August 28, 2019

College of Education researchers report new findings about school choice and mobility in Detroit

Research from the Detroit Education Research Partnership hopes to identify the root causes of challenges in Detroit so education leaders can generate solutions for improving public schools.

Assistant Professor Sarah Winchell Lenhoff and Associate Professor Ben Pogodzinski, faculty members in educational leadership and policy studies in the Wayne State University College of Education, today released new findings about the reasons why students change schools and leave Detroit to attend school.

The research is the latest from the Detroit Education Research Partnership, a collaboration between Wayne State University’s College of Education faculty and community organizations working to improve Detroit schools. Partners hope to identify the root causes of challenges in Detroit so education leaders can generate solutions for improving public schools.

Sarah Winchell Lenhoff

Lenhoff led a study about why almost 25% of school-aged children in Detroit attend public schools elsewhere, which results in less funding for Detroit schools. Major findings included:

  • Students who exited had lower-quality schools — based on test performance, teacher and student stability, new teachers, discipline — available to them in Detroit than students who stayed.
  • Students who attended a non-Detroit school enrolled in schools that had, on average, higher discipline rates, more new teachers, lower teacher retention and higher test scores than their choice sets in Detroit.
  • The physical and cultural geography of students’ neighborhood choice sets varied dramatically across the city. Students who lived in neighborhoods where most of their neighbors went to just a few schools were less likely to exit.
  • Black K-8 students had, on average, lower-quality choice sets than non-black students in Detroit, and they attended lower-quality schools than non-black students when they exited.

“When families choose to leave Detroit for school, they may be responding to the qualities of the schools that are accessible to them in the city,” said Lenhoff. “However, students tend to enroll in suburban schools that look worse than their Detroit options on most measures except for test scores, which are highly correlated with student poverty rates. Both increasing the quality of schools in Detroit and communicating with families about how Detroit schools stack up against their suburban counterparts are important efforts for policymakers who want to see students stay in Detroit for school.”

Ben Pogodzinski

Pogodzinski and colleagues examined student mobility among Detroit students. More than 20% of Detroit students changed schools between 2016-17 and 2017-18, and nearly 7% moved during the 2017-18 school year. Major findings indicated that:

  • Within- and between-year mobility was particularly high among Detroit resident students compared to other students in Metro Detroit.
  • Students were less likely to make a within-year move if they attended a school categorized as having a high rating in organizational climate, as measured by the 5Essentials surveys.
  • Rates of school-level chronic absence were associated with both within- and between-year mobility, suggesting that other elements of school organizational climate may influence student movement.
  • On average, mobile students were not moving to schools that were significantly different from the ones they left in many observable school characteristics.
  • A larger proportion of between-year mobile students moved from a DPSCD school to a charter school, but a larger proportion of within-year mobile students moved from a charter school to a DPSCD school, with financial implications for the losing districts.

“Parents want what is best for their children, and in a robust school choice environment such as Detroit, they often move their children between schools searching for the best environment for them,” said Pogodzinski. “At the same time, such moves can negatively affect a child’s academic and social growth, particularly since on average students end up in schools that aren’t noticeably different based on many observable school measures.

"Additionally in the aggregate, high rates of student mobility can contribute to the destabilization of school systems," Pogodzinski continued. "Although there are current efforts to help parents make better informed school choice decisions, policymakers should address the ways in which school choice negatively impacts the system overall, and school leaders should consider steps to mediate the potential negative impact of changing schools at the student level.”    

To read the complete reports, visit

About the College of Education

For more than a century, the Wayne State University College of Education has prepared effective urban educators who are reflective, innovative and committed to diversity. Its Teacher Education Division boasts one of the most comprehensive, well-established programs in the country, and all four academic divisions offer a range of undergraduate and graduate degrees in nearly 30 program areas, including learning design and technology, leadership and policy, kinesiology, sports administration, education evaluation and research, health education, educational psychology, and counseling. To learn more, visit   

About Wayne State University 

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering nearly 350 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to more than 27,000 students. For more information, visit


Tracy Boyce
Phone: 313-577-0260

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