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Student Mobility

The Extent of Student Mobility, The Impact of Mobility on Students, Causes of Mobility

Student mobility is the practice of students changing schools other than when they are promoted from one school level to the other, such as when students are promoted from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school. Mobile students can change schools in between school years, such as during the summer, or during the school year. But no matter when it occurs, student mobility not only can harm the students who change schools, it can also harm the classrooms and schools they attend.

The Extent of Student Mobility

Student mobility is widespread in the United States. According to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), one-third of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 10 percent of twelfth graders changed schools at least once in the previous two years. Student mobility was even more widespread among poor and minority students. The incidence of student mobility is also higher when viewed over a student's entire elementary and secondary career. Based on data from a national longitudinal study of a cohort of eighth graders in the United States, more students made non-promotional school changes during their elementary and secondary school careers than remained in a stable pattern of attending a single elementary, middle, and high school. School changes were more common during elementary school than during secondary school. In fact, mobility is the norm during elementary school, while it is the exception during high school.

Student mobility not only varies widely among students, but also among schools. It is especially high within large, predominantly minority, urban school districts. In the Chicago public schools, for example, an average of 80 percent of students in the district remained in the same school from September 1993 to September 1994 and only 47 percent remained in the same school over a four-year period. Fifteen percent of the schools lost at least 30 percent of their students in only one year.

The Impact of Mobility on Students

Existing research finds that students can suffer psychologically, socially, and academically from mobility. Mobile students face the psychological challenge of coping with a new school environment. Mobile students also face the social adjustment to new peers and social expectations. Research has demonstrated that mobility is related to misbehavior and youth violence–it is easier to commit crimes against strangers. Studies have also found that mobile high school students are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities.

Mobility can hurt students academically. Several studies have examined the impact of mobility at the elementary level. Studies that do not control for the background characteristics of students consistently find that mobile students have lower achievement than non-mobile or stable students. Yet studies that do account for background differences find that mobility may be more of a symptom than a cause of poor school performance. In other words, mobile students came from poorer families and had lower academic performance before they were mobile, a finding supported by other studies.

At the secondary level, several additional studies have examined the impact of mobility on two indicators of student performance–test scores and high school graduation. The impact of mobility of secondary test scores appears to be mixed. Two studies of middle school students, one by Carolyn Hofstetter and the other by Valerie Lee and Julia Smith, found that mobile students had significantly lower test scores after controlling for other student and classroom characteristics. Several studies, based on the same national longitudinal survey of eighth graders who were tracked for six years, found that the impact of mobility was sometimes negative and sometimes positive. These studies suggest that the timing of mobility matters during high school, which is supported by a California study of mobility in which some students made "strategic" school moves to improve their educational prospects, while other students made "reactive" school moves to get out of poor or dangerous situations.

The strongest impact of mobility is on high school graduation. There is overwhelming evidence that mobility during high school diminishes the prospects for graduation. Yet one study found that early school changes as well as changing residences between grades eight and ten and between grades ten and twelve increased the odds of dropping out at twelfth grade, but that early school changes decreased the odds of dropping out at twelfth grade among tenth graders who had not already left school. This suggests that mobility has a negative impact on some students, but may have a positive impact on others.

Although a substantial body of research shows that students can suffer psychologically, socially, and academically from changing schools, the impact of mobility depends on such factors as the number of school changes, when they occur, the reason for the changes, and the student's personal and family situation. Some mobility can actually be beneficial if the reason and timing represent a "strategic" move to a better educational placement. Yet most mobility is not beneficial. What accounts for the generally negative impact of mobility on achievement and why, in some cases, does mobility not impact achievement or even improve it? The answer depends, in part, on the reasons students change schools.

Causes of Mobility

The leading cause of student mobility is residential mobility. A national study by Russell Rumberger and Katherine Larson found that 70 percent of all school changes between grades eight and twelve were accompanied by a change of residences. But there are many reasons students change schools. In one study parents of twelfth grade students who changed schools over the previous four years reported three types of reasons for changing schools. The most frequent reason was the family moving (58%). But almost half of the reasons were because students asked to change schools, often to take advantage of a specific educational program, or asked to be transferred to a public, private, or magnet school. The least frequent reason was because the school asked the adolescent to transfer either because of disciplinary or academic problems.

Research has identified some specific factors that predict student mobility. Interestingly, mobility does not seem to be strongly related to family income and socioeconomic status, but it does appear to be related to family structure: families without both biological parents have higher incidence of residential moves and higher rates of school moves. Several student-related factors have also been identified. Low school performance (grade point average), behavior problems, absenteeism, and low educational expectations all predicted school changes during high school after controlling for family factors. School-related factors also predict student mobility: Schools with high concentrations of at-risk and minority students have lower mobility rates even after controlling for differences in student factors, while schools with higher teacher salaries and better teachers have lower mobility than other schools.

Current literature suggests two ways that schools affect student mobility (as well as school dropout rates). One way is indirectly, through general policies and practices that are designed to promote the overall effectiveness of the school. These policies and practices, along with other characteristics of the school (student composition, size, etc.), may contribute to voluntary student turnover by affecting conditions that keep students engaged in school. This perspective is consistent with several existing theories of school dropout and departure that view student engagement as the precursor to withdrawal. The other way is directly, through explicit policies and conscious decisions that cause students to involuntarily withdraw from school. These rules may concern low grades, poor attendance, misbehavior, or being overage and can lead to suspensions, expulsions, or forced transfers. This form of withdrawal is school-initiated and contrasts with the student-initiated form mentioned above. This perspective considers a school's own agency, rather than just that of the student, in producing dropouts and transfers. One metaphor that has been used to characterize this process is discharge: "students drop out of school, schools discharge students (Riehl, 1999, p.231). Finally, additional conditions found in large, urban and high minority schools that could contribute to student turnover include open enrollments and overcrowding. Open enrollment allows students to readily change schools if they can find one with sufficient space, while overcrowding prompts schools to transfer students even if they wanted to enroll them.

There are several reasons why mobility may negatively impact student achievement. Mobile students must adjust to new academic standards and expected classroom behaviors. Mobile students sometimes get placed in classes that do not contribute to high school completion or they get placed in classes where the curriculum differs from their previous school–a condition referred to as "curricular incoherence."

But why do some students seem to be adversely affected by changing schools and others do not? The answer may depend, in part, on the reasons students change schools. In one study, students who made "strategic" school changes to seek a better educational placement, in general, reported positive academic impacts, while students who made "reactive" school changes due to intolerable social or academic situations were more likely to report negative academic impacts from changing schools. The idea of strategic school changes is consistent with the finding that changes early in a student's high school career may not be harmful or can even be beneficial, while changes late in a student's high school career are generally harmful. On the other hand, mobility due to misbehavior or involuntary transfers are more likely to harmful, especially if the change of schools fails to address the underlying problem that lead to the transfer in the first place.

The Impact of Mobility on Schools

Mobility not only impacts students who change schools, it impacts classrooms and schools who must deal with mobile students. It can also adversely impact non-mobile students. In one Rumberger study of mobility in California (1999), school personnel characterized the overall affects of student mobility at the school level as a "chaos" factor that affects classroom learning activities, teacher morale, and administrative burdens–all of which can influence the learning and achievement of all students in the school. Teachers were very adamant about how disruptive and difficult it is to teach in classrooms with constant student turnover. Similarly, a Chicago study by Julia Smith, Bets Ann Smith, and Anthony Byrk found that the pace of instruction was slower in schools with high rates of student mobility. School administrators reported how time-consuming it is to simply process students when they enter and exit a school. Beyond the administrative costs, school personnel also identified other impacts, such as the fiscal impacts that result from mobile students failing to turn in textbooks, and impacts on school climate.


Student mobility is a common feature of American schooling. Although mobility is largely initiated by students and parents due to changing residences, some mobility results from the policies and actions of schools and districts–such as open enrollment, overcrowded schools, and zero-tolerance policies–that can lead to voluntary or involuntary school transfers. Consequently, schools and districts can help reduce the incidence of "needless" mobility and help to mitigate its potentially damaging effects. School reform efforts can help reduce mobility by making schools more attractive to students and parents. Schools can also initiate a number of strategies to help transfer students adjust to their new school setting and to quickly provide the educational and support services that transfer students may require.

With increasing pressure on schools to adopt reforms and raise test scores, addressing the issue of mobility may not seem a high priority for schools. But failing to do so could easily undermine those efforts as well as hurt the students and families the schools are charged to serve.



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