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The Student Shuffle

August 24, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

The school year starts with twenty students in the class: Armando, Becky, Carla, Deangelo, Edward, Fiona, Gary, Harmony, Isaac, Jasmine, Kurt, Lucia, Malcolm, Nancy, Otis, Penny, Quincy, Rashida, Stuart, and Tess.

Now, try to follow along.

Ulysses joins in October, but Kurt and Becky leave after Thanksgiving. Coming back from winter break, Violet and Wendy have arrived, though Quincy and Lucia are now gone. Jasmine (the highest performer) leaves in April, while Xavier and Yuki arrive just in time for the big state test (Xavier's grades and special education paperwork arrive the week after the test finishes).

In other words, this class just experienced 25 percent student mobility. It, like classes in many Minnesota schools, can expect to experience the same mobility for the next several years.

A core of the students will stay together while others move in and out of the class orbit. The biggest factor behind student mobility is family mobility, perhaps driven by employment, neighborhood quality, the desire for bigger accommodations, or the financial necessity of smaller ones.

Now imagine teaching this class of students. The arrival of Ulysses in October won't be too disruptive, provided he adapts well to the classroom climate and is academically on-track. Losing Kurt and Becky may sting, in no small part because whatever hours you've spent with them are now being processed by another teacher instead of giving you a foundation to build on in your room.

The winter break loss of Quincy and Lucia will also sting, and sting more because more time has passed.

Violet and Wendy, however, will occupy more of your time and energy. It's possible that you got lucky and both are little darlings who have been perfectly prepared to merge successfully into your classroom, but you probably aren't that lucky. Bet on some extra hours spent getting them up to speed.

Oh, and the relationships you built with Quincy and Lucia's families won't help much when reaching out to Violet and Wendy's.

Jasmine's loss in the spring will hurt a lot. High-flying students are often gifts in a classroom: positive role models, consistent sources of exemplar work to help struggling students, and potential aides for help with classroom duties, tutoring, etc.

It's also a lift to your spirit to see a student who likes to learn, and facilitating the enrichment of Jasmine's education was likely a rewarding experience.

Of even more concern—especially in today's test-obsessed environment—is the last-minute (from a testing perspective) addition of Xavier and Yuki. The state will evaluate your school based on test scores, and your district will evaluate you the same way. You'd better hope that Xavier and Yuki had a good educational experience up until now, because you've only got time for the most basic diagnosis and remediation or enrichment. Also, the paperwork delays for Xavier mean that you're ill-equipped to make the appropriate adaptations and modifications to best accommodate his needs and help him achieve.

Yes, this is a hypothetical, but it's drawn from the actual experiences of teachers in high-mobility schools. It complicates our discussion of education policies in ways that are often glanced at but rarely explored. Student mobility, after all, does not affect all schools or districts equally. It tends to be highest in lower-income districts, and therefore adds another layer of difficulty to the work that the people in those districts are trying to do.

It also affects accountability policies. Even if a policymaker is generous enough to decide that students who show up right before a test shouldn't be counted for or against their new school, what counts as “right before”? A day? A week? A month? And what about the students who leave? How can we hold their former schools accountable for their success (or failure)?

Accountability program design rarely considers these satisfactorily, and that lack of attention further discredits those programs in the eyes of those they are meant to motivate.

Finally, the cumulative effects of this mobility have an impact on a small but very real segment of our student population. When a student has attended six schools in the past eight years spread over, say, five cities in three states, any system would be hard-pressed to keep up.

Once again, then, we find that the difficulties our schools face are not wholly internal. Economic stability has a role to play in our attempts to equip our school system to meet the new challenge of universal achievement. Job creation, a social safety net, and balanced taxes are all part of strengthening our students and our families.

We must demand these progressive policies of our policymakers, and we must challenge attempts to create accountability programs that are inadequate at addressing student mobility.

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