International Issues of Social Mobility of Underprivileged Groups

views updated May 08 2018


Children of lower socioeconomic status (SES) groups tend to perform worse in school than upper SES groups, and they tend to stay in school for a shorter time. In addition, these children tend to be underrepresented in higher education. These patterns exist regardless of region of world, sociopolitical system, and level of economic development of a country. This article examines the universality of these observations. It also discusses exceptions to these general tendencies and promising interventions that enable children of lower socioeconomic groups to overcome barriers to progress in school.

Education, Equality, and Equity

The theme of education and social mobility of underprivileged groups is integrally related to issues of social equality and equity. Equality, according to Martin Bronfenbrenner, refers to the numerical distribution of a good or service (such as income, land, or years of schooling), whereas equity refers to judgments concerning the fairness or justice of that distribution. The sociological study of equality of educational opportunity and outcomes usually focuses on the relationship between stratificationthe hierarchical ordering of people on such dimensions as wealth, power, and prestigeand the amount and type of schooling available to different social groups. According to Ann Parker Parelius and Robert James Parelius, it is widely assumed that "'equality of opportunity' exists when each person regardless of such ascribed characteristics as family background, religion, ethnicity, race, or gender, has the same chance of acquiring a favorable socioeconomic position" (p. 264).

It should be noted that equal educational opportunity does not necessarily imply that people will end up equal but simply that an individual's socioeconomic position will be the result of a "fair and open contestone in which the winners are those who work hardest and demonstrate the most ability" (Parelius and Parelius, p. 264). In the debate over inequality, one critical question concerns the degree to which advantage is passed on from one generation to another. For example, if the social-class standing of a family is high in terms of income, occupational status, and educational attainment, will the family's offspring have greater access to the highest levels of a school system? And what is the effect of family socioeconomic position on the relationship between level of schooling attained and subsequent income and occupational status? Christopher J. Hurn noted in 1993 that if a society's education system is truly meritocratic (that is, based on ability and not on ascriptive factors such as social class, gender, and ethnicity), then (1) the correlation between individuals' educational attainment (how far one goes in school) and future occupational status should increase over time; (2) the correlation between students' educational attainment and their parents' socioeconomic status should decrease over time; and (3) the correlation between parents' SES and their offspring's SES should also decrease.

Evidence strongly supports the proposition that, around the world, education increasingly is becoming the strongest determinant of occupational status and the type of life chances individuals experience. Evidence does not, however, support the thesis that the relationship between family background and how far one goes in school and what one learns is decreasing over time. Indeed, the relationship between family SES and school success or failure appears to be increasing since the 1980s as the result, in part, of public policies that tend to decentralize and privatize education. While primary education has expanded to near universal coverage of the relevant age group, access to the levels of education that are most important for social mobility and entry into the most modern and competitive sectors of the increasingly globalized economies remain elusive for all but elites. Consequently, the relationship between parents' SES and their children's SES has shown little evidence of changing over time.

Significant Educational Interventions

Moreover, comparative longitudinal studies of factors influencing what is learned in school and level of educational attainment suggest that as societies industrialize and modernize, social class increasingly plays a significant role in determining educational outcomes. This finding does not discount the importance of school-based factors in determining how well students, especially those living in conditions of poverty, fare in school. Well-designed interventions aimed at improving the quality of instruction can make a difference. These include quality preschool and early childhood programs with supplementary nutrition and health care services; more adequate school infrastructure so that poor, rural, and indigenous children have the same amenities (school desks and chairs, electricity, running water, and toilets) enjoyed by their more advantaged peers in urban and private schools; a flexible academic calendar responsive to the socioeconomic context of schools in different regions of a country; sufficient supplies of textbooks and culturally sensitive as well as socially relevant curricular materials in the appropriate languages; teaching guides matched to transformed curricula; student-centered, more active pedagogies that involve collaborative work as well as personalized attention to each child; significantly improved pre-service and in-service teacher education and professional development programs and opportunities; incentive pay for teachers working under difficult conditions and, generally, more adequate remuneration and social recognition of the importance of teaching; and, importantly, greater participation of teachers, parents, and communities in the design of education programs to meet their self-defined needs.

For female students, who are often the most discriminated against with regard to access to schooling and the types of curricula that lead to high-status jobs, a complementary set of interventions would include placement of schools closer to their homes, female teachers and administrators as role models, opportunities to be taught separately where appropriate, academically challenging curricula, waiver of tuition and book fees, and, in some cases, monetary incentives to families to compensate for lost income or opportunity costs borne by them. In some cases, agencies working to promote greater school participation rates by females have employed a variety of outreach activities and media, including extension agents and sociodramas performed in communities, to counter notions that religious doctrine or cultural traditions prohibit the education of daughters.

Intangible factors such as school culture (the values propounded by school personnel and student peer groups) also are significant. Bradley Levinson's ten-year study of a Mexican junior high school, for example, documents how the egalitarian ideology of the 1910 Revolution enters the discourse and practices of school personnel and is appropriated by students. The belief that Todos Somos Iguales ("We Are All Equal") strongly shapes interactions between students and, contrary to much U.S. and European social and cultural reproduction theory, overrides the forces that would stratify students by social class, ethnicity, and gender. Elizabeth Cohen and associates' research on "equitable classrooms" under-scores the importance of multidimensional and complex instruction that demand high levels of performance of all students and encourages the use and evaluation of multiple abilities. In such classrooms, "the interaction among students is 'equal-status,' that is all students are active and influential participants and their opinions matter to their fellow students" (Cohen, p. 276). Similarly, effective schools research indicates that an overall ethos of high expectations and a climate of respect have a positive impact on the achievement of lower SES students.

Problematic Reforms: National Standards and High-Stakes Examinations

Along with greater respect accorded to students and the knowledge and values they bring to school, teacher expectations and general curricular standards are important factors in raising student performance. The worldwide trend to establish national standards in core academic subjects and hold schools and individual teachers and students accountable for them through systematic testing may contribute to higher test scores for disadvantaged groups. These efforts, however, are fraught with serious problems and may, instead, lead to greater failure for the intended beneficiaries of these reforms. While standards may be uniformly applied to all students, the resources to accomplish heightened expectations usually are not equally available. The standards themselves may be questioned as to whose knowledge and values are represented; the language in which tests are administered is a particularly significant issue in multilingual, pluralist societies. Generally, there is widespread criticism that the tests constrain the professional autonomy of teachers to determine what is in the best interest of students, often involve a dumbing down and narrowing of what is taught, and tend to be a one-size-fits-all strategy for educational improvement.

Cultural and Social Capital

As indicated above, educators concerned with educational interventions that are culturally sensitive and contextually appropriate take into account the so-called cultural and social capital of their students, families, and communities. The term cultural capital refers to the knowledge, linguistic skills and speech codes, and modes of behavior that students bring to school, whereas social capital refers to the networks of support and resources that families and their children can draw upon to interact successfully with various public agencies such as schools. The failure of students from lower socioeconomic groups and ethnic minorities to succeed in school often resides in the mismatch between the expectations of state curricula and school personnel and what students actually know and value. Education systems must build upon this individual and local knowledge while expanding it so that students, with a heightened sense of their own identity and efficacy, also can participate in the larger society in ways beneficial to themselves and others.

The significance of social capital and how to mobilize it has received substantial attention since the late 1980s. Ways to strengthen the social capital of lower SES families include enabling closer and more systematic involvement of teachers with parents (rather than only when problems arise), arranging for parent-teacher conferences to take place at convenient locations and times, making information about the workings of the education system and individual schools available in the home language, and focusing on the strengths of the children and what they can do. In the absence of other social-service agencies in rural areas and depressed urban neighborhoods, schools necessarily must offer a number of educational and social services, such as extended day care, recreational facilities and sports programs, health programs (including inoculations and birth-control information), and literacy and adult education classes.

Neoliberal Economic and Education Policies

Unfortunately, as noted by such authors as Robert Arnove, Joel Samoff, Fernando Reimers, and Maria Bucur, the full panoply of interventions and reforms is rarely implemented. Reform efforts usually are piecemeal, haphazardly implemented, and inadequately funded. Furthermore, current neoliberal policy initiatives that are being uniformly initiated around the world are likely to widen the gap between academic achievement (what students learn in school) and the educational attainment of the rich and the poor. The term neoliberal derives from the neoclassical economic theories expounded by the major international donor agencies, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as by national governments that pursue economic and social policies that give priority to the workings of market forces. The theories are based on writings of the classical economists Adam Smith (17231790) and David Ricardo (17721823), who believed the role of the state consisted in establishing the conditions by which the free play of the marketplace, the laws of supply and demand, and free trade based on competitive advantage would inevitably redound to the benefit of all. Government policies based on these notions have led to a drastic reduction in the state role in social spending, deregulation of the economy, and liberalization of import policies. The educational counterparts of these policies have included moves to decentralize and privatize public school systems.

Initiatives to decentralize national education systems most commonly involve transfer of a number of previously centralized functions (such as hiring of teachers) to local levels of government along with greater responsibility for the financing of education. At the same time, in many countries, a core national curriculum is established, and, increasingly, national standards, systematic testing, and various accountability measures are introduced. In countries with dramatic differences in wealth by regions, these policies tend to exacerbate the availability and quality of schooling. Comparisons of test scores between more-advantaged urban areas and depressed rural areas, and between elite private schools and poor urban schools, reveal a growing gap between children of upper and lower socioeconomic strata. Moreover, cost-recovery measures are usually introduced, which means that previously free services are no longer provided. Parents, for example, must pay for textbooks, school uniforms, special classes, and equipment (usually related to computers and the learning of a foreign language). These fees, in countries where a majority of the population is living in poverty, may drive children out of the school system. Frequently, parents must choose between paying school fees and buying food, clothing, and medicines. Sometimes, the principal incentive for sending children to school is the milk or a hot meal that will be provided. Various measures facilitating the creation and subsidization of private education further widen the gap between the rich and the poor, as well-to-do families are encouraged to send their children to private schools, thereby eroding the base of support for public schooling.

Higher Education and Stratification

At the higher education level, postsecondary education has become so integrally linked to individual economic well-being that it is now deemed one of the "essential components of cultural and socioeconomic development of individuals, communities and nations" (United Nations Development Programme, p. 2). As such, the higher education degree credential, over time, has become the principal entry point into the most modernized sectors of the economy and middle or upper-class status. Nevertheless, as countries around the globe contend with issues of increased demand for, and access to, higher education institutions, financially sustaining those institutions has become a dilemma for all societies. As a result, while the costs of higher education in many countries traditionally involve no or minimal tuition fees, policy reforms increasingly shift the costs of higher education to students and their families. Ironically, at the very moment when historically marginalized groups have begun to gain access to higher education, the neoliberal move to decentralize and privatize education has become most prominent. Such reform initiatives have frequently led to student as well as faculty seizures of higher education facilities, public protests, and occasionally violent demonstrations.

One reason for this opposition to reform is that despite the diverse histories of, and demands, cultures, and clients for, higher education throughout the world, dissimilar nations are increasingly connected by their policy decisions without sufficient local adaptation. For higher education, the 1990s was a period of financial crisis around the world. These financial pressures have led to surprisingly similar reforms for higher education. Oftentimes, policy solutions of industrialized nations (e.g., the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia) become the prevailing model used by other nations facing the same fiscal pressures. The most widespread financial reform mechanism involves increasing tuition and fees at the same time that financial-aid systems of grants and student loans are introduced. Student loan programs exist in more than fifty countries. Because student loan programs are costly to administer, they often compete with grants for governmental program support. As loan programs are introduced, grant programs are frequently reduced.

The conflict between student loans, which must be repaid by the student, and outright grants, which do not need to be repaid, is contested by policy analysts. Some researchers support charging students and their families for an increasing share of the cost of higher education because keeping tuition prices low through governmental support mainly benefits high-income students. Other analysts assert that the high cost of tuition discourages minority and low-income students from even considering college attendance. Most researchers agree that the enrollment of high-income students in tertiary education does not change because of price. Shifting the costs of higher education to students and their families has also served to stratify educational opportunities by institution type such that the students from high and middle-income backgrounds increasingly seek degrees from more prestigious universities, while low-income students increasingly enroll in the less prestigious institutions and vocational institutions.

More than adequate financial support is important for low-income and nontraditional students to succeed in higher education. Equally crucial for student success are a welcoming environment; a variety of support services; adaptation of academic calendars, curricula, and pedagogy to the characteristics of students; and flexible class schedules and modalities for delivering instruction. Taking into account the cultural and social capital of students from diverse backgrounds as well as their financial resources constitutes a major move toward more inclusive and equitable higher education systems.

The Need for Poverty Reduction: International Data

While the association between levels of educational attainment and lifetime earning streams is substantial and becoming stronger, economic policies can alleviate the dramatic wage differences between those who have a higher education and those who do not. Stephen Nickell and Brian Bell note that comparative data (from Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) point out that wage policies and efforts made to provide high-level skills to those not receiving a higher education can lead to more equitable systems of income distribution.

Ultimately, public policies related to poverty alleviation are critical to overcoming the gap between the rich and poor within and between countries. Lyle V. Jones draws attention to the strong correlation between poverty levels, school expulsions and suspensions, and achievement scores in the United States, Germany, and Japan to underscore the point "that within every one of the nations that participated, poverty is related to achievement. Based on these findings, there can be little basis for surprise when we discover that the U.S. [with more than double the level of children living in poverty] may lag behind Japan, Germany, and some other countries in average school achievement in mathematics"(p. 8).

Unfortunately, current national development and economic policies based on the application of market forces to the provision of social services, and especially education, have led to an expansion and deepening of poverty not only within countries but also between countries and large regions of the world. While certain countries have successfully integrated into the global economy, many countries have not. Among those excluded from the so-called benefits of international market forces and policies of privatization and decentralization are large sectors of Africa, Latin America, Russia and eastern Europe, and Asia. The poorer the country, the greater is the probability that a higher percentage of children will never even enter or complete primary education. For example, in 1990 Marlaine E. Lockheed and Adriaan M. Verspoor found that in thirteen countries with low gross national product the median dropout rate was 41 percent compared with 14 percent for seven upper-middle-income countries. More recent research, summarized in 2000 by the International Institute of Educational Planning as a ten-year follow-up to the 1990 Jomtien, Thailand, international conference on "Education for All," found that "the lower the national income, the greater the inequalities in education within a country," with "the differences between rich and poor, between center and periphery, between men and women, generally greaterthe poorer the country" (Hernes, p. 2). While enrollment figures are important indicators of access to schooling, they do not reveal high dropout and repetition rates, especially among disadvantaged groups. Instead, educational attainment and years of schooling have been identified as the key factors in determining subsequent occupational attainment, income, and SES, particularly in highly industrialized countries. Therefore, Table 1 demonstrates the disparity in educational attainment and years of schooling for different regions of the world by income group. Education systems and teachers most frequently bear the brunt in cost reductions in social spending, resulting in the erosion of previous gains for the poorest and most marginalized sectors of the society and an undermining of public schooling relative to that of the private sector.


The relationships among family background, educational achievement and attainment, and subsequent life chances are obviously complex. Research that clarifies these relationships must take into account the interaction among contextual (macro-level) as well as local institutional (micro-level) variables. At the level of national comparisons, promising research needs to be conducted along the lines of explaining how certain countries, such as Finland, that excel in international tests of academic achievement, are able to do a good job with all students.

Over time the meaning of equality of educational opportunity has changed significantly. If one thinks of equal educational opportunity in relation to a race or contest, the initial conceptualization was to ensure that all students started the race on fairly comparable terms and, subsequently, that they would attend schools with similar resources and a common curriculum. Students who were disadvantaged would have early intervention programs to bring them up to par. More recent conceptualizations emphasize the outcomes of the education processthat is, the ability of schools to develop to the fullest the potential of students with different backgrounds and talents. In 1972 Torsten Husén referred to this new definition of equal educational opportunity in these terms: "every student should have an equal opportunity to be treated unequally" (p. 26). What this seemingly paradoxical principle means is that every single student should receive an education that is personally appropriate and beneficial. It also implies that more resources are likely to be required for those who are most disadvantagedjust as more costly, intensive care in a hospital is required to remedy a critical health situation. As John Rawls noted, given the years and decades of neglect and often discrimination faced by lower SES groups, ethnic minorities, and females, principles of redistributive justice would require that greater resources be dedicated to achieving maximum benefits for them. Without such idealism, it is unlikely that current trends toward greater inequalities and inequities in the economic, social, and educational spheres will be reversed.

See also: Gender Issues, subentry on International; International Development Agencies and Education; Poverty and Education; Social Capital in Education; Testing, subentry on Standardized Tests and Educational Policy.



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Robert F. Arnove

Margaret M. Clements


views updated May 29 2018




Social mobility describes the fluidity or rigidity of a stratified system, or the degree of openness of a society that determines the extent to which individuals or groups can and do change their relative position or social status within that society. An analysis of social mobility examines the extent to which an individuals life chances or social position is a function of his or her social origin (i.e., the social status of the individuals parents). Nineteenth-century theorists of social mobility grappled with the emergence of industrial societies whose social organization and social relationships were qualitatively different than their feudal and agrarian predecessors. Questions of modernity that were prominent at the time animated much of this inquiry as well.

The underlying logic rested on the idea that the social organization of preindustrial societies, where an individuals location in the social structure was almost entirely determined by birth (often by ascribed characteristics), would give way to a more open system in which an individuals abilities and characteristics would determine his or her fortunes. The increasing bureaucratization and rationalism characteristic of newly industrializing societies were expected to give rise to meritocracy, in which individual merit would dictate outcomes more so than social origin. With increasing education and technological developments, intergenerational mobility should increase. Furthermore, as success becomes more focused at the individual level, the impetus for class solidarity should decrease.


Early social mobility research can be divided along several dimensions. One of these encompasses two distinct threads: intragenerational mobility (class mobility during the life course, typically occurring during ones career years) and intergenerational mobility (a change in class status between parents and offspring from one generation to the next). In both threads the focus was on explaining the likelihood of a difference in ones destination (or outcome) compared to ones origin. Another distinction in early mobility research was an emphasis on either individual mobility (e.g., status attainment research) or class mobility and formation (e.g., the position and change in relative power of specific strata or classes). Karl Marxs (18181883) theory of class formation and power and Max Webers (18641920) notion of class and status groups were central influences in the latter line of inquiry.

Social theorists of mobility contrasted the rigid mobility structures characteristic of social systems organized by castes and those under feudalism with the new social and economic structure emerging in nineteenth-century industrializing nations. Feudalism and caste social systems, which were marked by little social mobility, were archetypes against which newly emerging social systems, which were marked by increasing mobility, were compared. A caste is a hierarchy of endogamous divisions in which membership is hereditary and permanent (Berreman 1960, p. 120). Contact between members of different castes is limited and allocation to occupations is determined by an individuals caste membership. Indias caste system was one of the most widely documented during the first half of the twentieth century. Though the subject of considerable debate, Indias caste system was considered the most rigid of stratification systems, marked by its stability as the divisions were justified on religious principles to which almost everyone in the society subscribed.

From the eleventh through fifteenth centuries, feudalism, the chief social system explored in early writings about stratification, was the dominant mode of production in Europe that preceded capitalism. It was a hierarchical system with few strata, in which control of land and property granted social status and legal rights to rule. Power and social status were founded on ownership of land and control of peasants; membership in the noble class of lords, which was achieved primarily through birth or marriage, was necessary in order to exercise power. Feudalism was a relatively closed social system in which the distribution of goods and services was closely integrated with the hierarchy of the social status.

Following feudalism, the emergence of industrialization in the mid-eighteenth century and the changing economic and social system embodied in early capitalism allowed individuals in the merchant class to experience mobility not through birth or marriage but through their fortuitous role in creating markets for goods. Merchants played a key role in the expansion of markets for goods and in the production of goods that ushered in industrialization and early capitalism. They carried this out by developing and managing consumer markets, and by acquiring knowledge of consumer tastes, which allowed them to manage, fulfill, and profit from growing consumer demand. This class was a crucial force in shaping early capitalism, and merchants profited from their propitious position as the new economic system flourished.

As industrialization progressed during the first half of the twentieth century, social theorists such as Gerhard Lenski (1966) observed that mobility opportunities were beginning to increase steadily for a larger segment of society, namely workers in the industrial sector of the economy. This was especially true for those who had access to opportunities to become skilled at using emerging technology in the rapidly changing production process. European immigrants were absorbed rapidly into growing industries. Lenski argued that stratification (which he called a distributive system) was a function of the complexity and degree of technological sophistication of a society. The extent of inequality in a society varies with the amount of surplus in that society. Goods and services are distributed according to need when there is no surplus. Within this framework, those who have control of the surplus of goods have more power.

A recurring theme throughout the mobility theories predominant at this time was the increasing role of technological advances in stratifying workers, allowing mobility for some and limiting it for others. Skilled workers were in an advantaged position relative to other workers to benefit from the new strata of higher-paying jobs created by these new technologies. Thus, mobility for certain groups of workers increased substantially during this period. Moreover, historians and social scientists document the strategies that both employers and white workers used to limit competition for these premium jobs by excluding blacks, Chinese, other racial and ethnic minorities, and white women from these burgeoning opportunities. Government subsidies aimed at increasing the education and training of workers (e.g., the GI Bill) were largely reserved for white men who took advantage of and benefited from these opportunities in substantial numbers, entrenching the widening gap between these workers and other marginalized workers.

Status attainment research became the chief lens with which to view this new opportunity structure during the 1950s. The principle assumption in status attainment research was that individual investments in education would allow for mobility of any worker, regardless of his social origins (many of these studies only involved men). In this tradition, status attainment research was concerned with the allocation of individuals into jobs or social positions (also referred to as selection in earlier work). Status attainment research examined an individuals position along a scale of occupational status. The emphasis was on determining the level of parental influence on the childs eventual occupational outcomes. The underlying idea was that parents with higher social status and good jobs can pass on to their children resources that aid them in the labor marketresources such as information about jobs and how to attain them, and access to networks, opportunities, and cultural capital.

Related to the status attainment paradigm is human capital theory, or its more recent variant, the skills mismatch hypothesis. Underlying all of these theories is the notion that the United States is largely an achievement-based society characterized by an open opportunity structure. The center of analysis in these theoretical frameworks is the individual and his or her corresponding traits; this focal shift stood in contrast to early stratification research in which the social structure of the society itself was the central focus. A critique of the status attainment and human capital approaches posits that they do not take into account important structural factors that may have an impact on the opportunity structure, and commensu rately, the likelihood of mobility.

Proponents of a structural analysis of mobility turned their attention to assessing the influence of economic, political, and social forces on the opportunity structure and mobility opportunities. These contrasting approaches have also been situated within a supply/demand framework in which both the attributes individuals bring to the market and the demands of market institutions (e.g., which industries are experiencing growth or decline, which skills employers are seeking) are considered important factors bearing on opportunities for workers.


A large segment of social mobility research relies on comparative analyses of different countries, typically Western countries, because a societys stratification system is the implied unit of analysis in the paradigms core theories (i.e., a central question is whether certain stratification systems enable more or less mobility). Robert Erikson and John Goldthorpe (1992) conducted an extensive cross-national comparison to address whether or not mobility was increasing in postindustrial nations. They found that the United States and Western European countries are not markedly different in mobility and that patterns of mobility were common over time, a pattern they described as a trendless fluctuation.

Large-scale structural changes of the later twentieth century, primarily deindustrialization and globalization, vastly changed the factors that mediate access to work and opportunity. Deindustrialization and the accompanying shift to a service, information, and technology-based economy created an increased demand both for higher-educated and skilled workers and for low-wage workers to fill the increasing number of service jobs that proliferated in the economy. An increasingly bifurcated workforce resulted. Higher-educated workers fared and continue to fare better in the labor market by all accounts. Thus, access to higher education became a determinative factor in an individuals labor market outcomes. Marked group differences (class, race, ethnicity) in access to education have always existed, but these disparities have greater consequence in the contemporary economy as the currency of education grows.

This inequality is further exacerbated by the dismantling of policies designed to enable equal access to higher education. Both lower-income and minority individuals have lower rates of college attendance and graduation; of those that do enroll in college, a smaller percentage actually finishes compared to white or middle-class students. The effect of school status on employment outcomes also contributes to this inequality given the difference in status of the schools that whites and minorities attend. This difference has been shown to contribute to differences in earnings, occupational attainment, and so on among workers with college degrees. Furthermore, education explains only 25 percent of the race gap in wages. Although different studies reveal different numbers, none has entirely removed the effect of race. Education plays a determinative role and improves the relative position of everyone who is able to access it; however, increasing evidence reveals that it has not been realized as the equalizing force that had been anticipated.

Another structural change that figures prominently in questions of mobility in postindustrial societies is the emergence of a globalizing economy. The globalization of labor has tightened and changed opportunities for workers. As companies reduced their workforces, moved production overseas, and instituted flexible work arrangements to remain competitive, job stability and wages fell and advancement opportunities diminished for many workers, particularly for lower-wage and lower-status workers at the bottom of the scale.


Mobility chances vary significantly across different social groups in the contemporary United States. Ample evidence demonstrates that access to opportunity continues to be mediated by race and immigrant status, among other factors. Given the ongoing currency of education and skills in the postindustrial economy, group differences in access to quality education play a sizable role in this inequality. Persistent patterns of school segregation resulting from residential segregation are a key factor underlying continuing labor market disparities between white and minority workers. School segregation among primary and secondary schools has regressed to the levels that existed at the time of the desegregation order resulting from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Minorities are segregated into schools with substantially fewer resources, and consequently they receive a poorer education. Poor white children, on the other hand, do not face significant class-based school segregation, and in fact are more likely to attend schools with middle-class children than are black middle-class children. In addition, the decentralization of companies from urban centers to outlying suburbs, a development that followed the mass suburbanization of most large cities beginning in the 1950s, created what some theorists call a spatial mismatch between jobs and minority communities. This further decreased access to work and to attendant mobility opportunities.

Another explanatory factor for racial mobility disparities is access to information about jobs. Researchers have found that job seekers tend to find out about and pursue jobs through social networks. The quality of the information in these networks varies widely; access to networks with higher-status individuals with better jobs yields better information and thus increased access to better jobs. Because the networks of most individuals are made up of the people with whom they regularly interact, these networks tend to be segregated by race. Additionally, mounting evidence points to the role of discrimination in the hiring process. Discrimination audit studies, in which equally qualified job applicants of different races apply for the same job, consistently reveal that employers are more likely to hire white applicants over equally qualified black or Latino applicants.

Even in the early years of the twenty-first century, the evidence supports the conclusion that an individuals origin continues to play a significant role in his or her eventual socioeconomic status. The expectation that this influence would decline in postindustrial nations has seemingly not come to bear to the extent that was anticipated; there does not seem to be a trend toward increasing mobility. There is an enormous debate over the subject; however, it has shifted to why and to what extent mobility has or has not increased. As societies and their economies evolve, transform, and become more complex, the number of factors to consider when determining an individuals chances of moving beyond his or her origins will continue to increase, demanding more complex models for understanding mobility.

SEE ALSO Caste; Education, Unequal; Mobility, Lateral; Upward Mobility


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Niki T. Dickerson

Student Mobility

views updated May 11 2018


Student mobility is the practice of students changing schools other than when they are promoted from one school level to the other, such as when students are promoted from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school. Mobile students can change schools in between school years, such as during the summer, or during the school year. But no matter when it occurs, student mobility not only can harm the students who change schools, it can also harm the classrooms and schools they attend.

The Extent of Student Mobility

Student mobility is widespread in the United States. According to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), one-third of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 10 percent of twelfth graders changed schools at least once in the previous two years. Student mobility was even more widespread among poor and minority students. The incidence of student mobility is also higher when viewed over a student's entire elementary and secondary career. Based on data from a national longitudinal study of a cohort of eighth graders in the United States, more students made non-promotional school changes during their elementary and secondary school careers than remained in a stable pattern of attending a single elementary, middle, and high school. School changes were more common during elementary school than during secondary school. In fact, mobility is the norm during elementary school, while it is the exception during high school.

Student mobility not only varies widely among students, but also among schools. It is especially high within large, predominantly minority, urban school districts. In the Chicago public schools, for example, an average of 80 percent of students in the district remained in the same school from September 1993 to September 1994 and only 47 percent remained in the same school over a four-year period. Fifteen percent of the schools lost at least 30 percent of their students in only one year.

The Impact of Mobility on Students

Existing research finds that students can suffer psychologically, socially, and academically from mobility. Mobile students face the psychological challenge of coping with a new school environment. Mobile students also face the social adjustment to new peers and social expectations. Research has demonstrated that mobility is related to misbehavior and youth violenceit is easier to commit crimes against strangers. Studies have also found that mobile high school students are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities.

Mobility can hurt students academically. Several studies have examined the impact of mobility at the elementary level. Studies that do not control for the background characteristics of students consistently find that mobile students have lower achievement than non-mobile or stable students. Yet studies that do account for background differences find that mobility may be more of a symptom than a cause of poor school performance. In other words, mobile students came from poorer families and had lower academic performance before they were mobile, a finding supported by other studies.

At the secondary level, several additional studies have examined the impact of mobility on two indicators of student performancetest scores and high school graduation. The impact of mobility of secondary test scores appears to be mixed. Two studies of middle school students, one by Carolyn Hofstetter and the other by Valerie Lee and Julia Smith, found that mobile students had significantly lower test scores after controlling for other student and classroom characteristics. Several studies, based on the same national longitudinal survey of eighth graders who were tracked for six years, found that the impact of mobility was sometimes negative and sometimes positive. These studies suggest that the timing of mobility matters during high school, which is supported by a California study of mobility in which some students made "strategic" school moves to improve their educational prospects, while other students made "reactive" school moves to get out of poor or dangerous situations.

The strongest impact of mobility is on high school graduation. There is overwhelming evidence that mobility during high school diminishes the prospects for graduation. Yet one study found that early school changes as well as changing residences between grades eight and ten and between grades ten and twelve increased the odds of dropping out at twelfth grade, but that early school changes decreased the odds of dropping out at twelfth grade among tenth graders who had not already left school. This suggests that mobility has a negative impact on some students, but may have a positive impact on others.

Although a substantial body of research shows that students can suffer psychologically, socially, and academically from changing schools, the impact of mobility depends on such factors as the number of school changes, when they occur, the reason for the changes, and the student's personal and family situation. Some mobility can actually be beneficial if the reason and timing represent a "strategic" move to a better educational placement. Yet most mobility is not beneficial. What accounts for the generally negative impact of mobility on achievement and why, in some cases, does mobility not impact achievement or even improve it? The answer depends, in part, on the reasons students change schools.

Causes of Mobility

The leading cause of student mobility is residential mobility. A national study by Russell Rumberger and Katherine Larson found that 70 percent of all school changes between grades eight and twelve were accompanied by a change of residences. But there are many reasons students change schools. In one study parents of twelfth grade students who changed schools over the previous four years reported three types of reasons for changing schools. The most frequent reason was the family moving (58%). But almost half of the reasons were because students asked to change schools, often to take advantage of a specific educational program, or asked to be transferred to a public, private, or magnet school. The least frequent reason was because the school asked the adolescent to transfer either because of disciplinary or academic problems.

Research has identified some specific factors that predict student mobility. Interestingly, mobility does not seem to be strongly related to family income and socioeconomic status, but it does appear to be related to family structure: families without both biological parents have higher incidence of residential moves and higher rates of school moves. Several student-related factors have also been identified. Low school performance (grade point average), behavior problems, absenteeism, and low educational expectations all predicted school changes during high school after controlling for family factors. School-related factors also predict student mobility: Schools with high concentrations of at-risk and minority students have lower mobility rates even after controlling for differences in student factors, while schools with higher teacher salaries and better teachers have lower mobility than other schools.

Current literature suggests two ways that schools affect student mobility (as well as school dropout rates). One way is indirectly, through general policies and practices that are designed to promote the overall effectiveness of the school. These policies and practices, along with other characteristics of the school (student composition, size, etc.), may contribute to voluntary student turnover by affecting conditions that keep students engaged in school. This perspective is consistent with several existing theories of school dropout and departure that view student engagement as the precursor to withdrawal. The other way is directly, through explicit policies and conscious decisions that cause students to involuntarily withdraw from school. These rules may concern low grades, poor attendance, misbehavior, or being overage and can lead to suspensions, expulsions, or forced transfers. This form of withdrawal is school-initiated and contrasts with the student-initiated form mentioned above. This perspective considers a school's own agency, rather than just that of the student, in producing dropouts and transfers. One metaphor that has been used to characterize this process is discharge: "students drop out of school, schools discharge students (Riehl, 1999, p.231). Finally, additional conditions found in large, urban and high minority schools that could contribute to student turnover include open enrollments and overcrowding. Open enrollment allows students to readily change schools if they can find one with sufficient space, while overcrowding prompts schools to transfer students even if they wanted to enroll them.

There are several reasons why mobility may negatively impact student achievement. Mobile students must adjust to new academic standards and expected classroom behaviors. Mobile students sometimes get placed in classes that do not contribute to high school completion or they get placed in classes where the curriculum differs from their previous schoola condition referred to as "curricular incoherence."

But why do some students seem to be adversely affected by changing schools and others do not? The answer may depend, in part, on the reasons students change schools. In one study, students who made "strategic" school changes to seek a better educational placement, in general, reported positive academic impacts, while students who made "reactive" school changes due to intolerable social or academic situations were more likely to report negative academic impacts from changing schools. The idea of strategic school changes is consistent with the finding that changes early in a student's high school career may not be harmful or can even be beneficial, while changes late in a student's high school career are generally harmful. On the other hand, mobility due to misbehavior or involuntary transfers are more likely to harmful, especially if the change of schools fails to address the underlying problem that lead to the transfer in the first place.

The Impact of Mobility on Schools

Mobility not only impacts students who change schools, it impacts classrooms and schools who must deal with mobile students. It can also adversely impact non-mobile students. In one Rumberger study of mobility in California (1999), school personnel characterized the overall affects of student mobility at the school level as a "chaos" factor that affects classroom learning activities, teacher morale, and administrative burdensall of which can influence the learning and achievement of all students in the school. Teachers were very adamant about how disruptive and difficult it is to teach in classrooms with constant student turnover. Similarly, a Chicago study by Julia Smith, Bets Ann Smith, and Anthony Byrk found that the pace of instruction was slower in schools with high rates of student mobility. School administrators reported how time-consuming it is to simply process students when they enter and exit a school. Beyond the administrative costs, school personnel also identified other impacts, such as the fiscal impacts that result from mobile students failing to turn in textbooks, and impacts on school climate.


Student mobility is a common feature of American schooling. Although mobility is largely initiated by students and parents due to changing residences, some mobility results from the policies and actions of schools and districtssuch as open enrollment, overcrowded schools, and zero-tolerance policiesthat can lead to voluntary or involuntary school transfers. Consequently, schools and districts can help reduce the incidence of "needless" mobility and help to mitigate its potentially damaging effects. School reform efforts can help reduce mobility by making schools more attractive to students and parents. Schools can also initiate a number of strategies to help transfer students adjust to their new school setting and to quickly provide the educational and support services that transfer students may require.

With increasing pressure on schools to adopt reforms and raise test scores, addressing the issue of mobility may not seem a high priority for schools. But failing to do so could easily undermine those efforts as well as hurt the students and families the schools are charged to serve.

See also: School Dropouts.


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Russell W. Rumberger


views updated May 29 2018


the populace; the great unwashedSlang Dictionary, 1874.

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