Where Al Shanker Stood: The Problem of Student Mobility

In this New York Times piece, published on January 13, 1991, Al Shanker discusses the persistent problem of student mobility, how it disrupts children's lives and educational prospects, and what schools and school systems might do to help.

Once upon a time, people talked about student achievement in terms of the kids' responsibility for what they leaned. Some youngsters were smart, and others were dummies. Some worked hard; some were lazy. Nowadays, we've discarded these crude yardsticks because we understand that many things can influence a child's success in school. But we've substituted something just as crude. I mean the notion of accountability that makes schools totally responsible for student learning.

Of course, people have the right—the responsibility—to find out whether schools are doing a good job. And they have the right to call for the changes that are needed. But people should also understand that schools face some big problems over which they have no control.

Take the problem of student mobility, especially among poor children in urban school systems. Every year between September and June, an enormous number of students transfer in and out of these schools, often because their families are in a state of collapse or because they've lost their current housing and have to find somewhere else to live. A recent Wall Street Journal article (November 14, 1990) about the Rochester, NY, schools says that in 1987 annual student mobility—that is, the number of student transfers in relation to the entire student population—reached 64 percent. In one elementary school, it was 100 percent. And if this is true in Rochester, there's no question that something like it goes on in other urban school systems. What does it mean for teaching and learning in these schools?

Any move can be tough for school age kids. They lose their old friends and have to try and make new ones. At the same time, they have to get used to a new school, new teacher and new schoolwork that is discontinuous with the work they were doing before. Some kids survive even frequent moves and may be stronger for it, but the toll can be very great. And for the kids living in or near property, moving two, three, four times, sometimes in one year, is likely to be devastating—emotionally and academically.

One fifth grader described in the Journal article has changed schools eight times since kindergarten. Her teachers say she's bright. But it's no surprise that she failed first grade, the year her father was killed in a shooting, her stepmother died of cancer—and she moved four times. And it's no surprise that her grades veer from honor-roll to failing.

Another Rochester elementary school student, a fifth grader, has gone to seven schools so far—and had 15 teachers. And though she, too, is intelligent, she never stays in one school long enough to solve her social and academic problems. According to one of her principals, she's "the kind of child who, if we can hold her, we can work with her, the trouble is, by the time we identify a child's difficulty and what works with them, they're out the door".

The constant transfers make it almost impossible for most of these kids to succeed. But that's not all. Teaching and learning from other kids in the class are also affected. The ways schools are organized assumes continuity. So when half the class has transferred in during the past couple of months, at least half the class is unlikely to know what's going on. And the teacher will be tempted to stop real teaching and pass out the worksheets. This will reach the kids who know the least—and turn everybody else off.

The fact that the roster of students in a given grade or school changes from week to week also makes some of our discussion about accountability pretty academic. How can we measure how well a school is doing when many of the kids who took the standardized test there yesterday just transferred in last month or the month before? What do the scores mean? How can we possibly hold teachers accountable for them?

Schools can do a few things to ease this problem. Jurisdictions that insist children go to neighborhood schools can relax that requirement and provide transportation for kids who have moved so they can continue in the school where they started—if there's still room and their parents are willing.

School systems might also consider greater standardization of the curriculum. Then, a kid who transferred from a school where his classmates had just finished a particular book wouldn't find his new classmates just starting it. The trouble with this solution is that it would encourage lock-step teaching and punish the kids who don't move around.

Schools might also try to use some of the new technology to individualize lessons for students who have moved so often that they don't know where they are. But even if schools can find the money for these and other proposals, they can hardly begin to repair the damage done to these children by the combination of instability and poverty.

The real answers will have to come from the other systems that affect the way poor children live. In the meantime, the schools will continue to try to deal with these kids' problems. But if you sense some resistance when you talk to urban teachers about holding schools accountable for student outcomes, consider that they've probably seen a dozen kids come and go from their classes in a couple of month. And if they ask "Hey! What world are you living in?"—you'll know where they're coming from.


For me it is very interesting to read the article when it's been so long. When teachers and lecturers have the experience. Very informative to compare expectations, forecasts and present.