New Papers Grapple With Impacts of School Mobility

By Debra Viadero — July 08, 2009 2 min read
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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?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.