Switching Schools, Splintering Families

School administrators have recognized for some time that students are particularly likely to drop out of high school if they move from one school to another.  However, a study recently completed at Johns Hopkins University indicates that the likelihood that students will drop out of high school depends less on whether they have moved to a new school than on whether their parents have moved apart.

The authors of this new study begin their investigation into why young people drop out of high school well aware that in twenty-first-century America “the focus has shifted to the importance of a college degree for increasing the chances of attaining success.” Yet they insist that “the value of a high school diploma has never been greater. Over the past 25 years, earnings differences between high school graduates and high school dropouts have grown.” Considerable evidence indicates that young people who leave high school without a diploma may well “find themselves without the skills to succeed in a competitive U.S. labor market that increasingly rewards skills and education” and may end up “beset by other problems—including imprisonment, poor heath, and having children who are also at risk of high school dropout, to name a few.”

To quantify the degree to which switching schools increases the likelihood of students’ dropping out, the Johns Hopkins scholars parse data from a nationally representative sample of students initially surveyed in 1996 at ages twelve to sixteen and then tracked thereafter. As expected, an elevated drop-out rate emerges for students who shifted schools, but the researchers recognize that they must assess a shift in schools in context. And that context is powerfully affected by students’ family structure. Indeed, family structure appears as a prime determiner both of whether students shift schools and of how successful those students are in dealing with the consequences if they do shift schools.

Statistical comparison of students who switch schools with those who do not identifies a number of “demographic and socioeconomic indicators” that are clearly “imbalanced.” And family background features prominently in this imbalance: “Youth who switch schools,” explain the researchers, “are more likely to live in a central city, to come from a household where the biological mother is the only parent and to have a mother who gave birth when she was a teenager.” The data also establish that “youth who switch schools are also more socioeconomically disadvantaged” than those who do not.

Of course, some students deal with a switch in schools much better than others. And as they identify the characteristics of students who handle a switch most successfully, once again the researchers underscore family background: “stable families, higher academic engagement and a low tendency toward delinquency buffer these youth when they do change schools.” These are students, in other words, who “have a safety net and a solid set of personal resources that could help them weather the storm of a school switch.”

After parceling out the effects of the various background variables, the researchers conclude that switching schools does itself push the likelihood of dropping out by between six and nine percent. But this is a modest effect, far less decisive than the effect of family background. As the researchers finally conclude, “We found that the differences in dropout rates between switchers and stayers could be largely accounted for by family structure and previous behavior and academic performance.”

Efforts will continue to reduce the number of students dropping out of high school. But those efforts will all too often prove unavailing in a country where rates for divorce and out-of-wedlock births remain high and the rate for marriage continues to tumble. 

(Joseph Gasper, Stefanie DeLuca, and Angela Estacion, “Switching Schools: Reconsidering the Relationship Between School Mobility and High School Dropout,” American Educational Research Journal 49.3[2012]: 487-519.)