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April 1, 2008

When Mobility Disrupts Learning


Using proactive strategies, schools can reduce the adverse academic effects of student mobility.

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As schools struggle to improve the reading achievement of all students, one factor that often impedes their success is student mobility. Unfortunately, mobility is a common phenomenon that disproportionately affects students in high-poverty schools.

A U.S. General Accounting Office (1994) study found that 40 percent of 3rd grade students in the United States had moved at least once between 1st and 3rd grade; 17 percent of those students had changed schools at least twice during that time. More recently, Rumberger (2003) analyzed 1998 data and found that 34 percent of 4th graders, 21 percent of 8th graders, and 10 percent of 12th graders had changed schools at least once in the previous two years. Fourth grade students in poor families were much more likely to have changed schools in the last two years (43 percent) than were students in nonpoor families (26 percent).

The Effects of Student Mobility

Student mobility has "potentially deep and pervasive consequences" for individual students and the schools they attend (Kerbow, 1996, p. 1). Mobility can harm students' nutrition and health, increase grade retention, and lower academic achievement (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994; Wood, Halfon, Scarlata, Newacheck, & Nessim, 1993). High student-mobility rates can also disrupt the learning environment in the classroom and throughout the school (Lash & Kirkpatrick, 1990).

Research is especially clear about the effects of mobility on academic skills, such as reading. When students move repeatedly, their reading skills often fall further and further behind those of their peers (Alexander, Entwisle, & Dauber, 1996; Kerbow, 1996; Nelson, Simoni, & Adelman, 1996). Without intervention, highly mobile students are likely to experience reading difficulty throughout their school careers and, indeed, throughout their lives (Juel, 1988; Vellutino, Scanlon, & Spearing, 1995).

To illustrate the effects of student mobility on reading achievement, Table 1 shows the spring reading performance of 2,289 2nd grade students who attended 34 schools across Oregon during the 2005–06 school year. The selected schools served high-poverty populations, had a history of poor student-reading outcomes, and were engaged in a multiyear school reform effort. Students in Group A attended the same school across three years, from kindergarten through 2nd grade; those in Group B attended 2nd grade in the same school across one year; and those in Group C moved into a school in the middle of 2nd grade. As measured by the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) Oral Reading Fluency Assessment and the Stanford Achievement Test, reading performance increased the longer a student stayed in a particular school. The differences in scores among the three groups were statistically significant.

Table 1. Reading Performance of Stable and Mobile 2nd Grade Students

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When Mobility Disrupts Learning-table

Spring Measure

Group A (n = 1077)

Group B (n = 945)

Group C (n = 267)

DIBELS Oral Reading Fluency93.533.18439.875.440.6
Stanford Achievement Test594.239.358542.8577.340.8

Note: Group A: Students who attended the same school from kindergarten through 2nd grade. Group B: Students who attended the same school during 2nd grade. Group C: Students who moved into a school in the middle of 2nd grade. M - Mean SD - Standard deviation

Strategies for Success

For many schools—especially those serving high-poverty communities—the discontinuity caused by student mobility is a constant phenomenon. The most successful schools acknowledge the problem and implement schoolwide reading systems to provide instructional support for all students, including students who move into the school midyear (Simmons et al., 2002). An example is the Bethel School District in Eugene, Oregon, whose seven elementary schools have student-mobility rates ranging from 8 percent to 21 percent. The proportion of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in these schools ranges from 30 percent to 76 percent.

The Bethel School District began implementing schoolwide and districtwide reading systems more than a decade ago, after analyzing reading data and noticing a discrepancy between the reading achievement of mobile students and that of their peers. Knowing that the causes of student mobility were largely beyond their control, district staff members implemented strategies to reduce the harmful effects of mobility on students' reading achievement. The following strategies have been particularly effective in the Bethel School District and others like it.

Implement an Enrollment Plan

Student records often do not transfer to the new school until days or weeks after the student arrives. In the meantime, teachers have difficulty matching the student with appropriate instruction. Schools can use two strategies to smooth the transition for students and their teachers.

  • What are the student's academic strengths?

  • Was the student in any special program at your school (for example, speech/language services, before/after school programs, gifted services, English language development, or academic support services)?

  • What was the student's reading and math instruction like at your school (specific programs, amount of time, instructional approach, and so on)?

  • Did the student have any attendance problems while at your school?

  • Do you have any academic concerns regarding the student?

Second, use screening measures to quickly get an indication of the student's current reading skills and instructional needs. If the student's initial screening and interview information suggests that he or she is significantly behind grade-level expectations, a school team may convene to discuss the types of support the student will need to be successful.

The key to the effectiveness of both of these strategies is preplanning. The involved staff members should know their roles and be familiar with the process so that the transition happens smoothly and quickly. When developing an enrollment plan, a school should consider who will make the phone call to the previous school (for example, the student's new classroom teacher, the principal, or the school counselor) and who will be responsible for assessing the student's reading skills (for example, the school psychologist, speech pathologist, reading specialist, teacher, or someone else who has received appropriate training in the screening measures).

Implement a Schoolwide Instructional Support Plan

Schools with highly mobile student populations should have a schoolwide, multitiered instructional support plan in place. That way, the school can place students who come into the school midyear in the instructional group, reading program, and tier of support that initial screening has determined will best fit their needs. The plan should allow school teams to systematically differentiate instruction for students who are successfully meeting reading goals, students who are at some risk for not meeting goals, and students who are at high risk for not meeting goals.

To address the instructional needs of mobile students who are at risk, schools can increase the amount of instructional time, decrease group size, and use instructional programs that are specifically designed to catch students up to grade-level expectations. It is essential that instruction for these students incorporate proven strategies. A recent synthesis commissioned by the Institute of Education Sciences found moderate to strong evidence for the effectiveness of the following methods: spacing learning over time, combining graphic and verbal descriptions, connecting abstract and concrete representations of concepts, using formative assessment, and using prequestions to introduce a topic (Pashler et al., 2007).

Even with strong schoolwide instructional support plans in place, schools sometimes run into the problem of students enrolling midyear who are too far behind to fit into existing reading groups. A Bethel administrator explains the strategy for such students: Rather than refer them for special education services, these students have been placed in an intensive reading program based on scientifically based reading research; they receive two to three lessons per day, and they have made phenomenal gains.

It is essential that instructional groupings be flexible to respond to students' different learning rates. At monthly (or more frequent) grade-level team meetings, teachers should regroup students on the basis of their progress. Grouping should also recognize the specific skills students need to develop proficiency—for example, phonemic awareness, decoding, or comprehension.

Implement a Coordinated Assessment Plan

Flexible grouping depends on having a coordinated assessment plan in place that not only screens students initially but also regularly identifies current skills, monitors progress, and periodically reviews important outcomes. The assessment plan and schoolwide instructional support plan must be integrated.

  • What reliable and valid assessment tools are already in place?

  • Do the types of assessment now in place meet the multiple purposes of assessment (screening, progress monitoring, identifying current skills, and tracking important outcomes)?

  • Where do we need to implement new assessment tools?

  • Who needs training on the different assessment tools?

  • When will initial and ongoing professional development occur?

  • What is the most effective and efficient way to manage assessment data and create useful reports?

  • How will the data be disseminated and used?

To support the schoolwide assessment plan, teachers should prepare extra assessment materials ahead of time to smooth the transition as students move into instructional groups. They should use assessment results to make data-based decisions about student grouping. It is helpful if each teacher maintains a notebook containing assessment materials and individual student performance data that is readily available for grade-level team meetings.

Additional Supports

In addition to schoolwide instructional plans, school districts can ease transitions for highly mobile students by developing consistent curriculum and instruction and by building ties with families.

In some communities, students frequently move between schools within the same district. Having similar instructional programs, assessment systems, and expectations at all schools provides a consistent program for students, makes program placement easier for teachers, and enables schools to align screening and progress-monitoring activities as well as professional development.

  • Organize a family resource center in the school. Include educational materials in multiple languages.

  • Identify parent liaisons (including some who speak families' home languages) who can effectively explain the school's reading program to parents.

  • Identify a staff member who can check in with each new student (and family) frequently during the student's first weeks in the school. This person can help establish a bond among the student, family, and school and may also be able to recommend attendance and behavior programs when appropriate.

  • Establish an attendance incentive program. Families who move a great deal may not enroll their children in their new school right away and may not see school attendance as a high priority.

  • Schedule a parent conference within a few weeks of the student's enrollment. If needed, have a translator available who can describe the student's progress and instructional plan.

Focus on Problem Solving

It is easy for educators to blame a student's frequent moves on the instability of the family and to conclude that the cycle of moving and falling behind academically are inevitable. When educators give in to this temptation, team meetings can quickly deteriorate from problem-solving sessions to long discussions of the complicated circumstances surrounding an individual student's lack of academic success. Instead of "admiring the problem" in this way (Ysseldyke & Christenson, 1988), school teams should focus on identifying and modifying the factors that are within their control.

A commitment to screening students immediately on enrollment, thoughtfully placing them into flexible instructional groups, monitoring their progress, and adjusting instruction as needed can accelerate learning and thereby provide students with a new opportunity to succeed in school. Developing consistent districtwide curriculums and building strong ties between school and home can provide additional support for mobile students. Believing that we can make a difference in all students' academic development, regardless of how long they might be with us, brings out the best in educators.


Alexander, K., Entwisle, D., & Dauber, S. (1996). Children in motion: School transfers and elementary school performance. Journal of Educational Research, 90(1), 3–12.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437–447.

Kerbow, D. (1996). Patterns of urban student mobility and local school reform (Tech. Rep. No. 5), Chicago: University of Chicago.

Lash, A. A., & Kirkpatrick, S. L. (1990). A classroom perspective on student mobility. Elementary School Journal, 91(2), 173.

Nelson, P., Simoni, J., & Adelman, H. (1996). Mobility and school functioning in the early grades. Journal of Educational Research, 89(6), 365–369.

Pashler, H., Bain P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning (NCER 2007-2004). Washington, DC: Institute for Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Available: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/20072004.pdf

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

Simmons, D. C., Kame'enui, E. J., Good, R. H., Harn, B. A., Cole, C., & Braun, D. (2002). Building, implementing, and sustaining a beginning reading improvement model school by school and lessons learned. In M. Shinn, G. Stoner, & H. M. Walker (Eds.), Interventions for academic and behavior problems II: Preventive and remedial approaches (pp. 537–569). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

U.S. General Accounting Office. (1994). Elementary school children: Many change schools frequently, harming their education. Washington, DC: Author.

Vellutino, F. R., Scanlon, D. M., & Spearing, D. (1995). Semantic and phonological coding in poor and normal readers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 59, 76–123.

Wood, D., Halfon, N., Scarlata, D., Newacheck, P., & Nessim, S. (1993). Impact of family relocation on children's growth, development, school function, and behavior. Journal of the American Medical Association, 270(11), 1334.

Ysseldyke, J. E., & Christenson, S. L. (1988). Linking assessment to intervention. In J. L. Graden, J. E. Zins, & M. J. Curtis (Eds.), Alternative educational delivery systems: Enhancing instructional options for all students (pp. 91–110). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

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