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"High Classroom Turnover: How Children Get Left Behind,"

by Chester Hartman & Alison Leff May/June 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

A 1994 U.S. General Accounting Office study reported that by the end of the third grade, one out of six children had attended three or more schools, and that students often changed schools more than once during the school year. For many schools, over a four- year time period, overall school stability can fall under 50 percent. Certain populations –in particular, low-income, minority, immigrant, homeless, farmworker and foster care children – are disproportionately represented in the pool of transient students, and the inadequacies of the education received by such students are grossly magnified.

What triggers potentially damaging educational moves may be categorized as either external or internal to the school situation and environment. The former category – accounting for the majority of school transfers – consists primarily of residential changes on the part of the student’s family, mainly caused by the workings of the housing system or (less frequently) by changes is the household situation, such as family breakup. The latter refers to a range of reasons, including expulsion by school authorities and problems or dissatisfactions on the part of the student and his/her family that lead to transfers.

For low-income, minority, homeless and farmworker children, residential changes usually are not under the families’ control, or, in the case of farmworkers, are dictated by expected and planned changes in employment location. Over recent years, the supply of affordable housing has dramatically decreased. For families of color, this dearth of housing is compounded by overt and covert discrimination on the part of various housing gatekeepers. These factors leave low-income and minority families hard-pressed to find acceptable, affordable and stable living situations. Homeless families commonly move three to four times a year, and residency rules and lack of transportation do not allow them to stay in one school as their families search for stable housing. Migrant students and students in the foster care system also change schools more frequently than their peers.

High mobility rates negatively affect the educational outcomes of transient students, as well as their stable classroom peers. For high-mobility students, the long-term effects of transiency include lower achievement levels and slower academic pacing. A review in the Journal of Research and Development concluded: “[T]he educational research literature seems quite consistent with regard to findings that high student transiency rates are strongly and negatively associated with academic attainment at school.” Over a period of six years, students who have moved more than three times can fall a full academic year behind stable students. Stable students in such changing classrooms suffer academically as well: in shifting environments, such students fall behind half a year compared to stable students in stable classrooms. Evidence also shows that high mobility reduces the likelihood of high school completion. Nationally, while 86% of high school students graduate, the graduation rate is 60% for students who changed high schools at least twice.

High mobility rates also place a strain on school resources, influencing staffing and resource utilization decisions, as well as inducing teachers to become more review-oriented, resulting in an overall flattening of curricula. Student mobility can also constrain staff time, detract from per pupil resources, and slow school-improvement and community-building efforts.

In sum, there is a clear need for recognition of the problem of school transiency: its pervasiveness, incidence, causes and deleterious results. Based on that knowledge, there is a concomitant need to mount a serious attack on the problem, reducing it where possible, handling it in the most constructive manner where it persists. A crucial threshold step is making policymakers in a variety of areas, as well as the general public (parents in particular), aware of the prevalence and severity of the problem, and the ways it can inadvertently cause or be exacerbated by various policies. New and improved policies are needed at all levels of government and in far more areas than just the sphere of education.

With respect to education policy, the federal accountability framework should provide adequate safeguards, and enforce them strictly, to ensure that state and local entities protect the educational rights of highly mobile students. States should mandate standardized collection and reporting of school mobility data, as a vital tool in understanding the nature of the problem and devising solutions. Accountability standards need to be evaluated to make sure that schools are not given incentives to transfer “problem” students out as a method of excluding these students from school data.

While federal and state governments have key roles to play in mandating responsibility and providing necessary resources, it is at the local level that changed practices are needed and where effective improvements will manifest themselves. School districts should make every effort to retain students. Schools should focus on creating school communities that parents and students value and would think twice about leaving. Students who move a short distance and homeless students should be provided with transportation assistance if it would enable them to stay at their original school, at least until the end of the academic year.

While there is overwhelming evidence that the majority of school mobility is a function of housing mobility, the school mobility literature has paid surprisingly little attention to housing policy reform – virtually all recommendations focus on school policies. The greatest boost to residential stability – hence to school stability – would come from a vast increase in the supply of decent, affordable housing. Such a change would create a situation where pressures to move – demand exceeding supply, gentrification, unaffordable rent increases – would be markedly reduced.

Policies regarding evictions need to better reflect the disastrous impacts such forced displacements have on children’s education. Local public housing programs (such as HOPE VI, which is displacing tens of thousands of residents in order to create new, mixed-income developments), community development corporations and other nonprofit housing sponsors should take school relocation issues into account when they feel they must force tenants to leave. In terms of the more complicated task of regulating privately-owned housing, rent and “just cause” eviction controls, condominium conversion and demolition controls, and mortgage foreclosure prevention programs can do a great deal to increase residential stability. In the upcoming welfare reauthorization, dollars could be allocated to help families avoid or delay evictions. Expanding the protected categories under various federal, state and local anti-discrimination laws could also help create residential stability.

The few existing federal categorical programs that support educational stability and academic success for homeless, migrant and other “at-risk’” students should be preserved, expanded and adequately enforced. Information about successful state and local models should be widely disseminated and replicated. Child welfare, in particular foster care, is another area where increased sensitivity to student mobility is needed. Wherever possible, children’s placements should avoid the need to change schools, especially during a school year. To help ease the burden on transitioning families and the new schools and teachers they come to, the U.S. Department of Education must be more aggressive in ensuring that electronic interstate records systems are put into place.

Clearly, student mobility is an area where additional research is needed. Among the questions we have initially identified are:
  • What are the impacts of a highly mobile classroom on the stable students in that classroom?
  • What are the impacts of a highly mobile classroom on teachers?
  • What are the ways in which welfare reform impacts the classroom?
  • What are the ways in which the child welfare/ foster care system impacts classroom mobility?
  • What financial costs are imposed on school systems as a result of high classroom mobility?
  • How does high mobility impact new federal and state accountability systems?
  • What is the experience of private/parochial schools with classroom mobility?
  • How does the Department of Defense deal with classroom mobility in the schools it runs?
  • To what degree do reform proposals – e.g., higher teacher qualifications, smaller schools/classrooms – reduce classroom mobility?
  • What litigation possibilities – in the housing area as well as the education area –exist to force needed change: what are the legal theories, with respect to housing policy and other relevant areas, that might produce desirable results?

A multipronged approach to addressing classroom mobility should seek to support family stability by instituting shared responsibility for mobile students among families, communities, schools, school districts and government at all levels. Raised awareness of the centrality and connectedness of school transiency will help create an impetus for changes in the housing, welfare, education, homelessness, migrant worker and foster care policies aimed at reducing and addressing the effects of harmful school mobility.

Chester Hartman is Director of Research at PRRAC.


Chester Hartman ( is PRACC’s Executive Director. Alison Leff ( is PRRAC’s 2002 Mickey Leland – Bill Emerson Hunger Fellow. The full, annotated version of this article can be found online at or by contacting PRRAC.


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