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Transient students are education dilemma

May 24, 2003

By William L. Bainbridge

In school systems across the country a major flaw exists in the rationale that holds teachers and administrators accountable for the progress of "all children’’ on standardized and state administered tests.

Throughout the nation, one fact remains: It’s hard to teach a parade. Put another way, schools are more likely to leave children behind when students are no longer enrolled.
Some students are moved from school to school simply because of the economics of the rent coming due. Others move because of to divorce. Many are wards of fostercare systems. Sometimes moving seems like a beneficial thing. When a family moves because Mom or Dad got a better job, the outcome can be positive for the parents, but the children may have problems adjusting. Regardless of the reason, the impact of moves on academic achievement and behavior of students cannot be overstated. These children frequently bring to school more personal problems than other students.

Nearly a decade ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study conducted by Los Angeles and San Francisco-based pediatricians and statisticians. They found that children who move frequently are 35 percent more likely to fail a grade and 77 percent more likely to have behavioral problems than those whose families stay in one place. Dr. David Wood of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and his colleagues surveyed nearly 10,000 school-age students across the nation. The negative effects they found include what they called psychoeducational dysfunction, delays in growth or development, four or more behavioral problems per year, failure to graduate from high school and increased rates of repeating grades.

Multiple sociodemographic characteristics were examined, but the bottom line is that increased mobility of Americans hurts student achievement.

Numerous studies indicate poor families move 50 percent more frequently than those above the poverty line. In these days of increased finger-pointing and demands for accountability by teachers, administrators and school boards, my colleagues and I have examined data from San Bernardino, Calif., to Manchester, N.H., and Osceola County, Fla., to Cheyenne, Wyo. We find no reason to dispute the medical community’s study.

Recently SchoolMatch was commissioned by Community Research Partners to review administrative processes and procedures related to mobile students in one of the more transient sections of the Columbus Public School District. CRP is a partnership of United Way, city of Columbus and the John Glenn Institute at Ohio State University. The mobility study, which has many other facets, is being supported by a grant from the Columbus Foundation.

Columbus not only has the highest poverty rate in central Ohio, it has the area’s highest mobility rate. School administrators frequently are frustrated by the transience of students. Teachers and their leaders see an important link between high mobility rates and some of the buildings with lower test scores.

One of the interim project reports has documented evidence that in school year 2001-02, the mobility rate for elementary schools in the Columbus district was a whopping 33.5 percent, while the Ohio average was 8.1 percent. This figure, called a "churning count,’’ is the total number of school admissions and withdrawals divided by school population as of Oct. 1. In layman’s terms, this means that, on average, one in three students in the Columbus Public Schools changes schools each year.

CRP Executive Roberta F. Garber indicates the report, complete with recommendations, should be released sometime before the beginning of next school year.

Federal government leaders have demonstrated some understanding of the mobility problem by ruling that schools should not be held accountable for the test scores of students who have been in the school less than 120 days in that school year. Nevertheless, one Columbus teacher told me last week that she believed efforts by the administration to create a common curriculum in areas such as reading are helping, but when the mobility rate gets over 50 percent, the frustration level among professional staff members escalates.

There would appear to be no higher priority than finding ways to help families and social-service agencies understand that moving students from place to place hinders their educational progress. We need to find ways to reduce the disruption that results from frequent school changes.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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