Equity & Diversity

Student Mobility Takes an Academic Toll. But Why?

By Daarel Burnette II — June 06, 2017 5 min read
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Parents and educators have long documented and witnessed firsthand the psychological and academic toll of a child having to move to a new school midyear.

But how students, families, and schools rebound from the moves is still a sort of black box for researchers. Because data on these hard-to-track students have been so hard to come by, researchers and advocates in the past have been stumped answering some very basic questions about student mobility: What exactly is it about moving to a different school that’s most damaging, and how can schools best support mobile students?

“Mobility is a very big deal, but it’s a poorly studied field, and there are still lots of important questions out there,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor of economics and education at Syracuse University who has studied the topic. “If you want to design a policy to solve the problem, you have to know the nature of the problem.”

Researchers and advocacy groups are bracing for an avalanche of new data on mobility once the Every Student Succeeds Act goes into effect for the upcoming school year. The federal law requires schools to track and publicly report the academic performance of military, foster, and homeless students, groups that all disproportionately change schools.

Those data could not only start chipping away at long-standing questions, researchers and advocates theorize, but could also shift school culture to better receive new students, bolster or dispute long-held theories about the effects of mobility, and bring about more educational accountability for some of the nation’s most vulnerable students.

“It’s not soup yet, but the ingredients are going to be out there,” said Mary M. Keller, the president and CEO of Military Child Education Coalition. “We’re beginning to have a better national look at this student population.”

Reasons Why

Parents move their children midyear for a variety of reasons that include financial hardship, a new job, divorce, eviction, or a family illness or death.

States’ mobility rates vary widely depending on demographics, the state’s economy and whether students attend school in an urban or rural setting.

For many communities that are especially poor, mobility has become a fact of life, and some teachers see more than half their class turn over in one school year.

Child psychologists and school counselors have documented in great detail the dizzying experience of moving for children of all ages: making new friends, finding a place to sit in the cafeteria, and being tossed to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

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Educators and the public are aware that achievement gaps often separate students of color from their higher-achieving white peers, leave low-income students lagging behind their better-off peers, and restrict opportunities for students with disabilities. Less obvious are the mechanisms and circumstances that contribute to those academic differences.

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And in education circles, school administrators have long griped that it’s difficult, with little information on students’ past performance, to figure out what sort of classes to place students in and whether they’re in need of any special services. That can amount to precious time wasted during students’ first few months at a new school.

Having several new students midyear also can force a teacher to rewind a classroom curriculum, reset classroom norms and rules, and ultimately, set an entire classroom back academically.

“High mobility is a lot like secondhand smoking,” said Russell Rumberger, a researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the California Dropout Research Project. “Schools that have a lot of mobile kids can hurt even the kids in that school that aren’t mobile.”

Isolating the causes and effects of mobility to draw sweeping conclusions about the phenomenon is tricky, researchers say. They also point to how costly and time consuming it is to follow cohorts of highly mobile students for years at a time.

While many states track students with unique identification codes between districts, they can lose track of those students when they attend private schools or cross state borders.

Even defining mobility varies from district to district and state to state.

ESSA requires that districts track and report annually on a school’s report card the academic results of foster, military, and homeless students. It also requires, for the first time, that schools use a military-student identifier for children whose parents are in the active or reserve military or the National Guard.

Both researchers and advocates are envisioning all the information they could abstract from the data.

Understanding the Problem

Researchers say knowing at the school level how highly mobile students perform academically could help provide insight into the achievement effects of mobility.

Does students’ performance stagnate or continue to decline over two to three moves, for example, and what sorts of wraparound services have the most positive impact on mobile students’ academic outcomes?

Advocates say the mere act of noting that a student has moved in the middle of a school year will help them build better support structures for students. School counselors can ask smarter questions when a student arrives at school. Districts can streamline their registration process to make the transition smoother. And school boards can ask district administrators at meetings how they’re better accommodating new families.

ESSA “is looking at how do we reduce and remove barriers for mobile kids so they can participate,” said Christina Endres, a program specialist for the National Center for Homeless Education.

States have long had to track the academic results of homeless students, but the data were mostly scrutinized only by district liaisons between homeless students and districts, said Endres. “Putting it out there in a much more broad way will force the public to ask, ‘What are the needs of homeless kids versus other students?’ ”

Keller said the Military Child Education Coalition in recent years has come up with a variety of suggestions for parents preparing to move their child to a new school, including taking a cellphone picture of the student’s textbook for receiving schools and getting a list from counselors about what sorts of special services a child requires.

The coalition is eager to replicate those practices for other groups of students and gather data to show whether those practices are effective, she said.

A 2011 study showed that students at schools run by the Department of Defense Education Activity outperform civilian students, and those schools are better at closing the achievement gaps between black and white students.

Advocates have long theorized the higher achievement holds true for children of military families who don’t attend schools on military bases. But they also have questions, including whether black children with special needs or in advanced courses who are in military families perform better than their black peers in public schools.

“We’re going to be able to parse, parse, parse and get more longitudinal data that we can look at,” said Keller. “This will fill a big hole for us.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2017 edition of Education Week as Student Mobility Takes Invisible, Uneven Toll

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