Student Stability vs. Mobility

One school system's efforts to minimize the impact of constant change on academic outcomes by Thomas Fowler-Finn

The rent is overdue and there is no money to pay it.

One seasonal job has ended and it is time to move on.

The court grants a divorce and another single-parent family is born.

Violence visits once too often.

These are familiar circumstances to too many of our nation's school-age children. In urban districts, such as Fort Wayne, Ind., poverty, a migrant lifestyle, family changes and crime mean more and more students are living lives filled with disruptions that thwart their daily attendance at school and their learning.

Frequent moves from school to school put students, particularly poor urban students, as well as their teachers, at a disadvantage. Mobility rates at such schools are frighteningly high and getting worse.

But the escalating mobility rate tells only a portion of the story. You also need to calculate a stability rate. This is not the opposite of the mobility rate. The stability rate is the number of students who stay in a particular school until the end of the year. It is possible for a school to have a high mobility rate and still have a high percentage of students in stable circumstances. Stability in family, residence, school and school attendance support better learning. Those who need stability the most, the poor, appear to have the least. The poor are far more mobile.

Relocation Pains

The mobility rate for a school is calculated by the total of new student entries and withdrawals during the year divided by the total opening day official enrollment. Each withdrawal and each entry of a student takes a toll on the student who is moving, on the students who remain, on teachers, on support staff, on the office and on parents. Schools that experience high mobility—many well over 70 percent—spend a lot of time on activities that impede direct, uninterrupted instruction.

Rates usually are calculated on a one-year basis, although calculation over multiple years demonstrates even greater mobility. For example, in the Fort Wayne Community Schools, a planned three-year longitudinal study of the effectiveness of the Success for All program had to be ended prematurely in the final year because not enough students remained for three years in the schools to provide a statistically significant sample.

Urban school educators can only dream about having the same students in the same school for the entire elementary, middle school and/or high school experiences. The mobility of urban students disconnects the long-term relationships and follow-up necessary for the best learning to take place. Most of us can cite individual teachers who made a difference in our lives. However, children of relocation may not be as ready to take advantage of what the teacher has to offer in the same way as students returning to the same school for the following year. Mobile students experience a greater adjustment time to the peer group, the classroom and the school. This is true for the parents of these students, too.

In fact, it is not unusual for mobile children (and their parents) to be hesitant to invest in long-term thinking about their relationships, school efforts and future education. There is a tendency for some of these children and families to believe that personal involvement will only result in additional pain when relationships are inevitably broken again down the line. Some parents or guardians think there is always a better place to live rather than commit to making the place better where they are now. These parents also may attribute academic success more to luck than hard work. Mobility fuels these beliefs.

Stable students suffer some impact as well. Schools and teachers are forced to develop special strategies to help mobile students get up to date with instruction and to keep stable students interested and moving ahead while others require remedial attention. Schools with high mobility have an enormous challenge, and that challenge is equally difficult for teaching stable students. In fact, one way to help mobile students is to recognize the strength of stable students for contributing to the learning process. This must be done without sacrificing academic progress for stable students.

Research on Mobility

Studies of the effects of mobility on student learning show that:

* Mobility is associated with lower student achievement;

* Mobility is associated with low test scores regardless of the quality of the school's instructional programs; and

* Mobility affects the student movers the most, but also parents, teachers, school personnel and classmates at both the departing and receiving school, according to the report, "Student Mobility, Academic Performance, and School Accountability" published by the Educational Research Service.

Government Accounting Office studies of student mobility demonstrate how the odds of student performance are stacked against urban schools and urban school children. Those studies show that "children who are from low income families (most frequently these are minority children) or attend inner-city schools are more likely than others to have changed school frequently."

The GAO further asserts that "within each income group, children who change schools frequently are more likely to be low achievers-below grade level-in reading than children who have never changed schools." Clearly, urban schools face greater challenges to educate a mobile student population-challenges that may require additional resources.

Counting Students

Many people wrongly assume that 100 percent of the enrollment, minus the mobility rate, equals the stability rate. That assumption is false.

Student stability is represented by the number of students who remain in that school until the end of the year as a percentage of the opening day official enrollment. The reasons why the mobility rate plus the stability rate do not equal 100 percent have to do with the lifestyles of urban families as well as with calculations. Poor neighborhoods yield many tenants over a short period. Factors such as overdue bills, the conditions of the residence, job availability, weather-related issues, homelessness and crime cause families to move.

The withdrawal of a student during the year and the entry of a new student become two additional counts in the mobility rate even though only one student chair may be repeatedly vacated and refilled. However, in schools with high mobility rates, it is not unusual for a significant amount of student stability to exist at the same time. In fact, when combined, the rates for mobility and stability in schools of high mobility are likely to exceed 120 percent.

For example, compare the mobility and stability rates (during 1998-99) at selected schools in Fort Wayne. Fairfield Elementary School, located in the inner city, has a mobility rate of 93.6 percent and a stability rate of 58.8 percent. In contrast, Croninger Elementary, a magnet school drawing students from across the district, has 16.3 percent mobility and 92.8 percent stability rates.

At the middle school level, Geyer has 72.8 percent mobility and 61.3 percent stability compared to the district's only magnet middle school, Memorial Park, which has 11.7 percent mobility and 92.3 percent stability rates. The same pattern follows in our high schools, with all schools exceeding well over 100 percent.

Some schools even have mobility rates greater than 100 percent. Our alternative school, Richard Milburn High School, has a mobility rate of 165.5 percent. However, it is not possible to have a stability rate greater than 100 percent. Stability rates begin at 100 percent and decline to no less than zero. The same schools with high mobility frequently have sections of their attendance area and even groups of people throughout all neighborhoods in the attendance area for which stability is a way of life. At Richard Milburn, the stability rate is 38.2 percent.

Researchers and educators are now being joined by legislators and policymakers in coming to terms with the effects of the mobility rate in school performance and in students' lives. But they also must turn attention to the stability rate as somewhat independent from the mobility rate. Dealing with issues of mobile students is different than dealing with those of stable students.

School districts from across the nation are working together in the Network for Equity in Student Achievement to find ways to close gaps in achievement between majority and minority students. These districts have isolated the need to limit mobility and increase student stability. To that end, schools in the Houston Independent School District urge landlords to negotiate apartment leases from July 1 to June 30, rather than the calendar year, to allow students to remain in one location during the school year.

The Fort Wayne Community Schools help students to remain in one school throughout the year by transporting across the community students who move to another school attendance area or who find themselves living in a temporary circumstance. These efforts are directed at increasing stability for students and schools. The impact of these efforts is best understood by a direct calculation of the stability rate, not the mobility rate.

Policy Decisions

Attention to the mobility rate, while welcomed particularly by urban schools, is finding its way into state legislation in Indiana without consideration of the stability rate. Indiana has adopted new accountability legislation that requires the calculation of a mobility rate in determining school effectiveness. That requirement is a good step forward toward better understanding the impact of schooling because no matter how stable the school population is, increasing mobility has an impact on all students, teachers and schools.

State legislation is stronger when based upon the realities of the population served in public schools, in this instance that higher mobility pressures lower achievement. But the impact of schooling also must be assessed by the results of schooling for the stable population.

Schools should not be accredited based on the performance of children who have been instructed at that school for a time period too brief to make the connection between teaching and learning. Teacher accountability measures also must take this into consideration. But simply considering the mobility rate is not adequate. Accreditation also must be based on the stable students. Some schools with high mobility may do well with the stable students, while others do not. Accountability should be expected for stable students despite the challenge presented by the mobility of the other students.

School program evaluation must take into account the disaggregated achievement of the mobile and stable student populations if the evaluation is to be an accurate picture of the long-term benefits of any program. The best evaluations of programs require at least a three-year period to determine effectiveness. The one-year snapshot does not provide information appropriate for long-term decisions about effectiveness, training and resources. Thus informative evaluation is dependent upon the stability rate.

Stability offers a better learning circumstance for all concerned—the student, the teacher, the support staff and principal and the parent. Policymakers and state departments of education would be wise to consider the stability rate in assessing the overall effectiveness of the school. Just as Houston and Fort Wayne are developing strategies for reducing mobility in order to create greater stability, other strategies need to be developed to deal more effectively with educating stable students within a school with a high mobility rate.

The students in our alternative high school are tremendously successful despite attending the school with the highest mobility rate. Mobility is high because of the abrupt circumstances under which many students are admitted to the school and also because of the accelerated rate at which students can graduate. The latter fact, along with the prerogative of students to return to their home school once they improve their performance, reduces the stability rate.

Interviews with the students who attend the Richard Milburn High School reveal the same message over and over again as to why they finish there when they had dropped out elsewhere. They tell us repeatedly: "The people here care about me." This is not to say that the people in the mainstream high schools did not care about those same students. However, the school climate, aided by reduced class size, in the alternative school contribute to closer student-teacher interaction and to a perception by students of stronger caring.

Public school efforts must be directed at making new families feel welcome and mobile students feel cared about in the school environment. But public educators must recognize that special efforts also are required on a continuous basis for the stable population.

Battles over vouchers and charters will be won and lost and efforts to close the achievement gap between majority and minority children will meet with success or failure based on how educators respond to the needs of mobile and stable student populations. Those schools that create a climate of caring and a sense of belonging for all students will be in the best position in the coming decade to provide effective instruction that makes a difference in the lives of children and their families.

Thomas Fowler-Finn is superintendent for Fort Wayne Community Schools, 1200 S. Clinton St., Fort Wayne, Ind. 46802. E-mail: superintendent@fwcs.k12.in.us. He also is coordinator of the national Network for Equity in Student Achievement and past president of Large City School Superintendents.