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Psychologists Find School Stability a Factor in Achievement Gap

Experiences such as moving and making new friends can stimulate complex psychosocial and cognitive responses from children.

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Psychologists Find School Stability a Factor in Achievement Gap

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Pixar’s summer hit Inside Out showed movie audiences what developmental psychologists have known for years; experiences such as moving and making new friends can stimulate complex psychosocial and cognitive responses from children. Two new studies published this month suggest that changing schools may have a negative impact on cognitive development and student performance, especially for students experiencing chronic, high-levels of poverty.

The reasons behind frequent school changes among low-income students vary and research suggests that urban, low-income students of color face the highest rate of school mobility. While some families may decide to change schools due to dissatisfaction, others may be forced to move amidst rising housing costs or employment changes. Some students are even required to change schools because of district-level decisions to close their current schools.

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According to a study published by the American Psychological Association , low-income students who frequently change schools are at a higher risk for lower math scores. Prior to this study, psychologists knew that students facing poverty endure higher rates of difficulty in emotional and cognitive regulation, such as attention, inhibitory control, and working memory. All these cognitive processes put low-income students at a higher risk for poor academic success.   But the impact specifically of school mobility on academic achievement was far less understood.

School Stability Moving

Residential moves are one cause of frequent school changes, especially for low-income students.

Developmental psychologists Allison Friedman-Krauss and C. Cybele Raver found that “children who changed schools 3-4 times over a 5-year period had a higher cognitive dysregulation and in turn, lower math achievement in early elementary.” Dysregulation was measured through teacher-reported questionnaires and, on average, students who frequently changed schools scored 10 points lower on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), or about 8 months behind their peers who did not experience the same level of school mobility. This places highly mobile students at an increased risk of not passing state math standards.

Friedman-Krauss and Raver focused on math achievement among elementary school students in Chicago Public Schools because,

“When solving math problems, children need to hold previously learned rules in their memory (i.e., working memory) as well as inhibit the use of rules that do not apply to the immediate problem they are trying to solve (i.e., inhibitory control). They may also need to switch between applying the correct strategy out of many previously learned strategies to correctly answer the question (i.e., cognitive set shifting).”

Another study , published this month by social scientists at Washington University, found that adolescent students who experienced one or more residential moves over a 12-month period had a 50% decrease in the likelihood that they graduated high school by age 25. Both studies lend support to the value of the ongoing and dedicated work to close the academic achievement gap in the U.S. It also gives credence to the idea that interventions must widen the lens outside the classroom to include housing and economic policy, as well as a reduction in the rates of school closings.