Background/Context: Students experiencing homelessness are also often living in poverty and may share many of the same characteristics and experiences with children in low-income housing. Scholars aim to understand the impacts of homelessness above and beyond the effects of poverty, but studies are mixed. Contextual factors—such as the localized implementation of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (McKinney-Vento), which aims to reduce barriers to school success for students experiencing homelessness—are often overlooked by scholars but may play an important role in explaining inconsistencies between single-site studies.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Our purpose is to examine the impacts of homelessness above and beyond poverty. We ask two questions: “To what extent does homelessness impact students’ academic growth?” and “To what extent does chronic homelessness impact students’ academic growth?” In making sense of our findings, we consider the unique context of our study site.
Setting: We draw data from Midtown, a pseudonym for a Midwestern city that has experienced rising homelessness. Midtown has a nationally recognized program aimed at overseeing McKinney-Vento.
Research Design: We conducted a secondary analysis of a longitudinal administrative district dataset. For our first question, we used ordinary least squares (OLS) regression, with and without student fixed effects, with standard errors clustered at the school level. To help isolate the impact of homelessness apart from poverty, we (a) limited our sample to include only those students who have experienced sustained poverty (history of free lunch status) and stable housing prior to fourth grade, (b) included relevant covariates to adjust for other between-group differences, (c) used student fixed effects to control for any remaining time-invariant, unobserved between-group differences, and (d) examined achievement growth (rather than absolute achievement). To examine our second research question (chronic homelessness), we used OLS regression, with standard errors clustered at the school level.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Notwithstanding the fact that Midtown devotes considerable resources toward McKinney-Vento, the impact of homelessness remains evident in our fixed effects model. Turning to chronic homelessness, our results showed no discernible impact on achievement growth. We speculate that as time goes on, the Midtown district may play an important role in buffering families. Our study suggests that in order to reduce the impact of homelessness on academic achievement, it is important to be aware of when students become homeless—so that their needs can be met right at this critical juncture. Specific recommendations, such as the ongoing use of residency questionnaires and surveys, are discussed.