The Importance of “Fit” and the Costs of Student Mobility

One of the schools I volunteer with is a “maker” school.  It is built around empowering students to create their experience and even the physical environment.  This starts day 1 of school where they literally construct, using tools and timber, the stool they will sit on.

For some families and kids this is fun and exciting work.  For at least one family—they turned around and took their child somewhere else.  While they probably didn’t realize it, both their initial decision to enroll and the one to leave, likely both significantly, negatively affected their child’s education.

Mobility matters

The more students change schools the worse they do.  I have written before about the benefits of increasing the traditional grade spans—creating 6-12s, Tk-8s, or Tk-12s.  There is a solid body of research that says children and particularly high needs children do better with fewer transitions.  And now, even more compelling data has emerged around the negative effects that any movement between schools by students has.

Edweek recently highlighted these issues, and pointed out the disturbing outcomes, not only affecting students who move, but the schools themselves and the students who remain.

In a report on student mobility by the National Academy of Sciences, Chester Hartman, the research director for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, noted that high-poverty urban schools can have more than half of their students turn over within a single school year.

“It’s chaos,” he said in the 2010 report. “It makes all the reforms—smaller classes, better-trained teachers, better facilities—irrelevant.”

In fact, in a study of 13,000 Chicago students, University of Chicago researcher David Kerbow found those who had changed schools four or more times by 6th grade were about a year behind their classmates—but students in schools with high churn were a year behind those in more stable schools by 5th grade.

“It is unclear how school-based educational programs, no matter how innovative, could successfully develop and show long-term impact” in a high-churn school, Kerbow concluded.

So basically, if kids are mobile between schools—it doesn’t matter what schools are doing.  All those fancy powerpoints and process maps on reform, aren’t worth the toilet paper they are printed on.  A priority investment needs to be on student stability.

Why kids move?

Sometimes it is fit, the kid at the military school who might be better served at the arts school.   But often its circumstances beyond the student’s control

Again from Edweek,

The most common causes of student mobility are residential moves related to parents’ jobs or other financial instability. A 2010 Government Accountability Office study followed students who entered kindergarten in 1998 through 2007. It found 13 percent of students changed schools four or more times by the end of 8th grade, and highly mobile students were disproportionately more likely to be poor or black than students who changed schools twice or fewer times. The same study found families who did not own their own homes made up 39 percent of the most highly mobile students.

Similarly, a 2015 state policy report in Colorado, which tracks student mobility in its districts, found mobility rates in 2014-15 ranged from more than 17 percent for students in poverty to more than a third of migrant and homeless students, and more than half of all students in the foster care system.

So our most vulnerable students are most mobile, and it matters for student learning

Student mobility undercuts learning

Students, particularly high needs students, need stability in school; stable relationships, predictable routines, a sense of knowing kids and adults and being known, and any move can have huge consequences.  Again from Edweek,

Various studies have found student mobility—and particularly multiple moves—associated with a lower school engagement, poorer grades in reading (particularly in math), and a higher risk of dropping out of high school.

While research has found students generally lose about three months of reading and math learning each time they switch schools, voluntary transfers, which are more likely to happen during the summer, cause less academic disruption and may be associated with academic improvement if they lead to better services for the student.

Why this matters for Oakland

This matters for Oakland’s enrollment debate for two reasons.  First, we need to work to get the right fits for students from the outset.  To help families understand the options they have and to help them to enroll in the best school for their child.  There is something wrong where has a better system to match lovelorn White folks, than most families can find to match schools.

Secondly, we need to emphasize stability as a policy preference.  So even where families may move, we need a system where children, and particularly high needs children, can practically stay in the same schools, which may mean transportation.

Our enrollment rules and processes really are up to us.  And no reforms will root, where children are constantly churning.  With so many variables beyond our control, and many complex reforms with unproven results—giving high needs students stable learning environments is something we definitely can do, that we know will matter.

It would have mattered to the family that dis-enrolled from our maker school, who now will be pounding the pavement in Oakland for rare high quality seats, even rarer after the school year has started, and their child is likely stumbling further behind.

What do you think?

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