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NEA News

The Unexplored Consequences of Student Mobility

Student mobility may be on the rise, but is it harmful? A new study examines what happens when students change schools.
Published: July 29, 2015

Rear view of hipster girl carring backpack on her back, copyspace
Students who change schools frequently, whether for voluntary or involuntary reasons, could be disrupting their own education, according to a new report by the National Education Policy Center. Student Mobility: Causes, Consequences, & Solutions, written by Russell Rumberger, professor of education at University of California-Santa Barbara, highlights the pitfalls of student mobility and explores how policymakers, educators, parents and students can help ease the transitions associated with changing schools.

The issue, Rumberger writes, "is especially timely today because of policies that increasingly close traditional schools, open more charter schools, and promote and financially support transfers out of under-performing schools."

In the report, Rumberger explains that the extent of student mobility is difficult to pinpoint because no federal mandate exists to collect and report this data.  Nonetheless, available state and local resources suggest that student mobility is increasing. The majority of elementary and secondary school students in the United States move to a different school at least once during their educational careers.

An Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey, for example, found that about 42 percent of students made at least one “non-promotional” school change between kindergarten and fifth grade. More than 20 percent changed schools twice, and 4 percent changed schools three or more times.

Children change schools for a variety of reasons, whether it is initiated by the family, student or the school itself. However, students often have to follow along with their parents’ specific professional, personal and economic circumstances.

But is student mobility actually harmful? While there can be positive aspects depending on the circumstances, Rumberger says on balance it can be extremely disruptive.

Changing schools often can be detrimental to normal adolescent development by disrupting relationships with peers and educators as well as altering a student’s educational program. Effects of student mobility can be seen on test scores and high school graduation rates. Rumberger concludes that students who are forced to make multiple moves are more likely to drop out.

Mobility affects not only students, but schools as well. Research shows higher levels of stress, demoralization and tension among staff due to schools'  lack of proper resources to integrate new students. Teachers report a sort of “chaos” factor - the disruption and difficulties in managing classrooms with constant student turnover.

Because the causes and consequences are varied and complex, recommendations for combating the issue must be relevant to the unique sets of circumstances these students and parents face.

Rumberger suggests that school procedures should help minimize potential negative effects of unnecessary mobility by making the mobility experience as positive as possible.

Educators and administrators should give students and parents, for example, timely and sufficient information about school transfers, and provide optimum support to help them make a smooth transition. Schools receiving new transfer students can help ease the adjustment process by planning materials and activities before the students’ arrival, including recruiting and training volunteer coaches.

Rumberger also notes that student mobility, On a wider scale, can be reduced by improving the overall quality of schools and implementing meaningful reforms, including changing suspension and expulsion policies and developing open enrollment procedures to retain students whose families move. He also recommends better training for educators to help the students to adapt.

And since mobility is often caused by forces outside the control of a school or family control, policymakers should address larger causes, Romberger says. These include policies to promote housing stability, such as affordable housing and fair housing laws, and policies to promote economic security in the form of better paying, more secure jobs.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.