Student churn hinders progress

In some districts, a fifth of students come and go during school year

Massachusetts education officials are celebrating the dramatic MCAS test improvements posted by the state’s most chronically underperforming schools. These impressive gains are testimony to hard work and a stubborn unwillingness to accept large gaps in achievement based on where students live. While these results certainly merit our applause, it would be foolhardy to conclude that the 2010 education reform law, which gave the state unprecedented power to restructure these struggling schools, has delivered the formula for closing the achievement gap. MCAS scores may be up, but more than two-thirds of students attending these so-called Level 4 schools are still scoring below proficient.

Helping these students truly excel will require a real departure from the current school-centric education reform model, particularly in the area of student mobility – the churn of youth entering and exiting classrooms during the school year. It is a classic example of a cross-cutting issue where we must break down the silos between education agencies and those in other areas of government.

A diverse set of stakeholders (educators, housing experts, and human service providers) are beginning to come together around this challenge, particularly in Gateway Cities like Fitchburg, Holyoke, and Springfield, where some of the state’s highest turnover schools are located. In these urban districts, a fifth or more of all students come and go before the last bell rings in June. And mobility rates for individual schools are often much higher. In some, a third or more of all students circle through classrooms during the academic year.

This churn has real consequences. Mobile students are much more likely to score lower on standardized tests. They have higher dropout rates and higher incidence of emotional and behavioral problems. Research also documents the negative effect that attending a high turnover school has on the academic achievement of students who don’t move.

A host of factors contribute to high rates of student mobility in Gateway Cities, but economic insecurity is a leading cause. These school systems serve predominately low-income students. At any given point in time, their families are more likely to lose their job, their housing, or both.

There are a range of strategies that schools can pursue to cope with student mobility, as documented in a recent report by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. But ultimately addressing the student mobility problem will require a robust response in the form of housing policy.

The state’s work to end family homelessness is a step in the right direction. The ambitious new effort aims to place families who lack shelter in stable housing. This is a bold departure from the status quo, but at the same time there are real questions about the odds of success. If this new approach fails, it could lead to more student mobility as families circle into and out of the system.

Student mobility is about more than just individual family circumstances. Neighborhood conditions are also an important factor. Almost by definition, schools serving the most unstable neighborhoods have high mobility rates. Massachusetts has no program to redevelop these areas, which suffer from decades of disinvestment. The federal government is working to build a new neighborhood revitalization model. The Obama administration program, called Choice Neighborhoods, is actually focused on rebuilding and reforming schools to provide a catalyst for neighborhood renewal.

Unfortunately, this federal effort is very small. It’s unlikely that Gateway Cities will ever reap much benefit from it. Perhaps a stimulus program centered around school building will emerge and there will be more investment than anticipated in our communities.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

Either way, Massachusetts needs to develop its own complementary school-centered neighborhood revitalization strategy. The opportunities exist on the education side through the normal facilities-building process, as well as the siting of new charter and Innovation schools authorized by last year’s education reform law. A coordinated effort must be made to better leverage these investments as components of broader neighborhood revitalization.

Next week the state closes off registration for the 2011-12 academic year. The tens of thousands of students who change schools after the Oct. 1 deadline will be officially counted as mobile. The state has calculated these mobility rates for several years. It’s time to do more than just tally up the numbers. To improve educational outcomes and close the persistent achievement gap, real focus and attention must be placed on a cross-sector strategy to take on the student mobility challenge.

Ben Forman is the research director of MassINC. He is the co-author of a new report on student mobility, “Going for Growth: New Education-Housing Partnerships to Stabilize Families and Boost Student Achievement.”