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February 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 5

Students on the Move

Excessive mobility hurts schools and students alike. So who's doing something about revolving-door classrooms?

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Among the less noticed fallout from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma is the need for tens of thousands of K–12 schoolchildren to suddenly change schools. Some of the new schools are near the children's home schools; others are far away. Switching schools before the school year started—as Katrina evacuees did—may have been less disruptive than the during-the-school-year switch that many other students experienced. Nevertheless, any changes of this sort are usually profoundly disturbing for students and present serious problems for teachers and school administrators.
I realized the depth of the problem when I came across a mind-blowing statistic in a U.S. General Accounting Office study (1994). The study indicated that by the end of 3rd grade, one of six children in the United States had attended three or more schools. Students often changed schools more than once during the school year. According to the data, during a four-year period, the proportion of students who remain in school for the full year can fall below 50 percent in many schools.
Of course, not all classroom mobility is detrimental or involuntary; some families move to secure better jobs or find a more appropriate school. But when mobility is excessive—when the classroom becomes a revolving door—it severely undermines the school's ability to show the benefits of such touted education reforms as smaller classes, better-trained teachers, and improved facilities.
Moreover, these in-and-out mobility rates are unevenly distributed over the school population. Poor and minority students; the children of farm workers and of military personnel; and homeless, immigrant, and foster children are particularly prone to higher mobility rates.

The Impact

Ample research shows that unplanned and excessive mobility is detrimental to the education enterprise. Russell Rumberger of the University of California-Santa Barbara reviewed existing research on the topic and concluded that students can suffer psychologically, socially, and academically from mobility (2003). Rumberger also noted that mobility during high school diminishes students' prospects of graduating. In addition, a study of 8th grade English language learners in one large urban district found that mobile students earned significantly lower standardized test scores than their less mobile peers (Hofstetter, 1999).
These detrimental impacts are not limited to students caught in the revolving door. Excessive student mobility harms stable students as well by slowing down the pace of the curriculum and creating emotional disturbances stemming from the often-sudden disappearance of classmates and friends. A California study revealed that the average test scores for stable students were significantly lower in high schools with high mobility rates (Rumberger, Larson, Ream, & Palardy, 1999). Excessive teacher turnover may also correlate with high student turnover rates, although no research has been conducted on this topic.
Excessive mobility is also a burden at the school and district levels. Administrators need to transfer records of outgoing students, often not knowing where students have gone, and procure health and curriculum records for newly arriving registrants. These requirements influence decisions related to staffing and resource use, reducing per-pupil resources and slowing school improvement and community-building efforts.

The Causes

Although internal factors can trigger these moves—such as expulsion by school authorities or dissatisfaction on the part of the student's family that leads to a transfer—research indicates that external triggers predominate. These are mainly residential changes caused by the workings of the housing system or, less frequently, by changes in the household situation, such as a family breakup. The external trigger for the children of farm workers and of military personnel is the periodic, built-in change of place of employment.
However, the residential instability that inheres in the housing market is the prime cause of moves (Crowley, 2003). Rent increases, gentrification pressures, housing code enforcement, fires, utility shutoffs, racially discriminatory actions, and the overall lack of decent, affordable housing all lead to involuntary moves—often to a homeless shelter.

Taking Note of Best Practices

Although high classroom mobility often goes underrecognized, several school districts and education reformers have instituted some positive measures.

Helping the Homeless

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, as updated in No Child Left Behind, establishes homeless children's right to remain in their home school, regardless of the location of their homeless shelter. It also eases documentation requirements and obligates school districts to provide any needed transportation. The Act mandates appointment of a Homeless Education Liaison to advocate for homeless students at the school, community, and state levels and to monitor school district performance. Groups like the National Center for Homeless Education and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty are key resources (see Julianelle & Foscarinis, 2003).

The Children of the Road

For children of migrant farm workers, key issues are records transfer, curriculum consistency, and fulfillment of graduation requirements. These students may arrive at any time during the school year, depending on the crops. The federal Migrant Education Program has established an electronic interstate record transfer system, national distance-learning programs, and a laptop computer project for secondary school migrant youth that enables them to take advantage of online mentoring.
The Austin, Texas-based New Generation System is an online interstate information network that communicates demographic, education, and health data on migrant students to educators throughout the United States. Project SMART (Summer Migrants Access Resources Through Technology) is a national distance-learning program specifically designed for migrant students that broadcasts to selected sites for eight weeks each summer by satellite, airing over public and cable television. Taped programs are available for locations that cannot receive live broadcasts. Project ESTRELLA (Encouraging Students through Technology to Reach High Expectations in Learning, Life skills, and Achievement) is a U.S. Department of Education-funded program that facilitates interstate coordination to enable migrant students to accumulate credits and experience continuity in their instruction (see Branz-Spall, Rosenthal, & Wright, 2003).

Thinking Twice About Moving

Staying Put, a project of the Chicago Panel on School Policy and the University of Chicago's Center for School Improvement, focuses on reducing student mobility. Working with parents and educators, project personnel clarify the rights and responsibilities that exist under Chicago Public Schools and state policies. For example, elementary school students who move can complete the school year without transfer, although bus service may not be provided; high school students who move do not have to change schools at all and can continue to attend their original high school until they graduate.
To help reduce student mobility, the Staying Put project produced and disseminates a brochure titled If You Move. . ., which bears the subtitle “Your children could lose more than their next-door neighbors.” The material summarizes data on the potential for education setback, discourages voluntary moves within the school year, and provides suggestions about alternatives to changing schools, as well as tips on how best to handle unavoidable moves (see Kerbow, Azcoitia, & Buell, 2003).

A Culture That Connects

Another helpful approach, as practiced in Moffett Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, is to create an atmosphere and a culture sensitive to the needs of transferring students. This means providing extra help and attention, connecting students with counselors, involving parents, assessing special needs, and assigning a “student ambassador”—a buddy—to newcomers to help them negotiate the first few weeks of school. The school serves primarily a Latino student body and receives 4 to 10 transfer students each month. The school's goal is tofacilitate the academic achievement of all students equally, regardless of their familial or residential circumstances, without giving credence to the stereotypes that pervade the public school system with regard to transient students. Special programs are not designated for any specific group of students but are intended for any and all students who might benefit from them. (Franke, Isken, & Parra, 2003)

Learning from the DoD

The Department of Defense (DoD), which operates many schools in and around military bases, has an excellent track record with regard to student mobility—transience being a way of life for military families as a result of the assignment rotation system. The Department carries out timely transfer of records (not only among DoD schools but also between those schools and non-DoD schools), employs efficient record keeping, and has clearly specified course transfer agreements and clearly articulated graduation requirements. Teachers, principals, and counselors in DoD schools are trained to meet the special needs of incoming and departing students. One particularly sensitive policy is to allow a family to remain at the duty assignment for an extra year if the student is entering his or her senior year of high school, the worst time to uproot a teenager (see Smrekar & Owens, 2003).

What's Needed

One obvious recommendation for school districts is to adopt some of these proven successful steps, which either help reduce mobility or ease the process when moving is unavoidable.
Another recommendation is to improve record keeping on student mobility. States should mandate standardized collection and reporting of school mobility data as a vital tool in understanding the nature of the problem—whether it's getting better or worse—and devising appropriate solutions. Also, accountability standards are needed to ensure that schools are not given incentives to transfer out “problem” students to exclude them from school data.
Reliable data are key to creating widespread recognition of the problem and can lay the foundation for additional research in the following areas: the impact of high classroom mobility on teachers, stable students, and school systems; the impact of welfare reform on classroom mobility; the relationship between the child welfare and foster care system and classroom mobility; the ways in which proposed education reforms (for example, smaller classes and higher teacher qualifications) affect mobility rates; and the potential of legal theories and litigation to force needed change.
Although federal and state governments have key roles to play in mandating responsibility and providing necessary resources, changed practices at the local level can bring about effective improvements. School districts should make every effort to retain students when the reason for transfer is internal to the school situation. Schools should focus on creating school communities that parents and students value and would think twice about leaving. Schools should also emphatically offer transportation assistance to students who move a short distance away and to homeless students if it would enable these students to remain at their original schools, at least until the end of the academic year.
The link between housing and education is an important and overlooked issue. Despite overwhelming evidence that most school mobility is a function of involuntary residential moves, school mobility literature has paid inadequate attention to housing policy reform. Virtually all recommendations focus on school policies. Likely nothing would do more to reduce harmful school transiency than increased residential security and stability. The greatest boost in this area would come from a vast increase in the supply of decent and affordable housing, substantially reducing external pressures to move.
Several housing issues are of particular concern and invite activism: enacting local just-cause eviction laws (making it illegal to evict tenants except for stipulated and justifiable reasons), eviction prevention programs, rent controls, condominium conversion and demolition controls, and mortgage foreclosure prevention programs, as well as expanding anti-discrimination law coverage. One clear example is to dissuade local public housing authorities using the HOPE VI project renovation program—which is displacing tens of thousands of low-income families—from forcing families to leave during the school year. Similarly, community development corporations and other nonprofit housing sponsors should take school relocation issues into account when they consider forcing some tenants to leave.
A similar needed link is to the child welfare and foster care system. When possible, foster children's placements shouldn't require those children to change schools, especially during the school year (see Conger & Finkelstein, 2003).
Reducing student mobility will depend in great part on how successfully we develop these cross-boundary links. Educators at all levels must understand and relate to other linked systems. To bring about results, we need to get out of our silos.

Branz-Spall, A. M., & Rosenthal, R., with Wright, A. (2003). Children of the road: Migrant students, our nation's most mobile population.Journal of Negro Education, 72(1), 55–62.

Conger, D., & Finkelstein, M. J. (2003). Foster care and school mobility.Journal of Negro Education, 72(1), 97–103.

Crowley, S. (2003). The affordable housing crisis: Residential mobility of poor families and school mobility of poor children. Journal of Negro Education, 72(1), 22–38.

Franke, T. M., Isken, J., & Parra, M. T. (2003). A pervasive school culture for the betterment of student outcomes: One school's approach to student mobility. Journal of Negro Education, 72(1), 150–157.

Hofstetter, C. H. (1999, April). Toward an equitable NAEP for English language learners: What contextual factors affect math performance. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.

Julianelle, P. F., & Foscarinis, M. (2003). Responding to the school mobility of children and youth experiencing homelessness: The McKinney-Vento Act and beyond. Journal of Negro Education, 72(1), 39–54.

Kerbow, D., Azcoitia, C., & Buell, B. (2003). Student mobility and local school improvement in Chicago. Journal of Negro Education, 72(1), 158–164.

Rumberger, R. W. (2003). The causes and consequences of student mobility.Journal of Negro Education, 72(1), 6–21.

Rumberger, R. W., Larson, K. A., Ream, R. K., & Palardy, G. A. (1999).The educational consequences of mobility for California students and schools. Berkeley, CA: Policy Analysis for California Education.

Smrekar, C. E., & Owens, D. E. (2003). “It's a way of life for us”: High mobility and high achievement in Department of Defense schools.Journal of Negro Education, 72(1), 165–177.

U.S. General Accounting Office. (1994).Elementary school children: Many change schools frequently, harming their education. (No. ED 369 526). Washington, DC: Author.

End Notes

1 Effective July 7, 2004, the GAO's legal name became the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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