School & District Management

GAO Study Shines Light on Student Mobility

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 21, 2010 3 min read

About 13 percent of children in the United States change schools four or more times before enrolling in high school, and job loss, home foreclosures, and homelessness may be driving up student mobility as Americans move in search of employment or affordable housing, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The report is based on an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data from 1998 to 2007. The GAO researchers supplemented their analysis with interviews conducted in March and April with educators at eight schools in six school districts across three states. U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., requested the study of student mobility in preparation for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

“The more attention that educators, lawmakers, and government pay to mobile students, the better,” said Andrea Beesley, the senior director of assessment for Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a federal regional educational laboratory in Denver, Colo., and the lead author of a report on student mobility. “Mobility has been associated with numerous negative education outcomes, but there haven’t been consistent efforts to help support mobile students.”

Comparing Less Mobile and More Mobile Students

15mobility c1 s

SOURCE: GAO analysis of ECLS-K data, 1998-2007

The report doesn’t provide recommendations for how schools should address mobility, but it does highlight a few challenges that surfaced in interviews with educators. Some teachers and principals said that records for students who are on the move aren’t often transferred to their new school in a timely way, making it difficult for the new school to determine how to best place them in classes or arrange for services such as language assistance or special education. The report says that differences between schools in the order that course material is covered and in the pace of instruction can impede a student’s placement and adjustment.

Ms. Beesley said that in places where students tend to move within a small region, such as between neighboring school districts, educators can support them by aligning curricula across districts or in facilitating the transfer of student records.

Movers’ Characteristics

The report offers “a good recap” of student mobility in the United States, providing some numbers to back observations that educators may already have made about students who frequently change schools, such as that many of them come from families that don’t own homes, said Betsy Brand, the executive director of the Washington-based American Youth Policy Forum.

The GAO found that students from families that did not own their own home made up about 39 percent of students who changed schools four or more times in grades K-8 but just 20 percent of students who changed schools two or fewer times in those grades. (The number of moves also includes some more-routine transitions students make as they are promoted from grade-to-grade, moving, for example, from an elementary school to a middle school, according to the report.) The study also shows that students who are in that most-mobile group are disproportionately poor and African-American.

Ms. Brand said she suspects mobility rates are even higher in grades 9-12 than K-8, and she would have liked to see the GAO provide statistics for high school students as well. In secondary school, she explained, students “are beginning to have more freedom in their own life, so they can move between family members. Younger children tend to be watched over a little more carefully.”

The report found that 11.5 percent of schools have high rates of mobility, which the GAO defined as having more than 10 percent of K-8 students leave by the end of the school year. Those schools had larger proportions of students who were low-income, received special education, and were English-language learners than schools with less student mobility.

Because the data analyzed for the report was collected before the current economic downturn, the GAO researchers relied on testimony from educators to determine that the economic crisis may be increasing student mobility. For instance, educators in the three different states visited said they had seen a recent increase of families doubling up with other families in single-family homes, which also led to students’ changing schools.

The educators also cited family instability as a cause of student mobility. Some students switch schools as a result of divorce, such as when parents’ custody arrangements change, educators reported. Sometimes children are moved from one relative’s home to another when the child’s family has conflict, they said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week

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