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. 

QUIZ: How is your teen engaged in school?

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.

John Geraci is the president and founder of Crux Research. A seasoned researcher with a broad base of experience, John has earned a reputation as a go-to researcher for understanding today’s youth generation and for market research on topics in education. A veteran of one of the nation’s largest research firms (Harris Interactive), John has overseen nearly two million interviews. His clients have included public school…

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With 20+ years of strategic research experience, Maureen is involved in all aspects of qualitative and quantitative project management at Crux Research. In addition to report writing, she specializes in quantitative and statistical analysis, including the design and implementation of statistical techniques and models.  Additionally, she is involved in the programming of online surveys using our survey software…

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Pat Cirillo, Ph.D. is the president and founder of Cypress Research Group in Cleveland, Ohio. As an analyst and statistician, her work has been in a broad spectrum of industries within the for-profit, not-for-profit, and government arenas.

Dr. Cirillo is a frequent speaker at national conferences, and has given invited testimony to over a dozen state legislatives and federal regulatory bodies (FDIC, FTC) and federal…

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Victoria McDougald is the chief of staff at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she manages external partnerships and oversees Fordham’s outreach and messaging to outside audiences, including policymakers, the media, and others in the education-policy world. In collaboration with the American Enterprise Institute, Victoria also manages Fordham's Emerging Education Policy Scholar (EEPS) Program that seeks to counter the…

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