I was teaching my classes.
I was grading assignments.
I was procrastinating.
I should have been working on my class rosters.
My principals wanted me to calculate percentages for every student I had taught that year and submit them to the state.
How long had each student been in my grade book? What percentage of the year was each learner in my class before they took their standardized tests?
If I didn’t accurately calculate this in the next few days, the class list generated by the computer would become final, and my evaluation would be affected.
But there I was standing before my students doing nothing of any real value – teaching.
I was instructing them in the mysteries of subject-verb agreement. We were designing posters about the Civil Rights movement. I was evaluating their work and making phone calls home.
You know – goofing off.
I must not have been the only one. Kids took a half-day and the district let us use in-service time to crunch our numbers.
Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t left to the wolves. Administrators were very helpful gathering data, researching exact dates for students entering the building and/or transferring schools. Just as required by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
But it was in the heat of all this numerological chaos that I saw something in the numbers no one else seemed to be looking for.
Many of my students are transients. An alarming number of my kids haven’t been in my class the entire year. They either transferred in from another school, transferred out, or moved into my class from another one.
A few had moved from my academic level course to the honors level Language Arts class. Many more had transferred in from special education courses.
In total, these students make up 44% of my roster.
“Isn’t that significant?” I wondered.
I poked my head in to another teacher’s room.
“How many transient students are on your roster?” I asked.
She told me. I went around from room-to-room asking the same question and comparing the answers.
A trend emerged.
Most teachers who presided over lower level classes (like me) had about the same percentage of transients – approximately 40%. Teachers who taught the advanced levels had a much lower amount – 10% or below.
Doesn’t that mean something?
Imagine if you were giving someone simple instructions. Let’s say you were trying to tell someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But in the middle of your instruction, a student has to leave the room and go right next door where someone is already in the middle of trying to explain how to do the same thing.
Wouldn’t that affect how well a student learned?
If someone was trying to give me directions how to get somewhere under those circumstances, I’m willing to bet I’d get lost.
And this assumes the break between Teacher A and Teacher B is minimal, the instruction is disrupted at the same point and both teachers are even giving instruction on the exact same topics.
None of that is usually true.
I did some more digging. Across the entire building, 20% of our students left the district in the course of this school year. About 17% entered mid-year. So at least 37% of our students were transients. That’s 130 children.
The trend holds district wide. Some schools have more or less transients, but across the board 35% – 40% of our students pop in and out over the year.
Taking an even broader view, student mobility is a national problem. Certainly the percentage of student transience varies from district to district, but it is generally widespread.
Nationally, about 13 percent of students change schools four or more times between kindergarten and eighth grade, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office analysis. One-third of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 10 percent of twelfth graders changed schools at least once over two years, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP).
And it gets worse if we look at it over a student’s entire elementary or secondary career. In fact, more students moved than remained in a single school, according to a national longitudinal study of eighth graders.
This problem is even more widespread among poor and minority students. The type of school is also a factor. Large, predominantly minority, urban school districts attract the most student mobility. In Chicago public schools, for instance, only about 47 percent of students remained in the same school over a four-year period. Fifteen percent of the schools lost at least 30 percent of their students in only one year.
Several studies at both the elementary and secondary levels conclude student mobility decreases test scores and increases the drop out rate.
A 1990s Baltimore study found, “each additional move” was associated with a .11 standard deviation in reading achievement. A similar 1990s Chicago study concluded that students with four or more moves had a .39 standard deviation. Highly mobile students were as much as four months behind their peers academically in fourth grade and as much as a full year behind by sixth grade, according to a 1993 Chicago study by David Kerbow.
It just makes sense. These students have to cope with starting over – fitting in to a new environment. They have to adjust to new peers and social requirements.
Moreover, transients have an increased likelihood of misbehaving and participating in violence. After all, it’s easier to act out in front of strangers.
What causes this problem? Most often it is due to parental job insecurity.
Parents can’t keep employment or jobs dry up resulting in the need to move on to greener pastures.
In my own district, one municipality we serve is mostly made up of low-cost housing, apartments and slums. It is a beacon for mobility. Few people who haven’t lived here their whole lives put down roots. We’re just another stop on a long and winding road.
“We should be doing something about this,” I thought.
Our legislators should help promote job security. We should make it easier to afford quality housing. We should try to encourage new-comers to become part of the community instead of remain eternal outsiders.
At our schools, we need resources to help this population make the necessary adjustments. We should encourage them to participate in extra-curricular activities, provide counseling and wraparound services.
But we don’t do any of that.
Instead, we gather mountains of data.
We sort and sift, enter it into a computer and press “submit.”
And off it goes to the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS).
We don’t use it to help kids.
We use it to blame school teachers for things beyond their control.
Data has value but that doesn’t mean all data is valuable.
We need to know what we’re looking for, what it means and how to use it to make our world a better place.
Otherwise it’s just a waste of precious class time.
And an excuse to continue ignoring all the children who fall through the cracks.