Should we move our son to a new school?

14th March, 2009

Dear Economist,
Our son (aged 14) has been going to a local school and has made friends and settled in. But we are not happy. We think the school is poor, with a high teacher turnover, low expectations, poor exam grades and now a bad report from school inspectors. We’re thinking of moving him to a different school but we don’t want to disrupt his education. What should we do?
John and Julia, London

Dear John and Julia,

The economists Eric A. Hanushek, John Kain and Steven Rivkin have looked at data on Texas schools. They conclude that moving children repeatedly is disruptive both to the child and to his peers, but that a one-off move causes only temporary disruption to studies, especially if carried out at the end of an academic year. The researchers also found that in the cases where children were moved to better schools, they achieved a lasting improvement in academic performance.

A similar conclusion emerges from the research of another economist, Bruce Sacerdote, who looked into the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, about 200,000 Louisiana children had to switch schools. Unsurprisingly, test scores took a sharp turn for the worse. Yet Sacerdote finds that for those evacuees who left schools in urban New Orleans, which had a terrible reputation, test scores recovered within two years. College enrolment rates also improved. Three years after the disruption, children who began in bad schools ended up doing better than if Katrina had never struck.

My conclusion is that your son can thrive after a school move, but only if the new school really is superior. I am not sure what criteria you used to select the current one, but you might want to revise them before choosing the next. If I was your son, I’d be wondering why you think you will be second time lucky.

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