Many schools throughout the land have revolving enrollment doors: large numbers of pupils who enter and leave during the same school year. In such circumstances, teachers face nonstop interruptions and the challenge of integrating new students (at various levels of achievement, with various family circumstance, etc.) into their classrooms and curricula, even as they struggle to maintain the pace of learning for those who have been in class all year. Districts are tasked with making mid-year transportation arrangements for new arrivers, as well as accommodating unanticipated demands for special-education services, English-language instruction, and more. It’s a huge challenge. But it’s also sometimes proffered as an excuse, as in, “How can you hold us responsible for the education of kids who have only been in our classrooms for part of the year?” And it surely complicates results-based accountability schemes and value-added measures.

Sullivan Center 7
Ohio schools struggle with revolving enrollment doors.
Photo by Jason Trevino.

Yet despite the burden of pupil mobility, the research on it is slim and data are scant; no one has systematically examined its scale or patterns across an entire state.

Recognizing that void, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute set out to document and try to understand both the extent of mobility and its crucial particulars, such as whether all the movement is from district to charter schools and whether kids migrate from bad schools to better ones. A 2010 analysis in Dayton further whet our appetite: The findings from that county-wide research were astonishing, showing enormous movement of students within the district, across and between district and charter schools (in both directions!), and across district lines.

What about the rest of the state? Working with Community Research Partners (CRP) and ten funding partners, with encouragement and much data assistance from the Ohio Department of Education, we launched an ambitious analysis of student mobility throughout Ohio. Using over 6 million student records, we’ve been able to gauge the movement of pupils across and among the state’s 3,500-plus public (district and charter) school buildings as well as e-schools. CRP also dove deeply into five metro areas—Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo. The results of this ambitious project (being released today) are wide-ranging and fundamental, as Ohio educators and policymakers seek better understanding of how education systems function (or don’t) with an ever-shifting pupil population. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the realities—and challenges—are much different in other states.

What did we find?

Mobility is enormous.

Ohio has 1.7 million public school students attending over 3,500 schools and affords these students many policy-driven opportunities to move among schools. Families may opt for charter schools (of which there are about 350), full-time e-schools (there are seven statewide e-schools and about twenty regional or local ones), or open-enrollment schools (78 percent of the state’s 610 school districts accept students who live outside their borders). Students also have intra-district options such as magnet and alternative schools, or they may simply request a spot in a district school other than the one to which they are assigned. (Ohio also has four publicly funded voucher programs, not included in this study due to lack of data.)

A great deal of student mobility, however, has nothing to do with intentional policy. To gauge its magnitude, CRP looked at stability rates (the percentage of a school’s students who stay there for at least two years) and churn rates (the number of student admits and withdrawals over one year) in every Ohio public school.

Both metrics were disconcertingly high for charter and district schools alike.

The median building churn rate was 10.6 percent for all Ohio districts and thrice that (31.5 percent) in fifteen urban districts. Charter schools’ churn rate was comparable to urban districts at 27.2 percent.[1]Those averages, however, conceal huge variation. In the Cincinnati area, only three of the thirty-seven largest charter schools had stability rates above 70 percent; in the Dayton Public Schools, only 69 percent of a cohort of K-7 students remained in the same building over two years. Southmoor Middle School, a low-income Columbus City School, kept only one in two students over the two-year period. To put its churn rate of 52 percent in perspective, an average classroom with twenty-five students would have had to cope with thirteen student arrivals or departures during the 2010-11 school year. High levels of mobility also afflict many suburban and rural schools: For example, Griffith Thomas, a high-wealth suburban school, lost nearly one quarter of its students over two years.

Persistently mobile students don’t do as well in school as their more stable peers.

Student Nomads: Mobility in Ohio's Schools

It turns out—unsurprisingly—that frequent school movers face a general downward trend in test scores and passage rates. Those who moved multiple times during our two-year study don’t do as well as their peers, and there is a relationship between mobility rates, student demographics, and test scores. Take, for example, the average scores on the spring 2011 third-grade state math test in the Columbus City Schools: Scores were lowest for poor youngsters, African American youngsters, and those students who moved multiple times. Predictably, a disproportionate number of multiple movers were also poor and minority. Combine those three characteristics and you have the makings of a lifetime of school failure starting by the end of third grade.

Student mobility isn’t always bad.

This study indicates that there is a fair amount of upward student mobility in the Buckeye State. Consider, for example, the number of students moving from failing urban public schools (D- or F-rated) to more successful suburban schools (A- or B-rated schools) in metro Columbus: Of the 5,473 students over two years who exited Columbus City Schools (CCS) for another district, 52 percent moved to schools with performance ratings at least two ranks higher than their CCS schools of origin. The percentages were similar for Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, and Toledo, suggesting that many kids in Ohio’s major urban (and comparatively low-performing) districts are moving to a better situation when they change schools. Of course, this also means that nearly half of movers enter lower performing schools, which should cause some soul-searching among school-choice advocates about the quality of the schooling options among which students are choosing.

Now what?

Mobility is a fact of life for schools in many parts of the state, whether rural, suburban, and urban schools. The present research—and trove of data that it contains—doesn’t tell us what to do about it, how to accent its benefits and minimize its detriments. Others need to dig deeper and weigh in on the implications for policy and practice. But the data at hand already signal to those of us who care about education, in Ohio and around the country, that we should take seriously the very real challenges these findings pose for all policies involving school choice, funding, and accountability.

A version of this editorial appeared on the Ohio Gadfly Daily blog.

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