Building a more engaging high school experience for the new normal

Disparities show we must build a more engaging school experience post-pandemic

Building a more engaging high school experience for the new normal

For over a year, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education with particularly grave consequences for high school students. The good news is the past year unleashed a lot of creativity: there are ample recovery resources available to continue to experiment and find new and better ways of learning in the future. Below we present a variety of data that demonstrate the need to redesign high schools to make them more engaging places to learn.










Engagement declines sharply for African-American and Hispanic students from middle school to high school. Students cannot learn effectively if the environment does not capture their imagination. School climate data collected by the state at the conclusion of the 2019 MCAS test show that engagement drops for all students between middle school and high school, but the decline is sharpest for African-American and Hispanic students. It is notable that engagement declines at the point when students have acquired basic skills and are ready to pursue deeper learning. At this point, students should also be exploring their aspirations and aligning them with college and career pathways, making learning more relevant to their personal interests. But school climate data suggest the opposite is happening. We need to be more attuned to this barometer and asking hard questions about what’s behind this drop in engagement.

A large majority of students say teachers encourage them to take advanced classes. Challenging students is one tried and true strategy to increase engagement. A large majority of students across race, ethnicity, and socio-economic background say teachers encourage them to take upper-level courses.










But the data on actual advanced course taking in 2019 paint an entirely different picture. There are large disparities across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background in the share of juniors and seniors in Massachusetts high schools that take advanced courses. As Figure 3 shows, White students enrolled in advanced courses at nearly three times the rate of ELL students, and less than half of Economically Disadvantaged juniors and seniors took advanced courses.

Recent research from the MassINC Polling Group found that nearly three-quarters of Hispanic parents compared to half of White parents say more funding for advanced coursework is a high priority. Parents of students of color clearly perceive that schools could be doing more to challenge their children.










Students of color receive exclusionary discipline at dramatically higher rates. Disruptive behavior is more likely to occur in classrooms where students are not fully engaged in learning. Far fewer high school students of color are participating in challenging courses, and perhaps this is leading to some disciplinary issues. However, school climate data do not suggest students of color feel significantly less safe at school, but they are dramatically more likely to be subject to exclusionary discipline (Figure 4). Compared to their White peers, African American high school students were three times more likely to experience in-school suspension and nearly five times more likely to experience out-of-school suspension during the 2019-2020 school year.










A recent MassINC Polling Group survey found parents of color are much more likely to report that their child has been treated unfairly at school. This is additional evidence that suggests bias may be fueling these disparities rather than dangerous behaviors, which may justify removing students from classrooms for a period of time.

Throughout the pandemic, survey data consistently found that parents of students of color were generally more satisfied with remote learning and Boston parents, in particular, seem interested in virtual learning opportunities for their students when things return to normal. It would be tragic if parents opt for virtual learning in order to ensure that their children receive more fair treatment. Instead, we should be looking to redouble efforts to increase educator diversity and build out innovative models like Early College and other new high school designs that dramatically increase student engagement.

Meet The Author

Simone Ngongi-Lukula

Former Education Equity Fellow, MassINC

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