Opinion
Accountability Opinion

Making School Work for Mobile Students and Others

By Beth Rabbitt — February 19, 2013 4 min read

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.

BRIC ARCHIVE

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.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as On Behalf of the Student Nomads

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Accountability Opinion Absenteeism Is the Wrong Student Engagement Metric to Use Right Now
In a post-pandemic era for school accountability, let’s focus on measuring what matters.
Sara Johnson, Annette Anderson & Ruth R. Faden
4 min read
Figure being erased.
Getty
Accountability Biden Education Team Squashes States' Push to Nix All Tests but Approves Other Flexibility
The department has telegraphed its decision to deny states' requests to cancel federally mandated tests for weeks.
3 min read
A first-grader learns keyboarding skills at Bayview Elementary School in San Pablo, Calif on March 12, 2015. Schools around the country are teaching students as young as 6 years old, basic typing and other keyboarding skills. The Common Core education standards adopted by a majority of states call for students to be able to use technology to research, write and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils.
The U.S. Department of Education denied some states' requests to cancel standardized tests this year. Others are seeking flexibility from some testing requirements, rather than skipping the assessments altogether.
Eric Risberg/AP
Accountability Explainer Will There Be Standardized Tests This Year? 8 Questions Answered
Educators want to know: Will the exams happen? If so, what will they look like, and how will the results be used?
12 min read
Students testing.
Getty
Accountability Opinion What Should School Accountability Look Like in a Time of COVID-19?
Remote learning is not like in person, and after nine months of it, data are revealing how harmful COVID-19 has been to children's learning.
6 min read
Image shows a speech bubble divided into 4 overlapping, connecting parts.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty and Laura Baker/Education Week