Educators and employees in Howard County schools are slightly more engaged than employees nationwide, according to the results of a Gallup poll released last week, even though more than 60 percent didn't meet that standard.

Tim Hodges, director of research for Gallup, Inc., presented the results of a baseline engagement survey of students and employees to the Board of Education last week.

"Research indicates student engagement is one of the most critical components on student achievement," Superintendent Renee Foose said. "Growing evidence and research suggests that actions and engagement from leaders and teachers are critical to help shape student engagement."

In Howard County, 34 percent of employees are engaged employees, Hodges, said, or the kind of employees who say, "sure, how can I help." That compares to 30 percent of the working population (not just educators) in the country. When it comes to teachers, slightly more than 32 percent are actively engaged, compared to 28 percent in the administration.

But overall, 66 percent of Howard County school employees were either not engaged, or actively disengaged, according to the survey results.

Only 12 percent of those were considered actively disengaged, or the employees who automatically said "no, this won't work," when presented with new challenges, Hodges said, which is less than the nationwide average of 18 percent. In Howard County schools, there are 2.83 engaged employees for every actively disengaged one, but there's still that 54 percent of employees in the middle, the ones who aren't completely disengaged, Hodges said, but the ones who are doing most of what's expected of them, who are just "wading" through their job.

The entire Howard County Public School System workforce, including administrators and central office employees, was invited to respond to the survey, and 6,620 employees took Gallup's poll, or an 84 percent response rate, over the course of a month last fall. When the Howard County Education Association collected results from its annual survey, which this year indicated a significant drop in morale and lack of faith in leadership, about 2,700 teachers and support professionals responded.

In the Gallup poll, the mean response for engagement on a five-point scale was 3.79 in Howard County.

In all its surveys, Gallup puts forth 12 statements related to engagement, including "at work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day," "there is someone at work who encourages my development," "my supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person," in the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work," and "at work, my opinion seems to count." Respondents are then asked how much they agree with those statements.

Hodges said the number of Howard respondents is very small compared to other organizations, so each person's response carries more weight in the final averages. So, even a small change in next year's work atmosphere, good or bad, can impact the results.

"If a school goes up by even three-tenths of a percent, that's a big win," he said.

The data Gallup presented Thursday, April 10, were the results of a baseline survey. With plans to conduct the survey in years to come, Hodges said, the school system will have a consistent way to track the engagement of all employees. And, he said, it is possible to improve engagement, even double it. Hodges urged the school system to "be intentional" in its hiring.

"Select the right people in the first place," he said. "I hope that when I retire, I'm the least talented person on the payroll. Every time you hire, you have to raise the bar about expectations."

Engagement levels were higher among students than educators, especially in elementary school, which is to be expected, Hodges said. In grades 5-12, 29,600 students responded to Gallup's survey last fall. Fifty-five percent of student respondents are hopeful, which according to the report means "their ideas and energy for the future drive effort, academic achievement, credits earned and retention." The average response for Howard students in the area of hope was 4.4 out of 5, which is the same average for students nationwide.

Fifty-four percent of Howard county students surveyed are considered engaged, according to the report, with an average response of 4.04 out of 5, also in line with nationwide averages, and 65 percent are considered "thriving."

That response was based on a 10-point scale, and students were asked to "imagine a ladder … the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for oneself." On average, students felt they currently "stand" on ladder rung 7.35, less than the nationwide response of 7.45. In five years, Howard students think they will "stand" on ladder rung 8.38, also less than the nationwide average of 8.52.