A student on a school bus in Chicago. AP Photo/Eric Y. Exit

Open-enrollment policies have good intentions, but a new study finds that students who change schools frequently have poorer math and behavior skills.

Like many districts in the U.S., Chicago’s public school system offers open enrollment. If parents or kids are dissatisfied with their default neighborhood school, they can choose another one to attend among many options: magnets, charters, other neighborhood schools, and more. Open enrollment was created with the best of intentions: to give students in underperforming, underfunded schools a shot at a better education.

But more research is finding that students can wind up worse off when given more school choices. One scholar recently found that 15 percent of a cohort of low-income Chicago students who attended high schools away from their neighborhood wound up at an institution that was objectively worse than their local option. Most traveled further, and spent more time commuting.

Now, a new study published by the American Psychological Association offers more evidence that open enrollment isn’t a silver bullet to fixing academic outcomes. To the contrary, NYU researchers have found that, in Chicago, frequent changes to where kids attend school may harm their cognitive development and math skills.

Using data on 381 children enrolled in the Chicago School Readiness Project, who were predominantly black and Hispanic and all from low-income families, authors Allison Friedman-Krauss and C. Cybele Raver found an inverse relationship between the number of times students changed schools and their standardized test scores in math: The more they moved, the more their achievement suffered. Furthermore, the authors write:

...frequently changing schools (3 or 4 school changes over the same time period) was positively associated with teacher-reported cognitive dysregulation in third grade and negatively associated with children’s math achievement in fourth grade.

“Cognitive dysregulation” includes issues with attention, behavioral self-control, problem solving, and memory—all skills that, when lacking, can compromise a kid’s ability to learn math in particular. The researcher’s analysis of the data controlled for baseline student and family characteristics, including children’s math and behavioral performance in preschool.

There were limitations: The data included school changes that students made from one year to the next, and not any changes made within a single year. And the findings are correlational; it can’t be said for certain that high mobility between schools causes lower math and behavior performance.

This is compelling evidence of yet another strand in a web of vulnerabilities for children from low-income families. Students shouldn’t be trapped in underperforming schools, and nor should they be forced to keep searching for a better one.

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