The Educational Consequences of Mobility for California Students and Schools

Russell W. Rumberger
University of California, Santa Barbara
Katherine A. Larson
University of California, Santa Barbara
Robert K. Ream
University of California, Riverside
Gregory J. Palardy
University of California, Riverside


Although all students change schools when they are promoted from one school level to another, some students also move from one school to another for reasons other than promotion. The practice of students making non-promotional school changes is referred to as student mobility. Past research has documented that student mobility is widespread in the United States and often detrimental to the educational achievement of students. Yet little of this research has focused on the secondary level or examined mobility from the school perspective.

This study examined three important aspects of student mobility—incidence, consequences, and causes—as they apply to students and schools in California, especially at the secondary level. More specifically, the study addressed the following questions:

  1. What is the incidence of mobility among California students and California schools? How does the incidence vary among types of students and schools?
  2. What are the educational consequences of student mobility for students and for schools?
  3. What are the causes of student mobility for students and for schools? To what extent do families and schools contribute to the problem?
  4. What strategies can be used by families, schools, community agencies, and the state both to reduce the incidence of "needless" mobility and to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of student mobility that does occur?

The study drew on an extensive set of data on California students, parents, and schools: surveys of 1,114 California eighth grade students who were followed and interviewed over a six year period from 1988 to 1994 as part of the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS); surveys of 51 California high schools and their 10th grade students who were followed and interviewed between 1990 and 1992 as part of the NELS: High School Effectiveness Study (HSES); interviews with 19 mobile high school students and their parents from Los Angeles; and interviews with 32 school administrators, counselors, and teachers from 10 secondary schools in one urban and one suburban district in Southern California. The data were used both to provide descriptive information on the nature of mobility among students and schools and to test some statistical models that identified some specific causes and consequences of the problem. Drawing on multiple sources of data not only provided a more complete picture of student mobility, it also provided more confidence in the findings: there was remarkable consistency from the data concerning the consequences and causes of student mobility in California.

The report summarizes the major findings from this study regarding the incidence, consequences, and causes of student mobility. It then discusses what action should be taken by students and parents, schools, and state policymakers to address this problem.

Suggested citationRumberger, R. W., Larson, K. A., Ream, R. K., & Palardy, G. J. (1999, March). The educational consequences of mobility for California students and schools [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.