Show & Tell: A Video Column / Reducing the Impact of Mobility - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

September 1, 2017

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Reducing the Impact of Mobility

How one school treats each new student as a valued learner from day one.

Social Emotional Learning

In searching for factors that positively affect student's learning, John Hattie (2009) stumbled on a few things that, instead, get in the way. 1 The good news: Hattie found there are few things educators do that harm students' chances of learning. But examining the five percent of influences (of all 200 Hattie examined) that impede learning can be enlightening. This column focuses on the influencing factor on Hattie's list with the most negative impact: student mobility. When students change schools, their achievement often declines precipitously.

The effect size of mobility on student achievement is -.34. That's right, negative. An effect size is a statistical tool used to aggregate data to determine the average impact of various factors and to explore the size of the difference a factor makes. In education, effect sizes can be used to estimate the number of months or years of learning growth a specific intervention is likely to produce. Something with a small effect size might generate a month's worth of growth; something with a large effect size could generate 1.5 years of growth. Factors with a negative effect size decrease growth.

Hattie suggested that, in education research, an effect size of .40 for any factor is equivalent to about a year's worth of learning for a year's worth of schooling. Thus, a situation in which a student changes schools often would equate to the loss of nearly a year of learning for that learner.

Student mobility is high in many areas. Take Colorado, for example. For the 2015–2016 school year, the statewide student mobility rate was 19 percent; some districts were in the range of 30 percent or more.

We think it's worth considering whether there's much overlap between students who move often and those who don't perform well in school. Yet schools rarely address the issue of student mobility in school improvement efforts. For instance, not one of the Local Control Accountability Plans of 75 California school districts we randomly selected focused on mitigating the effects of mobility as a way to improve students' learning and achievement.

Softening the Blow

But some school systems, leaders, and teachers are taking action to reduce the impact of mobility on students' learning. In fact, the school where we teach, Health Sciences High and Middle College, has an onboarding process for every new student. In the video accompanying this column, you'll meet a new student enrolling in this school and see how from his first day, designated educators help him connect with the staff, understand expectations in classrooms, and feel valued as a member of the learning community.

Such processes, often done in partnership with families, help ease any new student's transition. Let's look at actions that schools can take to lessen the blows that accompany school switching—many dramatized in this video.

Gather Information from Family Members and Teachers

One reason mobility has such a negative impact is because of lost instructional time. When a new student enrolls and the teacher knows nothing about that student, it can take months before the correct scaffolds and supports are in place.

To ensure that there aren't gaps and redundancies in a student's learning, gather as much information from family members as possible. We encourage schools to develop a checklist of information they want to obtain so teachers get a better sense of the new student's learning needs. This may seem obvious, but busy educators often forget to collect this information from caregivers.

When any new student enrolls at Health Sciences High, the office staff collects specific information from family members—and alerts teachers that they'll have a new class member the following day. One San Diego elementary school we know asks parents of newcomers about the curriculum used at the last school, who the teachers were (so they can contact them), in which areas the new student excelled, and if there are any instructional needs to be addressed.

Imagine the impact a conversation between the sending teacher and the receiving teacher could have. One district we know of pays sending and receiving teachers a stipend to have several short conversations about students who transfer schools within their system. Think how much more likely it is that an incoming student will receive lessons tailored to her needs.

Ease Them In

Years ago, a new student enrolled in Doug's 4th grade class. A well-meaning staff member from the front office opened the classroom door and said, "This is Juan-Pablo. He's new, and he's in your class. Good luck!" This wonderful young man wasn't expected by the school, and he knew it. His name wasn't on the birthday wall. He didn't have a desk (much less one with his name on it), a writer's notebook, or any other supplies taken for granted by the other students. And Doug was in the middle of what he thought was a great lesson. At that moment, Doug had to decide either to stop the lesson and welcome Juan-Pablo or continue with the lesson and have him wait.

Contrast this with Ellery's first day, shown on the video. He receives a school tour and is invited to stop into classes on his schedule, observe how learning happens, and even chat about his perceptions with a sympathetic administrator.

Foster Friendships

In transitioning to a new school, the key to success is often friendships. Students who make a close, personal friend within the first month of enrolling in a school benefit in academic as well as social ways. Students learn more because they're less anxious and isolated. Unfortunately, some teachers don't see it as their responsibility to facilitate friendships. One educator recently told us, "I'm not a matchmaker."

But if we value students' learning and we know that gaining a friend in a new situation helps learning, isn't it reasonable to suggest that friendship facilitation is our responsibility? Encouraging friendships for new kids should be valued as an instructional strategy. Consider these simple actions:

  • Learn something about every student. Use this information to connect students who might enjoy the opportunity to get to know one another.

  • Consider where you seat the new student. Maximize the connections the student can make with peers.

  • During unstructured times, such as recess, bring new students subtly into conversations or introduce them to like-minded peers. This ensures that any isolated student has someone to hang around during these times.

  • Create a group of student ambassadors, like those who greet Ellery, who intentionally engage new students in social activities and introduce them around.

We wonder if mobility is contributing to the achievement gap. We're concerned that mobility is accepted as inevitable—and rarely addressed. Imagine the achievement gains any school could realize if it simply erased the negative impact students changing schools has on learning. Not to mention that students might like school better.

Watch the Video

<!-- --><!--video ( september17 )bcove links:> <!--<iframe src="" style="position: absolute; top: 0px; right: 0px; bottom: 0px; left: 0px; width: 100%; height: 100%;"></iframe>-->

End Notes

1 Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?