Picky parents, Nomad Mary, and feelings of cognitive dissonance

Diverse schools

My colleague Mike Petrilli has written a fantastic book in The Diverse Schools Dilemma. It chronicles the struggles, tensions, and emotions that he and his wife experienced in trying to find diverse, yet high-performing, elementary schools for their two boys in the D.C. metro area.  Mike’s dilemma is one shared by many socially-conscious middle-class parents: How can we provide a great education for our own kids while at the same time supporting schools that serve a diverse (economically, socially, and racially) group of students? And the greatest show of support you can give a school is to deliberately entrust your own children to it.

As Mike documents, this is not an easy dilemma to resolve; sometimes the chosen path is filled with doubt, even regrets.

As I read Mike’s book, I kept thinking to myself how I wished all parents gave as much thought and concern to choosing where to send their kids to school as did he and his wife. If this were the case, there would be little need for education reformers—which brings me to the cognitive dissonance I have been feeling lately.

Mike’s book came out the same week that my colleagues and I in Ohio released a new report on Student Nomads: Mobility in Ohio’s Schools. For that report, researchers from the Columbus-based Community Research Partners (CRP) analyzed some five million student records over two school years from the Ohio Department of Education’s EMIS (data management) system to provide a picture of student mobility for all Ohio public districts and buildings and public charter schools, with in-depth analysis of the Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo areas.

It is a massive piece of work and, as far as we know, the first statewide study of mobility ever done. Two key takeaways from the work struck people across the state.

Student nomads

First, there are “nomads” in all types of schools and districts, and the prevalence of this mobility across the state was far greater than the research team anticipated upon commencing the project. It verged on the epidemic in inner-city schools. For example, of the 6,130 third and eighth grade Cleveland Metropolitan School district students who took the Ohio Achievement Test in Spring 2011, 43 percent of third grade test takers and 40 percent of eighth grade test takers had made at least one non-promotional move in the previous two years, and 15 percent of students had made two or more moves. Second, serially mobile students have significantly lower test scores than more stable students. In fact, the number of school changes over two years is an independent predictor of test scores, with more moves generally indicating a likelihood of lower scores.

The report struck a chord across the state; one news piece in particular grabbed me. Laura Ofobike, the editorial writer for the Akron Beacon Journal, wrote a piece on “Nomad Mary” that chronicled the movements of one student from kindergarten to eighth grade. According to Ofobike, “Mary bounced in and out of 11 elementary schools as her family’s living arrangements changed.” Of course, Mary is an extreme case, but the fact that many children are bouncing from school to school over their educational careers is all too real. This instability diminishes their odds of success later in life.

Our mobility study did not get into the reasons for why children are moved from school to school, but earlier research by CRP and others found that “school instability is…largely…a function of residential instability: Families of highly mobile schoolchildren move frequently, for a range of reasons, most of which are disruptive.”

For tens of thousands of families in Ohio and millions more across the country, decisions about where to send their kids to school are low on their list of priorities. Too many families are struggling to simply find a permanent place to live. And when their housing situation changes, they pull their kids from whichever school they happen to be in and move them to the next one. These parents simply cannot afford to be picky and their kids suffer as a result. This is a different sort of dilemma than Mike’s, but one that is just as hard to resolve.

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