New Research on the Plight of Homeless Students

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source:  Green & Write, March 28, 2017

We often talk about achievement gaps on this blog (see here) and elsewhere in the world of education (see here). Indeed, the alarming differences in performance between students of different racial, socioeconomic, language, and disability backgrounds has set off a spate of education reforms over the past two decades. But in all the talk about achievement gaps, there is one highly vulnerable group that has historically been left out of the discussion: homeless students.

That is the argument of Joshua Cowen, an associate professor at Michigan State University who in a recent article published in the journal Educational Researcher provides a first-of-its-kind profile of homeless students in Michigan between 2010 and 2013.

Homelessness and Education in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Before diving into the results of this study, some background information about homelessness and education is in order. According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, there are nearly 1.2 million homeless students in American public schools today. And when it comes to homelessness, Michigan has it about as bad as any state in the country. According to the most recent data available, there are approximately 87,000 homeless residents in Michigan, including almost 25,000 children. Michigan ranks fifth in the U.S. and first in the Midwest for the number of its homeless residents.

It goes almost without saying that homeless children would seem to have many challenges when it comes to their education, and their plight has not escaped the attention of federal policymakers. The major federal law governing the education of homeless students is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was passed in 1987 and was most recently reauthorized in 2001. It provides financial assistance and guidance for states as they serve homeless students. It requires states to establish targeted plans for homeless students, devote funds to local districts for the education of homeless children, and collect regular data on homelessness. One result of this law is that homeless students tend to be immediately enrolled in schools even if they lack required paperwork such as birth certificates, proofs of residency, and immunization records. Homeless students are identified by a special liaison working for each local school district who assesses students’ living conditions on a case-by-case basis. Students who live in motels, campgrounds, shelters, trailer parks, public places like bus stations, or substandard housing are all classified as homeless.

Homeless Students in Michigan

So how many students in Michigan are homeless, who are they, and how do they do in school? Using administrative data from the Michigan Department of Education, Cowen estimated that 18,147 Michigan students in grades 3-9 were classified as homeless at some point between 2010 and 2013, comprising about 1.8% of all students in those grades. He found that the problem of homelessness is most prevalent in rural and urban school districts and that homeless students are almost universally impoverished. They are also more likely to be African American (24.3% of all homeless students) or Hispanic (11.7% of all homeless students), and they also tend to be concentrated in schools with higher proportions of racial minorities and low-income students. The schools that homeless students attend generally exhibit lower test scores on Michigan’s annual reading and math tests.

Cowen also examined the mobility rates of homeless students, finding that they are far more mobile between districts and zip codes than non-homeless students. Each year, nearly 40% of homeless students live in a new zip code than they did in the previous year, and 30% of homeless students attend a new school district. In fact, they are three times more likely than non-homeless students to be in a different district than they were in the previous year. Additionally, homeless students are more likely to participate in the state’s inter-district school choice program and/or enroll in charter schools.

And finally, Cowen found that homeless students tend to have lower test scores even after controlling for a number of demographic and mobility characteristics that often co-occur with homelessness. In other words, homelessness is associated with lower academic performance on Michigan’s reading and math tests independent of other characteristics like race, income, mobility, or parental education levels. This leads Cowen to conclude: “Homelessness is a condition unto itself that requires explicit attention apart from policies directed at other at-risk youth on the basis of race, income, or parental education.”


While many of the findings just reported may not be entirely surprising, they are certainly sobering, and they highlight a need for further research. Prior to the publication of this study, most research on homeless students tended to involve ethnography (in which the researcher embeds him/herself in the homeless “community”) or case studies of individual instances of homelessness. While this early research illuminated many of the unique challenges facing homeless students, it did not provide a wide-angle perspective on these students to show how prevalent they are, what they are like, or how they tend to perform academically. Fortunately, with an increase in the amount of data collected by states as a part of their accountability systems, we may be entering an era in which we can better identify and serve this group of students with so many unique challenges. In the coming years, I urge researchers and policymakers to pay closer attention to these students in their work.


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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.