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What impact does moving schools have on teens? alleganycountylibrary, CC BY

When families move, high school students may suffer

Residential mobility is a hallmark of modern American society. Policies encourage mobility as a way of improving outcomes for low-income families residing in poor neighborhoods.

Many families move over the course of their children’s lifetimes for a multitude of reasons. But what is the impact on the education of children when their families move?

Our research team has investigated whether moving during adolescence has an impact on high school graduation – a critical developmental milestone for students. Our findings are striking and contrary to intuition: moving, even to a better neighborhood, is associated with a lower likelihood of receiving a high school diploma.

Who moves and why?

Our data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health), which followed teens from early adolescence in 1994 to early adulthood in 2008.

We found 5.6% of the families had moved once, and 2.2% had moved two or more times within a two-year period.

We first explored the associations between particular characteristics of families and neighborhoods, and the likelihood of moving.

The “movers” exhibited some interesting, and expected, characteristics.

Families with older teens who had been suspended from school in the previous year and who had experienced neighborhood disorder were more likely to have moved. However, teens who came from divorced families had, by far, the highest likelihood of experiencing more than one move.

Compared to their peers, children in our study who were in divorced families were four times more likely to have moved once, and more than 10 times as likely to have moved twice within the initial two-year period of the study.

In general though, teens from more affluent families – those with higher levels of parent education and living in neighborhoods with higher levels of social cohesion – were less likely to experience a move. Children whose parents had more education were 50% less likely to experience one move, and 66% less likely to experience more than one move.

Additionally, we asked the families who had moved for their opinion (the sample included 7,285 adolescents distributed across the country) about the quality of their current neighborhood and the neighborhood they had moved from. Families were asked to rate neighborhood disorder and, conversely, neighborhood social cohesion.

Teens may be most susceptible to the traumas of moving. Matthew Hurst, CC BY-SA

Because we had the addresses of our study participants, we were able to use census data to categorize neighborhoods based on measures of income, employment, poverty and percentage of individuals over 25 years without a high school diplomas.

Through the combination of census data and the opinion of participants, we were able to characterize the neighborhoods families were leaving and the one they were settling into.

Results from policy experiments where families move into better housing show similar results with regard to student educational outcomes. Although moving to a better neighborhood is hypothesized to increase student test scores, this has not been shown to be the case. This is particularly true for adolescents, who may be especially susceptible to the trauma of moving.

Moving hurts

We then looked at the association between moving (to any type of neighborhood) with the likelihood of receiving a high school diploma.

We found that teens who experience a move are half as likely as those who do not move during their early adolescence period, to have received a high school diploma by early adulthood.

We also found adolescents who experience one move have a 62% probability of completing high school, and the probability of completion for those who move more than once is 60%.

We were intrigued by these results, so we decided to analyze whether moving into a richer neighborhood made a difference.

So, we divided moves into three types: downward (to a poorer neighborhood), parallel (to an equally poor neighborhood) and upward (to a less poor neighborhood).

We found that the type of move did not matter – the lower likelihood of receiving a high school diploma remained the same for students, regardless of the type of neighborhood.

Our results point to the idea that moving, in and of itself, may have traumas associated with the process that exist regardless of the quality of the receiving neighborhood.

We do recognize that other underlying mechanisms, such as the change of schools that often occurs with moving, may be influencing the results as well.

Nevertheless, the patterns and associations found in the analyses should make us all pause. The fact is that moving can be tough for kids.

Molly Metzger and Patrick Fowler, assistant professors at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St Louis, contributed to this piece.

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