisiana Department of Education, and the California Curriculum Collaborative have begun providing educators with impartial reviews of core instructional and curricular materials. Yet next to no information exists on the quality and content of resources intended to supplement a full curriculum.

The Right Tool for the Job fills that void by providing in-depth reviews of several promising digital learning tools. We focused the series on English language arts (ELA) resources, as educators stress that those are particularly difficult to come by, especially writing tools.

Four all-star educators evaluated the quality and usefulness of the tools: Melody Arabo (a third-grade teacher at Keith Elementary in Michigan), Jonathan Budd (K–12 curriculum director for Trumbull Public Schools in Connecticut), Shannon Garrison (a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Solano Avenue Elementary School in California), and Tabitha Pacheco (an instructional facilitator at a virtual academy in Utah).

These educators reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of nine K–12 ELA/literacy instructional tools:

  • Achieve the Core’s “Text sets,”
  • Curriculet,
  • iCivics Drafting Board,
  • Lexia Reading Core5,
  • Newsela,
  • Quill,
  • ReadWorks,
  • ThinkCERCA, and
  • WriteLike.

Three of these feature text sets, i.e., collections of texts tightly focused on a specific topic, designed to build students' content knowledge, vocabulary, and conceptual understanding. 

Overall, reviewers found these new resources mostly reflect the instructional shifts called for by Common Core (such as including a balance of text types and text-dependent questions for reading and writing). They also lauded the innovative nature and usefulness of text sets as instructional tools, as well as online resources’ student assessment and data reporting capabilities. However, our reviewers found that usability was uneven across products, and stressed the need for clear instructions on how to incorporate each tool’s activities into a teacher’s broader class curriculum. They also cite a lack of information regarding accessibility and accommodations for students with learning disabilities.

Identifying high quality, standards-aligned supplemental tools is extremely time consuming for educators who attempt to do it on their own. This collection of reviews returns some of those hours back to them. 


Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?

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Fordham’s latest study, by the University of Connecticut's Shaun M. Dougherty, uses data from Arkansas to explore whether students benefit from CTE coursework—and, more specifically, from focused sequences of CTE courses aligned to certain industries. The study also describes the current landscape, including which students are taking CTE courses, how many courses they’re taking, and which ones.

Key findings include: 

  • Students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages.
  • CTE is not a path away from college: Students taking more CTE classes are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers.
  • Students who focus their CTE coursework are more likely to graduate high school by twenty-one percentage points compared to otherwise similar students (and they see a positive impact on other outcomes as well).
  • CTE provides the greatest boost to the kids who need it most—boys, and students from low-income families.

Due to many decades of neglect and stigma against old-school “vo-tech,” high-quality CTE is not a meaningful part of the high school experience of millions of American students. It’s time to change that.


Additional resources:



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Policy Brief: Pathways to Teaching in Ohio

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Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a teacher in the Buckeye State? Wonder no more! In this policy brief, we outline the entire process—from acceptance to a preparation program all the way to advanced licensure. We even take a look at alternative pathways and out-of-state educators.

Policy Brief: The Ohio Teacher Evaluation System

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A thorough overview of Ohio's teacher evaluation framework

Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum

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The need for standards-aligned curricula is the most cited Common Core challenge for states, districts, and schools. Yet five years into that implementation, teachers still report scrambling to find high-quality instructional materials. Despite publishers’ claims, there is a dearth of programs that are truly aligned to the demands of the Common Core for content and rigor. Fixing America’s curriculum problem is no small challenge.

In Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum, Fordham analyzes New York State’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, built from scratch and made available online for all to use for free. How solid is this product? Is it well aligned to the Common Core? Is it teachable?

Here’s what we found:

  • EngageNY’s alignment to the Common Core is generally strong.
  • Selected texts are high-quality and appropriately rigorous, and the program allows educators greater flexibility than other scripted programs.
  • But because New York engaged multiple curriculum developers to create separate resources for different grade bands, each set of materials reflects a distinctive underlying approach to curriculum and literacy, meaning that the progression across grade bands is bumpy.
  • While content and foundational skills in the early grades appear thoughtfully developed, the sheer quantity of content across all grade bands can be overwhelming.
  • Additionally, EngageNY’s high school curriculum (not yet complete) lacks a critical emphasis on literary content, a problem that is amplified by the fact that students read mostly excerpts of great books rather than full novels, biographies, and so on.

While not perfect, the materials offer educators—both inside and outside New York State—an important alternative to traditional textbooks of questionable quality and alignment. 

This has been updated to reflect that at the high-school level, students mostly, not exclusively, read excerpts of great books rather than full novels and biographies.

Developing School Leaders: What the U.S. Can Learn from England's Model

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The myriad challenges facing school principals in the United States have been well documented, including limited opportunities for distributed leadership, inadequate training, and a lackluster pipeline for new leaders. Recently, the Fordham Institute teamed up with the London-based Education Foundation to seek a better understanding of England’s recent efforts to revamp school leadership. This joint effort led to a white paper, Building a Lattice for School Leadership; the short film, Leadership Evolving: New Models of Preparing School Heads; a fall 2014 conference that brought together nearly forty experts on school leadership from both countries; and a new report, Developing School Leaders: What the U.S. Can Learn from England’s Model, that reflects the discussions at the fall conference. This paper:

  • Summarizes the key elements of the English system, as well as systems for training and credentialing leaders at several levels;
  • Describes how changes in leadership development reflect broader education-policy shifts and how the English system currently benefits from a combination of top-down and decentralized models; and
  • Examines potential implications for American public education and poses questions for policymakers and educators to consider.

There are obvious and significant differences between the two systems. With about twenty thousand schools, England has roughly the same number as California and Texas combined—all within a nation the size of Wisconsin.  England’s central government in Whitehall makes most of the big education-policy decisions. Given the much larger and markedly more decentralized U.S. system, direct policy transfusions are unlikely. Yet England’s view of school leadership, combined with local models of support and development, may nonetheless provide a useful roadmap away from the present U.S. system. 


If you have questions about the book, please email David Griffith.

Building a Lattice for School Leadership

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Gadfly editorial by Michael J. Petrilli and Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.

Over the past decade, the English government has revamped that country’s approach to school leadership. At the center of the reform is the sensible idea that school leadership needs to be a team endeavor. While not a new idea—there’s been for years plenty of discussion about “distributed leadership” on both sides of the pond—the Brits got busy actually making it happen as opposed to jawboning about it. Central to their leadership structure is the formalization of three levels of school leaders, each with distinct roles and responsibilities: headteachers who lead schools (equivalent to the principal’s role in the U.S.), senior leaders or deputy heads who assist the headteacher (similar to the vice principal role in American education but with additional school-wide responsibilities), and middle leaders responsible for the quality of teaching within a certain department, grade-level or grade cluster. Each level (and some differing roles within the level) comes with its own mix of time devoted to teaching and time spent leading.

To see how America's fragmented leadership system might benefit from these ideas and others from our British brethren, download Building a Lattice for School Leadership: The Top-to-Bottom Rethinking of Leadership Development in England and What It Might Mean for American Education.


If you have questions about the book, please email Amber Northern.

In the Media

November 22, 2014
Impact First
January 21, 2015
Education Week

Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement

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By Daniela Doyle and Gillian Locke, Public Impact
Foreword By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern

A school’s leader matters enormously to its success and that of its students and teachers. But how well are U.S. districts identifying, recruiting, selecting, and placing the best possible candidates in principals’ offices? To what extent do their practices enable them to find and hire great school leaders? To what degree is the principal’s job itself designed to attract outstanding candidates?

In Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement, authors Daniela Doyle and Gillian Locke examine five urban school districts that have sought to improve their principal-hiring processes in recent years. They find some strengths—but also plenty of challenges:

  • The principalship is a high-pressure job in which the school head’s authority is generally not commensurate with his or her responsibility. It’s also a job that does not pay very well. Put these shortcomings together and it’s not surprising that many high-ability individuals are loath to seek such a position.
  • Recruitment of leadership talent beyond a district’s own boundaries is limited and uneven. Most principals are therefore selected from a group of individuals already on the district payroll. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, not much strategic thought goes into how to identify talent or find the best fit between the skillset of a new principal and the needs of a specific school.
  • Districts have built into their selection-and-hiring processes many sensible practices—and cronyism is less of an issue than it used to be. Yet those same rubrics don’t collect much hard data on candidates’ prior effectiveness in improving student outcomes.

In the authors’ words,

Our primary finding is that principal-hiring practices—even in pioneering districts—continue to fall short of what is needed, effectively causing needy schools to lose out on leaders with the potential to be great. Our research suggests, however, that better hiring practices alone are only part of the solution. Districts must also re-imagine the principal’s role so that it is a job that talented leaders want and are equipped to execute successfully.

Among their key recommendations are the following:

  1. Make the job more appealing—and manageable. Give principals the power to lead, including authority over key staffing decisions, operations, and resources.
  2. Pay great leaders what they are worth. Compensation must be commensurate with the demands, responsibilities, and risks of the job—and should reward success in this challenging role.
  3. Take a proactive approach to recruitment. Develop criteria to identify promising candidates both inside and outside of the district and actively seek them out. At the same time, identify and prepare internal candidates systematically and early—and eliminate barriers that might discourage high-potential candidates.
  4. Insist on evidence of a candidate’s prior success in boosting pupil achievement.
  5. Evaluate candidates against the competencies and skills demonstrated by successful principals.
  6. Design the placement process to match individual schools’ needs with particular candidates’ strengths.
  7. Continually evaluate hiring efforts. Collect and analyze all relevant data, and then develop metrics by which to assess each stage of the process, particularly in relation to the school results that follow.

Register for the July 31 event 'Steering great leaders into the principal's office'


On a mobile device? View the Lacking Leaders infographic.


If you have questions about the book, please email Dara Zeehandelaar.

Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core

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Children cannot be truly literate without knowing about history, science, art, music, literature, civics, geography, and more. Indeed, they cannot satisfactorily comprehend what they read unless they possess the background knowledge that makes such comprehension possible. Yet most American primary schools have been marching in the opposite direction: treating reading only as a “skill” and pushing off history, science, art, and music “until later.”

This problem grows more serious with the advent of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, which take for granted that children expected to meet those standards are being supplied with a content-rich curriculum. In far too many U.S. schools, however, that is simply not happening.

So what should we do?

Commit to implanting a sequential, content-rich curriculum in the country’s elementary and middle schools.

The essays in Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core restate the case for such a curriculum and chart a course for the future. They also pay tribute to the decades of scholarship, service, and reform commitment of E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy (and three other prescient books on education reform) and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

DOWNLOAD Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core as an eBook.

Kindle Download (.mobi) - Instructions on how to add the e-book to your Kindle

Nook Download (.epub)

WATCH selected panels and speeches from "A tribute to the work of E. D. Hirsch, Jr." that took place on December 4, 2013 at the Carnegie Library in Washington D. C.

Opening remarks by Sol Stern

The state of Core Knowledge: past and present

Accelerating the adoption of content-rich curricula

Keynote address by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.


If you have questions about the book, please email Amber Northern.