The negative consequences of student mobility

After the examU.S. students change schools frequently, with significant educational consequences. Almost one-third of students in this country change schools two or more times between first and eighth grade, and more than a quarter of high school students change schools at least once in four years. Students who make even one nonpromotional school change during high school are twice as likely not to complete high school as students who do not change schools.

Many educators assume that students change schools because their families move. But, recent research reveals that both family and school experiences have a significant impact on student mobility. Russell W. Rumberger and Katherine A. Larson, University of California/Santa Barbara, analyzed data on 11,671 students tracked from 1988 through 1994 by the National Education Longitudinal Survey (NELS).

Previous research

Some research indicates that about 40 percent of student mobility is related to the student’s experiences in school rather than to a change of residence. One study of third-grade students found that frequent school changes often occurred in conjunction with nutrition and health problems, below-grade-level reading scores, and grade retention. Children in families that move six or more times by age 18 were between 50 and 100 percent more likely to have a delay in growth or development, to have a learning disorder, or to have four or more frequently occurring behavior problems.

School mobility is associated with poor student achievement, but there is no data to prove whether poor achievement is caused by mobility or if there are other factors such as poverty that contribute to both. Theoretical research suggests that schools play an important role in creating conditions that increase or decrease the likelihood that students will leave school. To remain in a school, students must become integrated to some degree, either socially or academically.

Mobility declines when schools create a culture of caring and responsibility among the teaching staff, understand that different students have different needs, and provide disadvantaged students with additional support and resources to improve their engagement in school. Available empirical research on student mobility indicates that older transfer students experience both social and academic adjustment problems that affect their achievement. These students have lower test scores and higher absenteeism and do less homework than students who remain in the same school.

Conceptual framework and questions

On the basis of current research and theories, these researchers suggest that both educational mobility and academic achievement are influenced by students’ engagement in school. Academic or social engagement can help to keep students in school. Engagement and academic performance are influenced by students’ educational background, experiences and attitudes, as well as family, school, and community characteristics. In the present study the researchers studied the incidence of mobility among high school students; how the incidence varies among social-class groups; the demographic, family, and school factors that predict student mobility; and how changing schools reduces the odds of completing high school.

Summary of results and implications

NELS data reveal that student mobility is quite high in the United States at both the elementary and secondary levels. Examining the demographic, family, and school factors associated with mobility, and their significant negative consequences for students, led these researchers to conclude that educational policy and practice should address these issues. In high school, where more than one-quarter of students change schools at least once, 30 percent of these moves do not involve a change of residence. Moving for any reason has negative consequences whose effects are additive. Changing high schools affects students’ educational status both during and after high school. These effects increase with the number of moves. The likelihood of completing high school with a regular diploma decreases dramatically as the number of school changes rises. Less than 60 percent of students who changed schools two or more times received a regular high school diploma. Both school and family characteristics predict whether students change school or drop out. Students from single-parent and step-parent families were more likely to change schools and to drop out than students from two-parent families. Both school and residential mobility is higher among poor and minority students (except Asian), but there is no difference between students in public schools and those in Catholic schools.

Even after controlling for the effects of background and school, however, mobility in high school has a powerful negative effect on the likelihood of graduating. Students who changed schools even one time were more than twice as likely as stable students not to graduate from high school. These researchers suggest that this data indicates that school mobility and dropping out reflect differing degrees of educational disengagement. Researchers conclude that student mobility represents an important risk factor that significantly reduces the odds of high school graduation. School experiences such as educational expectations, grades, misbehavior and absenteeism influence student mobility and ultimately high school graduation.

These factors reflect both academic and social disengagement and are directly influenced by schools’ policies. The cumulative data from this and previous studies led Rumberger and Larson to recommend that educators focus on increasing the student’s sense of belonging in school as well as his engagement in social and academic activities.

Students report that school climates that are nurturing and personalized, and where the adults are involved and emotionally available to students, improve their sense of belonging and their engagement in school.

“Student Mobility and the Increased Risk of High School Dropout” American Journal of Education Volume 107, Number 1, November 1988 pp. 1-35.

Published in ERN April 1999 Volume 12 Number 4

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