By: Matthew P. Steinberg, Molly Pileggi, and Ruth Neild

September 2019


Philadelphia offers an extensive array of public high school options for students, including charter schools, traditional schools, schools with selective admissions, and schools at which admission is based on residence (that is, neighborhood catchment zones). A large number of education options might benefit students by enabling them to find schools that are the right fit for them. But a choice-rich education system might also increase student mobility from one school to another during high school.

While some student mobility is expected and perhaps even beneficial for some students, prior research shows that, on average, students who move schools have lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates than their non-mobile peers. Studies have also shown that there are negative consequences for non-mobile students if many of their peers are mobile.

While many studies have shown a connection between student mobility and negative student outcomes, few have focused on the high school grades, and there is no prior evidence on student mobility that specifically focuses on Philadelphia. The purpose of this report is to fill that gap with new information about the extent of mobility in Philadelphia’s public high schools and to examine the association between mobility and the likelihood of dropping out of high school. 

This study uses four years of student-level data for all students enrolled in Philadelphia public high schools from the 2013-14 through 2016-17 school years. We examine the characteristics of mobile students and the types of schools they most commonly exit and enter as well as the characteristics of schools with higher rates of student mobility. The study concludes with an examination of the association between student mobility and high school dropout.

Key Findings

  • One-third of Philadelphia high school students were mobile during the study period. The mobility includes students who: (1) changed schools across academic years; (2) changed school districts within an academic year; (3) exited public education in Pennsylvania, or (4) dropped out of high school.

  • Philadelphia high school students who were Black, lower-achieving, or in ninth grade were more likely to be mobile. Mobile students were less likely than non-mobile students to have been academically proficient prior to entering high school (i.e., on their eighth grade PSSA exams). Among students in the cohort who began ninth grade in the 2013-14 school year, all types of mobility (except dropout) were concentrated in ninth grade.

  • Schools that served more high-poverty, lower-achieving, or minority students tended to have higher rates of student mobility. In schools serving the fewest academically proficient students, 32 percent of students were mobile in a typical school year; this compares to an annual student mobility rate of 10 percent in schools serving the most academically proficient students. A table listing the average mobility rate of each school is provided here.

  • When students moved schools, those who remained in Philadelphia public schools moved to schools with similar peers. In contrast, while few mobile students exited Philadelphia, those who did moved to schools with fewer racial/ethnic minority students, fewer students from families with incomes below the poverty line, and higher-achieving peers.

  • Mobile Philadelphia high school students attended an average of two schools during their high school careers. Among students in the cohort that started ninth grade in 2013-14, half remained in the same Philadelphia high school for their entire high school career while approximately one-quarter attended at least two Pennsylvania high schools.

  • Philadelphia high school students who change schools are twice as likely to drop out of school as their non-mobile peers. Even after controlling for student demographics, poverty, and academic achievement, student mobility is highly correlated with dropout among Philadelphia high school students.

Policy and Implications

  • Policy efforts should be informed by the disproportionately high rate of mobility among the most academically and economically disadvantaged ninth-grade students and the concentration of mobility in the city’s high schools serving high numbers of these students. City and state policymakers should identify ways to provide additional supports to the city’s most vulnerable students, and the schools who serve them, and implement strategies to limit early grade mobility that risks having serious consequences for high school persistence and completion.

  • Philadelphia’s education community – both charter and traditional school leaders – should work together to address the persistent problems associated with high rates of student mobility. The student mobility that we observe in this study is not disproportionately concentrated in the charter or traditional public school sectors in Philadelphia. Instead, mobility is concentrated in schools serving the lowest-achieving, highest-poverty students, independent of a school’s sector. This suggests that city leaders should work together by taking a citywide approach to reducing student mobility.

  • Students who move to another Philadelphia school do not enroll in higher-quality schools – a fact that can inform efforts to limit student mobility and improve the high school match process early in a student’s high school career. This finding should inform education leaders on the detrimental effect of school switching within Philadelphia, while also providing impetus for city leaders to help students and their families identify the best school match for students prior to entering high school.

  • The fact that the dropout rate among mobile high school students is twice as high as their non-mobile peers should inform efforts by education leaders to identify and support these at-risk students. City and state education leaders should work to identify students who have experienced a mobility event and dedicate additional supports and resources toward these mobile students who have a significantly greater risk of school detachment and dropout.