To some students, studying just isn't worth the effort.
Principals and teachers in recent years have noticed an upswing in so-called "reluctant learners." Now they are searching for new ways to reach them.
Reluctant learners are students "who have the ability, but who are somewhat disengaged, hard to motivate. ... They just don't do it," said Chris Budnik, associate principal at Wausau East High School. "I think in the last five years, teachers are seeing more of these students."
It's a frustrating and thorny problem for educators, because there is no one reason that students are essentially dropping out of school while staying in school, said Thom Hahn, the Wausau School District's director of secondary education. In fact, it's difficult to even define who reluctant learners are, because they don't typically fit definitions of being at-risk of dropping out, aren't classified as special education students and don't lack intellectual capacity.
Hahn said the group called together to grapple with the problem of disengaged students has just started to brainstorm about the issue, but he sees a future where schools and teachers tailor the education of students to better match their interests and learning styles.
The problem isn't unique to Wausau, to Wisconsin or even to the United States, Hahn said. Educational journals and studies say the issue is of concern across the planet. For example, Hahn points to a recent article in Teachers College Record that said studies have found that half of all students say they are bored, and 40 percent to 60 percent are "chronically disengaged."
Budnik said many Wausau East students started disengaging after the recession hit. "I think it's tied to our economy and what's happening in our world," she said. Families who may be struggling to pay for housing, food and transportation may be putting education on a back burner.
"All of our parents care about their kids," Budnik said. "(But) obstacles get in peoples' ways, and they don't have support systems in place."
But disengagement is not a specific hallmark of economically-disadvantaged students. "Some of our most disengaged students are from some affluent families," Hahn said. "It's not just one thing causing it."
The Wausau School District has come far in offering programs such as charter schools that better meet the needs of students and their particular learning styles, Hahn said. But he believes more specialized learning will come, especially that which is especially relevant to students' interests. Those interests, whether it be welding, art or science, will become a driving force to help motivate students.
Cindy Greil, a veteran Wausau teacher who works with homebound students and those specifically classified as at-risk of dropping out, says disengagement often begins when students are at the elementary level. The key, she said, is to find those students, then find the specific way to help that child see the value in learning.
"You have to find the root of what's going on (with the student)," she said.