As a public school student, I was required to read Ethan Frome four times. My family moved frequently, and, as we crisscrossed the United States, I was regularly thrown into new public schools midyear. The differences between schools were mind-boggling. There was never a common academic road map, and I often had to make sense of new and disparate rules and expectations. I crammed on local topics, like Texas history, in order to pass high-stakes tests. While I missed some content (American history before 1890), I got others in hysterical quantities (see Ethan Frome, also American history after 1890).
Sound confusing? It was. I crafted complicated narratives to convince adults of my skills. I made liberal use of the optional “Is there anything you would like to add?” boxes on college applications to help admission officers piece together my transcripts.
But, while confusing, the experience I had as a student is hardly rare; as a recent report issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found, there are a lot of kids like me. “Student nomads,” a term the Fordham research team used to describe us high-mobility kids, are a “near-everyday reality for schools.” The institute studied public schools in Ohio, but its findings echo national estimates, which suggest nearly 15 percent of children move every year. And it’s likely that student nomads may be becoming even more common as families relocate for jobs, cheaper cost of living, or better schools.
It’s time to become a national system of schools. We've got to embrace common data systems, expectations, measures, and supports."
However, unlike me, a kid from the upper middle class, most student nomads don’t fare as well. Moving from one school to another usually has huge academic impacts. I was a lucky exception. Mobility is highest among students with the most urgent educational needs—those kids who live below the poverty line or are homeless. These students typically fall far behind their peers in core subjects and are more likely to drop out. The more times a child changes school, the bigger this impact is. As the researchers in Ohio found, “all lines trend downward.”
It’s clear most of our schools simply can’t meet the needs of the new kids on the block. We’re creating an educational underclass, dooming certain kids to being permanently left behind. Further, in the era of school accountability, the impact isn’t just felt at the student level. Mobility rates are highest at our most challenged schools. Without common expectations or continuous records, practitioners working with incoming kids move blindly. Gaps lower performance on high-stakes tests, leading to more failing schools.
What can we do? It’s tempting to just focus on mobility as the problem, but this approach is merely palliative. Families move, and our lives are becoming more and more global every day. Technology makes geographical boundaries less important to employment, communications, and conducting business. Increasing school choice means more options beyond neighborhood schools, and more families pursuing them. We must adapt to the increasingly fluid world in which we live, moving from a system where we force secondary status on the mobile “other kids” to one that is universally responsive to any kid, from any place and at any level. From my vantage point as a former nomad and someone who has devoted my own career to improving public education in the United States, policymakers and leaders could take two critical steps.
First, invest in shared infrastructure. Local control means decisions about the core of American education—what children learn, when they learn it, and how data are collected and shared—are ceded to local agencies, more than 14,000 of them. Each district is designed for “its kids” rather than for “all kids,” forcing students and families to adapt, with severe consequences for children who fail to adjust quickly.
It’s time to become a national system of schools. We’ve got to embrace common data systems, expectations, measures, and supports. Recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards by all but a handful of states and the development of shared assessments (through collaboratives like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC) are a great start, but we need to do more. National standards and end-of-year tests need to be complemented by other critical pieces, including formative assessments and standards-aligned content, as well as technologies and services that allow students’ records to travel with them as they move from school to school. If we can do that, students’ past education experiences can integrate with their future ones.
Second, we must cast off arbitrary structures that sacrifice the learning of individual students for the sake of management efficiency of groups. Our commitments to and mandates for systems that are easier to measure and control—seat time, Carnegie units, checklist teacher evaluations, and lock-step schoolwide curriculum—undermine the personalization that mobile students need. We must move to competency-based grading systems and break down classroom walls and schedules to deploy teachers and student time more flexibly. (By way of example, the nonprofit consulting and research organization Public Impact has done interesting work on teacher staffing models). We should also invest in and leverage new technologies to help us meet students where they are rather than where we need them to be.
If we start to do both these things, to invest in common infrastructure and move toward personalization, we’ll have a national education strategy that’s more student-centric. We’ll make the educational experiences of highly mobile students, if not all students, much better. This will take some bravery, but it’s time to get serious about meeting the needs of our nomads. We should let go of provincial notions and develop school models and systems that allow students to move—between schools and districts and states—without putting their futures at risk.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as On Behalf of the Student Nomads