It matters that 60,000+ Houston-area students change schools each year. Here’s what we can do about it.

Each school year in the Houston area, more than 60,000 children leave the school they were attending to enter another school. Given that more than 700,000 students are served by Houston-area schools1, the number of children moving may seem trivial, but for the teachers, classrooms, and students actually making these moves, this student mobility is disruptive, destabilizing, and carries both short- and long-term consequences.

Students who change schools score lower on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests, both during the year they change schools and in subsequent ones. Changing schools also places students at an increased risk of being retained a grade, dropping out of high school, and failing to graduate at all. Moreover, the costs of student mobility extend beyond the mobile kids themselves — schools and classrooms with higher mobility have fewer kids passing the STAAR and lower overall ratings, even though these ratings are based almost exclusively on students who haven’t changed schools. Mobility matters for students, for schools, and for communities, and to better address the challenges it poses to the Houston area, we must first know more about who is mobile, where mobility takes place and why mobility happens.

Which students are mobile

Our research found patterns among students who change schools. In the Houston region, white students and Black students are more likely to change schools than Hispanic students or Asian students. Student performance — as much as it is affected by student mobility — also predicts which students will change schools. For instance, if a student scores in the bottom 10th percentile on the STAAR math test, during the next school year that student is five times more likely to change schools as their peers who scored in the top 10th percentile. 

Students with lower STAAR scores in 2015-16 were more than five times as likely to change schools in the 2016-17 school year

Perhaps the most notable trend in mobility is its inertia — students who change schools one year are more likely to change schools again the next year. In fact, about one in five previously mobile students will change schools again, compared to about one in 20 non-previously mobile students. Student mobility begets student mobility begets student mobility.

previously mobile students will change schools again, compared to about 1-in-20 non-previously mobile students.

Where mobility takes place

One of the features of student mobility that makes it so disruptive is that it typically involves students changing not only their school but also the district they attend. Less than one-third of student mobility begins and ends at campuses in the same district. That means the majority of student mobility involves students going to a new school, in a new district, with new rules, cultures, classroom climates, and social contexts. But while most student mobility travels between school districts, that does not mean students and their families are moving great distances. Some of the most common student mobility is between neighboring campuses, it just so happens that in the urban context of Houston, those campuses belong to different districts.

This pattern of student mobility — going between districts but remaining close to home — has produced six major student mobility networks in the Houston region. These mobility networks consist of schools who commonly exchange students during the school year, are geographically clustered, and cut across district boundaries. They are identified as the Central, East, North, Southeast, Southwest, and West networks, as depicted in the image below. To see and learn more about these six mobility networks, click here.

Source: Bao, K., Molina, M., Kennedy, C., & Potter, D. (2021). Student mobility networks in the Greater Houston area: Elementary school student mobility networks. Houston, TX: Houston Education Research Consortium, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University.

“Less than one-third of student mobility begins and ends at campuses in the same district.”

Why student mobility happens

The reasons students change schools, while diverse, tend to be driven by economics and education. The economic drivers of student mobility relate to the diminishing availability of quality, affordable housing in Houston. As parents look to balance better, safer communities and affordability, there is an ongoing cycle of mobility that follows — as evidenced in the inertia of student mobility mentioned earlier. In addition to finding affordable housing, parents also face decisions around where to live relative to where they work. 

And from an education perspective, a student’s current school may not be working for them,so the parents may decide to relocate. Despite the best intention behind much of mobility — finding better housing, seeking out a schooling context more aligned with what a parent wants — the school change is disruptive to students’ learning and achievement.

Why student mobility issues persist in Houston

Changing schools is a disruptive event, particularly when it is accompanied by a change in where a family lives. Many districts around the Houston area have policies and plans — formal and informal — to help minimize the disruptiveness of the change. Some schools that experience high levels of student mobility have “welcoming teams” of students who buddy up with the newly arrived peer to show them around the building, help them with their class schedule and get them accustomed to the new campus. Other districts have invested in academic support specialists who are connecting with mobile students within 48 hours of their arrival to their new campus to meet them, learn about their skills, and plug them into any remedial services that help prepare the student to fit into their new classes. Still other districts have “home school” programs, so that if a child’s family needs to find a new home they can finish out the school-year at their original school (in some cases, even if the family has moved to a neighborhood in a different district). 

Districts already do so much in service to mobile students, so why does changing schools continue to have such negative consequences?

First, student mobility is a regional problem that districts are being forced to grapple with independently. That so little mobility stays within a district means that even if a district passed policies or plans to eliminate all of its student mobility, those plans — which would likely carry significant costs — would address less than one-third of the student mobility coming into the district each year. This fact notwithstanding, districts have put into place systems that minimize disruption in the logistics of students’ education when they change schools within the district. 

Every district in the Houston region has an integrated student information system that connects all campuses in a district in real-time. If a student was enrolled in School A on Friday and School B on Monday, if those schools are in the same district, all of the student records and information associated with that student follow them instantaneously. These records are critical because they contain information on special services and accommodations students receive, such as services or supports provided for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in special education programs. These student records also include information about English learner status, gifted/talented status, interventions or other programs the student may be involved with, and other details about a student’s schooling that are not always otherwise available.

Texas public schools have a way to exchange these records between school districts, the Texas Records Exchange (TREx), but the system involves one campus requesting information and another campus sending information. This process can often be slow and burdensome. In terms of instruction time, the loss of a week or more when a student is not receiving the appropriate supports and services can set students back significantly. Improving upon the TREx system to provide real-time access to student records across districts would go a long way to optimizing the continuity in children’s education, but any such improvements would need to be made with an eye towards logistical and data security matters.

Second, since student mobility tends to travel between districts, mobile students become the responsibility of everybody and simultaneously nobody. Mobile students find themselves in this space, in no small part, because currently the Texas Education Agency (TEA) only counts students for accountability purposes if the student was enrolled at a school at the time of the October Snapshot (early part of the school year) and when state assessments were administered (later part of the school year). For those students who change schools in the middle of the year, their STAAR performance is not counted toward any campus, and if the student moved between districts, it’s not counted toward any district. TEA excludes all students who change schools during the school year from the accountability subset. This makes sense — to hold a campus and district accountable for its students who have been there the whole year — but also opens up the opportunity for mobile students to fall through the proverbial cracks.

Exploring available solutions

As a multi-district issue, many districts will need to work together to address student mobility. Additionally, the same way school districts currently have assistant superintendents overseeing elementary schools or directors of multilingual programs, the state needs to fund parallel positions for overseeing mobile students.State funding could be specifically allocated to positions housed within districts tasked with working across districts to streamline information sharing, collaborate on policies prioritizing schooling stability, and work to curtail the drivers of student mobility as well as its consequences. In doing so, districts and the state can work together to support these students currently poised to slip through accountability cracks.

Admittedly, a school district could independently opt to prioritize its mobile students and fund a “director of mobile student services” position; however, as discussed above — mobility is not a single district’s issue. Asking for a district to foot the bill for a position that would work to serve and support students coming from other districts as well as going to other districts could be unnecessarily fraught with problems, as parents and communities might reasonably ask why their tax dollars are going to support students who are no longer attending a school in their district. 

The state — or, potentially entities in the philanthropic community — could serve as a funder to offset community expenses, building on the precedent of the state’s programs and departments aimed at supporting “highly mobile” students (which is a program appropriately aimed at supporting students and their families who are experiencing homelessness), to create a new initiative in charge of overseeing and supporting a larger segment of the student population: those who change schools each school year.

In addition to lessening the consequences of mobility, reducing the phenomenon altogether is also an option worth exploring. To keep students in the schools that work for them and their families, funds could be raised in order to allow public school districts to financially support families being forced to move to find affordable housing. While the reasons given above for students changing schools listed economic and educational reasons, the most common reason is economics, and in the Houston context that often translates to families needing to find safe, affordable housing

To the extent families are being forced to move because they can no longer afford their current housing arrangement, funds could be set up in a district to support families and to do so in a sliding-scale manner to ensure that the most supports went to help those who could benefit the most from it. The source of these funds could be philanthropic, carved out from current budgets, or through the establishment of a new tax. Though no one wants a higher tax bill, small increases to property taxes that went towards keeping families housed who would otherwise be moving, could actually help increase property values by creating more stable residents, reducing transiency, and promoting the family and education in the community.

Final thoughts

Tens of thousands of students change schools in the Houston area each year. This mobility translates to lower test scores and higher risks for grade retention and dropout. Yet, it is not a mystery which students will change schools, and there is a relatively high degree of certainty where students will go when they’re mobile. 

The newfound understanding of this phenomenon in the Houston area shows student mobility is both widespread throughout the region and can be dealt with proactively. Student information systems can be connected across districts to ensure greater continuity in children’s education, positions can be established with the purpose of directly and intentionally supporting mobile students (and their families), and trivial adjustments to tax-rates can translate to meaningful sums of money tagged to help stabilize families and communities. 

Student mobility has been part of the Houston region and educational landscape for years, but it does not have to be. Now knowing the patterns and predictors of who is mobile, where they are mobile, and why they are mobile offers the opportunity to move past understanding student mobility in the Houston context to do something about it.


1Houston-area schools refers to the collection of 10 public school districts in and around Harris County who partnered with the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) to study student mobility.

Published by Daniel Potter

Dr. Daniel Potter is an associate director at the Houston Education Research Consortium, where he works with Houston area school districts to bring data to decision making.

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