Friday, November 06, 2009

 

Transience

I had a good conversation this week with someone who works at one of our major feeder high schools. It's in a low-income district, and since it's close by, we get tremendous numbers of its graduates.

We were talking about college preparation, and the various options and obstacles. In reference to a program that seems like it should work, but somehow doesn't, she mentioned that so many students move during the course of a year that it's not unusual for a majority of a class to turn over during the year. When students bounce from town to town -- it sounds like most of the moves are relatively local -- it's hard for any single program to gain serious traction, no matter how well-run it might be.

That seemed hard to accept, so I asked around on campus for the last few days to see if others had heard or seen the same thing. They had. Apparently, one of the features of our local low-income community is extremely high transience.

In a way, that helped me understand some things I'd noticed recently on campus. Last year we started putting chairs in unused parts of hallways for students to use; they've been full almost without interruption, since literally before they were unwrapped. The library is standing-room-only. The outdoor benches are often full, even on cold days, and even without smokers. Although the college was built for commuter students, some students are starting to use it as a home away from home. If the regular home is precarious, that makes sense.

The stereotype of urban poverty is of an entrenched underclass that gets stuck in place. This seems to be the exact opposite; these students may be a lot of things, but 'entrenched' isn't one of them. They move a lot.

From the high school's perspective, constant churn in the student body makes meaningful educational interventions incredibly hard to sustain, since all that turnover defeats the sustained focus you need to make real progress. (In the era of mandatory statewide tests, this has direct consequences for the schools.) It's hard to form bonds with teachers or counselors when you switch schools twice a year.

From the students' perspective, of course, it's a disaster. I imagine that it's driven by delicate family situations and shaky economics, each of which brings issues of its own. And moving, in itself, is a major hassle.

I don't really have an easy solution for this. We don't have the money, land, or political will to build dorms. And even if we did, they wouldn't help the K-12 students. But I'm starting to appreciate the new chairs a little more.

Comments:
Perhaps, rather than looking at statewide tests the students would be better served by a statewide curriculum? That way, even as the students move from school to school, the classes they move into will be pretty close to what and where they just left. Even if there's a bit of slippage in the schedule at various schools, the basic material will be the same and there's only the issue of a couple days' overlap or gap to deal with.
 
I'm surprised you found it "hard to accept" -- in the district I'm on the board of, our student poverty rate is around 70% and our student mobility rate DURING THE SCHOOL YEAR is well above 30%, much higher at some schools, and this is a small district where there aren't that many places to move.

The mobility rate is only that *low* because we allow students who have moved during the year to remain at their home school until the end of the year, although there are significant obstacles to families taking advantage of this (transportation, primarily).

And yes, when summer mobility is included, grade schools in particular can have an entirely different 2nd grade than they had 1st grade.

Anon, there IS a statewide curriculum (or rather, "learning standards," things they're meant to have mastered by the end of year X), but moving all schools in lockstep in terms of curriculum would be practically impossible and politically untenable. One big problem that we've had is that one of our high schools got sent into NCLB restructuring and now has a specialized "turnaround" curriculum that is not remotely like the curriculum at the other high schools, so students have a very difficult time transferring out. And of course everyone wants to add charters, year round school, etc., but it all complicates the transfer issues.
 
This is definitely true. My mom is a special help reading teacher who works in a high risk (ie low income) school. She works one-on-one with kids who need the most help (1st grade) and has already had ~half her kids leave. Not only is it bad for those kids, but the paperwork and testing time that is involved to enroll these kids in the special program is then wasted, and must be repeated for the next-lowest kids that will get pulled in as replacements. (She's almost going to lose one of her replacements already too, and it's only early November!)
 
That sounds possibly like a bizarre consequence of the housing bubble. Is this phenomenon more than a few years old?

Just musing.
 
@PunditusMaximus: I bet it is, at least in the Northeastern communities I'm familiar with. Low-income or unstable families tend to be more mobile: they move in with Grandma for a while, then with a cousin the next town over, then get their own place until someone loses a job and they can't make rent. They don't leave the area, but they bounce around from place to place on a quasi-annual basis. Families with more resources, on the other hand, tend to find a comfortable house or apartment to live in and stay there for several years in a row. Moves are less frequent and better planned.

Needless to say, an existence like this would be very de-stabilizing for the kids even if they were always in the same school district. Which they usually aren't.

(Word verification: "taxon". Apparently I should get back to work!)
 
I recall a news story in Texas that dropouts would be listed as moved to meet federal standards. I wonder how much you can trust official numbers.

Eyebrows McGee has access to published student mobility numbers and a supervisory duty; have they done any digging into the trustworthiness of the numbers, or just taking it on blind faith?
 
Statewide curriculum only solves part of the problem unless you're in the very middle of a large state with only local moves. Right now, the State Next Door only requires two years of Any Ol' Math at the high school level. My previous (large) school district required 3 years of Algebra 1+, and everyone in our state was supposed to go that way within a few years (some districts are dragging their feet until the last possible second). We had a senior come in mid-year who hadn't taken math above Geometry - good luck graduating! I also had a sophomore come from an-out-of-district foot-dragging school locally who was in pre-algebra as a sophomore and so also needed more years of math than she had years left. They are justifiably angry when this happens to them, as they were on track to graduate before their family moved and the move was often for reasons not of the child's choice.

If not statewide, why not nationwide, you say? Well, then what about the poor kid who came from Mexico and had to take US history as a senior rather than a sophomore? What about the kid from Somalia who has been working on a farm for the last 5 years instead of attending school? Even if we could get The Entire World (and possibly Mars) to agree on a k-12 math curriculum, it could never, ever happen in subjects like history where it's just calling out for localization, not to mention that people who are herding animals in Africa truly don't need calculus to an even greater degree than liberal arts majors at US universities don't need it.

I'm really not sure what the solution is for k-12 with high transient populations. I just know it drove me crazy trying to teach challenging college-prep mathematics in a low-income high school under those conditions, because the prerequisite pieces were never in place.

What I always envied colleges for was that they could tell a transfer student that it hurt them to transfer midway through like that and that it might now take them longer to graduate because the standards were different. In high school it seems that we're supposed to pull a graduation-rabbit out of our hat for these kids.
 
@ Anonymous 11:16 AM: In Oregon, "moved" counts as "dropout" in graduation rates unless you actually track where they enrolled next. This is part of why our graduation numbers always sucked. It raises the quandary for a school of whether you spend the money for an extra office person to track where everybody who left went or whether you spend that same money on a classroom aide or tutor who can help the students who are still here. My school chose the latter and another school being lauded for getting higher grad rates with a similar population chose the former. It drives you crazy.
 
I have to disagree that nationalizing education is not viable. Math, science and even english can be standardized. There are national standards and my experience in NYC public schools is that they are being followed. As a professor that has students entering my classroom without a lot of general knowledge there are certain things that should not be at the discretion of K-12 (when and what to teach). In my area so many high schools are on a technology race that they are more focused on teaching art on the computer than teaching solid basic skills.

The entire system need an overhaul. Even within a high-taxed district it is shocking how unbalanced the schools are in terms of academics and extras. The new directive in my district is to teach the kids how to find information (due to technology) rather than actual know things. I believe that this is going to disadvantage children even more in a global society.
 
I have a hard enough time keeping up with the science, technology, and ever-changing cultures of the world, and I'm academically talented. I haven't the faintest notion of how one would go about giving ordinary folks the tools required to make good decisions.
 
Transience is a terrible problem for high-poverty districts, whether they are urban, suburban (this does happen in the Great Recession), or rural. A move towards national standards is a good response, but a nearly impossible political sell.

While there are some very LOOSE national standards, each state has to have some standards thanks to NCLB. Where it gets exquisitely politically tricky is in science. You can imagine evolution is a non-starter in the Republic of Texas (*snark!*) and the land too big to be an insane asylum (South Carolina).

Typically, when the feds decide to nationalize educational standards, a specific model is held up. I would rejoice if it were Vermont and probably be suicidal if it was Texas.

Simply put, while NCLB is increasingly a policy straightjakcet, states still call the curricular tune (not the local schools and not the feds) in K-12 education. Unless the feds are willing to dump a trillion dollars or so into public education to develop a coherent and measureable national curriculum, well....
 
It disgusts me that such a vast proprtion of the wealth of our nation is owned by such a small proportion of its citizens, while many of them are lucky just to have a fucking chair to sit on.
 
Pundit: "Is this phenomenon more than a few years old?"

Yes; low-income families are subject to incredible housing insecurity and have been for a long time.

Anon: We get classroom-by-classroom breakdowns and can go county bodies in the classroom. Drop-out and mobility numbers locally involve so many agencies -- the police (truancy), housing authority, school district, school lunch programs and WIC -- that it would be difficult to massage those numbers. Plus if you don't know where your "mobile" students go, they're drop-outs. Plus most of our mobility is in-district, but again, that's a local feature.
 
9 or 10 years ago I recall having a conversation with one of our state reps from a high poverty city that discussed this same phenomenon. In fact, they had just made the decision the year before to stop buying textbooks to hand out to the students. The teachers would photocopy the lessons and hand them out. They were losing hundreds of books a year because students would take them home on Friday, bounce to another home over the weekend and enroll in a different school on Monday.
 
It is expensive, but how about online high school to solve this problem.
 
Anon 10:29:

When you are trying to decide between the electric bill and the gas bill, the internet bill has probably already fallen by the wayside. They've all fallen off before you stop paying rent. Many of these students move because their parents can't consistently afford rent so they move in and out of relatives' apartments.

Some of them may have internet at home at any given time, but we can't even assume consistent phone service (half of the numbers from the beginning of the year will be disconnected by the time I make calls in December to parents whose kids need to put in an extra push over winter break to catch up) so I doubt their net access is stable. This leaves aside the issue of having a computer, which is still not a given (but becoming more common, especially since my town has a program where low-income folks can earn a used Linux box through volunteer work).

This leaves aside any issues involved with online education more generally, because that's really Another Post Than This One.
 
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