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Student Mobility and Achievement

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

Generally, the more frequently students change schools for reasons other than grade promotion, the more likely they are to have lower achievement and behavioral problems. They are also more likely to drop out. Research confirms this. So, if we could just convince families to stop moving around so much, we could increase student achievement, right?

Not quite. The limited research available on student mobility suggests that high student mobility rates may be more of a symptom of other variables--most of them income related--than a primary cause of low achievement. Consider, for example, that the No. 1 reason for student mobility is a change in residence--and that low-income families tend to move more often than other families.

Many studies have found that when family income or ethnicity are considered, mobility seems to carry less weight that might be thought in the explanation of student achievement.

This is not to say students with high mobility rates are not affected academically or socially. A 1989 study of Denver Public School students found negative effects for all types of mobility, especially at the earlier grade levels. Several studies based on a national database of more than 10,000 high school students found that school mobility between the first and eighth grades increased the odds of dropping out of high school, even when researchers controlled for eighth-grade achievement and other factors. When Russell Rumberger and Katherine Larson analyzed the same data, they found that students who made even one non-promotional school change between the eighth and twelfth grades were twice as likely to not complete high school.

Most students change schools at least once during their 13-year school careers, but children of migrant workers, homeless children, and children from low-income families may change schools much more frequently. NCREL researchers concluded that student mobility, combined with other risk factors, can have detrimental effects not only on student achievement but also on schools, school districts, teachers and other students. Districts serving large numbers of students from these populations may want to consider the following strategies:

Implement a standardized curricula district wide. A study of 33 urban elementary schools in Kansas found low achievement scores to be associated more highly with student mobility within a school district than with students moving in or out of a district. Standardized curricula might benefit intra-district movers.

Examine school and district data. Pinpoint the characteristics of highly mobile students served by the district.

Provide targeted professional development. Assist teachers in meeting the specific needs of this population.

Minimize school-related contributions to student mobility. Districts can adopt enrollment and transfer policies that decrease student mobility and reduce disruptions to student learning when transfers are necessary. They can also limit redistricting policies, cooperate with other districts to support transferring students, and be flexible with school boundaries. (Case studies have also documented incidents in which school officials attempt to "get rid of troublemakers," sometimes by illegally telling them they have to leave.)

Educate parents. Establish a formal program to educate parents about how to minimize the negative effects of necessary changes in residences or schools. Consider matching new families with volunteer families who have had children in the school for at least two years, a strategy used in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Dan Wright urges schools to accept student mobility as "a fact of life to be accommodated by any successful, system-wide strategy."

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