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May 31, 2016

Plight of Michigan’s homeless students deserves attention

More than 18,000 homeless students in Michigan perform far worse in school than peers who face other forms of disadvantage, according to research from a Michigan State University education scholar.

Joshua Cowen says his analysis shines a spotlight on a vulnerable population of children that deserves more attention.

“With all the emphasis on improving education for underserved kids, there is a particular experience of being homeless that is apart from other dimensions of poverty such as race and income,” said Cowen, associate professor of education policy in MSU’s College of Education. “When you control for all those things, homeless kids are still disadvantaged.”

His study creates a new profile of Michigan’s homeless children using data from students in grades 3 through 9 from 2010-11 through 2012-13. Under federal law, a student who lacks “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” is considered homeless.

Many homeless students attend schools in urban areas, but a significant proportion, 34.5 percent, are in rural areas. “It’s important to understand it’s not just an urban phenomenon,” said Cowen.

In addition, African-American and Hispanic students are more frequently homeless and homeless students are, not surprisingly, far more mobile than their non-homeless peers. In any given year, nearly 40 percent are living in a new zip code, and 30 percent are learning in a new school district.

Cowen’s most conservative estimates show homeless students are more than a month of learning (36 days) behind all other students, even after accounting for other demographics like race and income.

“Almost all of the education reforms being proposed imply that parents have resources to take advantage of, and that all it takes is changing conditions in their district to solve issues,” Cowen said. “But there is a whole other experience that kids bring to the classroom. Coming in every day being hungry and getting very little sleep because you don’t have a stable home, you are going to fall behind others in your school.”