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Study sheds light on K-12 student movement among Valley schools

September 26, 2011

The desire for a school with better test scores, the lure of charter schools, or a family’s move across town – all are potential reasons why a child might move between elementary schools in metropolitan Phoenix. A new study conducted by a faculty member in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, assisted by a group of students pursuing their doctoral degrees, examines the movement of elementary school students among districts and charter schools in the Phoenix area and reveals mobility rates that vary substantially across districts.

“We hope that our results provide insights for districts and policymakers as discussions about school district unification and consolidation move forward,” said Jeanne M. Powers, an associate professor in Teachers College who was the lead author of “Patterns of Student Mobility in Metropolitan Phoenix,” recently published in Policy Points by ASU’s Morrison Institute of Public Policy.

Students who worked with Powers on the study are enrolled in the Teachers College Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (ELPS), offered on ASU’s Tempe campus.

Analysis of data from 27 districts serving elementary school students in metro Phoenix showed that districts in the urban core have higher total mobility rates and above-average movement of students between districts. Larger suburban districts showed lower overall mobility rates but a higher rate of students moving to and from charter schools.

The difference in rates of mobility to and from charter schools across the two types of districts cannot be explained by charter school availability, the study’s authors note, because there are virtually equal numbers of charter schools located in the urban core and the suburbs. The authors also point out that because urban core districts are much smaller in size than suburban districts, a household move of a short distance would be more likely to situate a family within another district’s boundaries.

Powers and her coauthors conclude with a section addressing policy implications of their findings, with recommendations for stakeholders from school districts to legislators.

“Our apprenticeship-like experience working on the policy brief for the Morrison Institute gave us collective insight into the research process – from turning a topic into a research question to analyzing the data and seeing the written piece through the publication process,” said Amy Topper, an ELPS student who works as a Teachers College teaching assistant and as a research associate at JBL Associates, Inc., a research firm specializing in education research and policy analysis at the federal and state levels. “By working collaboratively, we were able to practice on a small scale what we hope to do as colleagues within the academy.”

The students began working on the project with Powers in an ELPS class during the fall 2010 semester. Powers and her students worked together on researching the topic and writing up the analysis. Students wrote longer research papers related to the topic last fall as their finals; in the spring they continued working together to write the brief, which was submitted to the Morrison Institute at the end of the academic year.

“Writing as part of a collaborative team, we were fortunate to work closely with tenured faculty,” said student Mike Silver. “That is, rather than being left on an island to conduct our research, we were able to bounce ideas off of a subject-matter expert – Dr. Powers – and while we had the freedom to explore and analyze the data ourselves, we benefited greatly from her mentoring. Her insight into the writing process was especially helpful as we developed a publishable product.”

In addition to his pursuit of a degree in the ELPS program, Silver works as a research assistant at the Center for the Future of Arizona, conducting research in support of educational innovation in the state.

“Having our doctoral students conduct research on local issues is beneficial not only for them but for the communities we serve,” said Suzanne Painter, director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation in Teachers College. “Because many of them are local educational leaders, their work is directly applicable to ASU’s continuing efforts to improve education at all levels in Arizona.”

“The ELPS program has challenged me to think about education, education policy, and research differently,” Topper said. “It has changed the way I read and critically analyze the research literature, and faculty members have pushed me to think in a more rigorous and disciplined way about my research and writing, the unintentional biases I bring to my research, and my aspirations.”

The “Patterns of Student Mobility in Metropolitan Phoenix” study may be found online at