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New Papers Grapple With Impacts of School Mobility


When times are hard, families move in search of employment or less-expensive housing. That means that one invisible fallout from the economic recession could be an increase in the number of children who switch schools.

If you couple that with the growing number of charter schools popping up across the country, it seems clear that moving from school to school may well become a commonplace occurrence for many schoolchildren.

Research produced for a conference last month on school mobility suggests, however, that we don't know as much about the academic effects of changing schools as we should. Organized by the Board on Children, Youth and Families at the National Academies, the conference focused on two papers: a review of the research on mobility in K-12 schools and a closer analysis of national data on children's mobility between kindergarten and 3rd grade.

In keeping with previous studies in this area, the first paper finds that frequent school moves are generally a bad thing: Students who moved three or more times over the course of their school careers are significantly more likely to drop out in high school than those with more stable school lives.

The second paper, however, suggests more mixed effects—at least in the early years. Changing schools once between kindergarten and 3rd grade was not linked to lower academic performance, the authors found, but moving twice was another matter. The study also found that children from poorer families experience larger cognitive deficits than their better-off counterparts when they move during the kindergarten year. Moving appears to be uniformly harmful, though, for special education children.

Yet, by the same token, the study finds that children who repeat kindergarten as a result of a move tend to experience cognitive benefits. The authors write:

The complexity of our results makes any simple statement about the cognitive impact of school mobility impossible
They suggest that future studies take into account socioeconomic differences among students, measure the non-academic impacts of school moves, and discriminate among the kinds of moves that children make. Some schools, for instance, only serve students in grades K-1, which means that students have no choice but to move to another school for 2nd grade.

A summary report on the conference is due to be published this coming winter. In the meantime, what I'm wondering is why don't we hear more about how switching schools affects students in national discussions on charter schools?


Thanks for the great links.

Your point on the benfits of repeating kindergarten should influence social promotion shouldn't it?

I'm reminded of Gordon MacInnes's argument In Plain Sight saying that we should learn from military schools which have have mobility. They concentrate on reading comprehension. Mobility can't take away your ability to read to learn, but if you can't read to learn then mobility will be a curse.

I look at this from the perspective of high schools. What are we supposed to do in a time of NCLB when we get kids from the shelters, jails, or wherever and we'll just have them for a few days or few weeks? Last year, for every student who I had whose scores were eligible for NCLB reporting I had three who fit into the category of "reactive mobile." We just make things worse for those kids by putting them on the conveyor belt for some more failure and humiliation before they move on.

We also see the end result of the absurdity of NCLB-type accountablity, which as the second report showed is based on the assumption of stable school populations. We repeatedly try quick fixes that makes things worst because we don't take into consideration their distinction regarding mobility, "family reason for school change is what Rumberger and his colleagues (1999) has called “strategic” school change. These types of school changes are characterized as purposeful,
planned changes “made to achieve some desired end,” which is often to attend a better school. In contrast, these authors have identified another family-related reason for changing schools, which they call “reactive.” Reactive school changes happen when negative events, beyond the control of the student or family, occur that necessitate a school change. Reactive changes may occur when
conditions at the school are unacceptable academically or socially, causing the family to feel that
they have no choice but to remove the child from the situation."

Well, we could change district policies to support continued enrollment at a school despite changes in address. Some savvy parents are able to do this on their own--borrowing an address to maintain the ability to attend a school that works well for them even if they no longer live where they used to. The "better" schools sometimes frown on this. sometimes they put efforts into proving that a family no longer lives in their attendance zone. Especially if the kid is one of those--you know, the undesireable types.

But--I was glad to see mention of kids with special needs--for whom changing school is universally harmful. Generally they just get excluded from the study, with the assumption that since so many of their moves serve the convenience of the district (changing buildings to go where others "like" them already are being "served"), the moves must be a good thing, prescribed by sensible and professional adults.

As John points out, there are those who have dealt (some successfully) with mobile populations over time. One more "problem," that does in fact have, if not solutions, at least better responses.

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  • Margo/Mom: Well, we could change district policies to support continued enrollment read more
  • john thompson: Thanks for the great links. Your point on the benfits read more