Penn Social Policy & Practice Researcher Studies Homelessness and Academic Achievement

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Media Contact: | | November 9, 2012

PHILADELPHIA -- One million American school children are homeless each year, and many more are thought to move frequently.  A researcher from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice is the lead author on a new longitudinal study linking homelessness and frequent moving with children’s achievement.

J. J. Cutuli’s research aims to better understand and promote the factors that allow children to do well and show resilience, even in the face of homelessness and poverty.

He has studied the processes of long-term risk and resilience in academic achievement, mental health and medical conditions.  His work illustrates how multiple factors at different levels can work together to protect children from the negative consequences of risk, allowing them to go on to show resilience.

Cutuli, a faculty research associate, grew up in Havertown, Pa., and graduated from Penn with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in philosophy in 2004.  He went onto earn his Ph.D. in developmental psychopathology and clinical science from the University of Minnesota in 2011. 

While in Minnesota, Cutuli worked with his advisor to initiate a study that found that children who are homeless or move frequently have chronically lower math and reading skills than other low-income students who don’t move as often.

Academic Achievement Trajectories of Homeless and Highly Mobile Students: Resilience in the Context of Chronic and Acute Risk” appears in the Oct. 30 issue of Child Development and indicates that homeless and highly mobile students did not catch up to their peers during a six-year period.

“This is the first study that has looked at academic achievement data for homeless and highly mobile students over many years,” Cutuli said. “Past studies on this topic have been able to produce snapshots in time, but now we’re able to see that gains in math achievement among these students slow down during periods of homelessness or high mobility, compared to their own achievement and growth during the years when they were not homeless or did not move as often.”

Conducted through a university-community partnership between the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Public Schools, the study examined the performance of more than 26,000 students in the city’s public education system.  

The study used administrative data, such as test scores, attendance and eligibility for certain programs, to examine the academic achievement of students in grades 3-8..  Student achievement was measured through their performance on annual standardized reading and math tests.

The research team found that students who were homeless at some point during the study or students who moved three or more times in one year had persistently lower levels of reading and math achievement, when compared to other low-income students and their more advantaged peers.  These achievement gaps either stayed the same or worsened as students approached high school. 

But the study also revealed great variation among the homeless and mobile students, with a substantial number showing resilience.  Despite their unstable housing circumstances, 45 percent scored within the average range or better in math and reading.

“Understanding their successes may offer clues for strategies to address achievement problems in their peers,” Cutuli said.  “Addressing short-term risks tied to homelessness or moving frequently, as well as long-term risks associated with chronic poverty and disadvantage will help lead to solutions for these youth.  One starting point may be to understand the protective influences that keep many of these children on track academically.”

Co-authors on this project were Ann S. Masten, Christopher D. Desjardins and Janette E. Herbers from the University of Minnesota; Jeffrey D. Long of the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine; David Heistad and Elizabeth Hinz from the Minneapolis Public Schools; and Chi-Keung A. Chan, who is now at Hong Kong Shue Yan University.

The study was supported in part by the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota, National Institute of Mental Health, National Science Foundation, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota and Institute of Education Sciences.

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