For nearly a half-century, the professional educators organization Phi Delta Kappa has released a poll this time of year to capture the public’s attitudes toward public education.
This year, by far the most lopsided finding in the survey was about a controversial reform policy: school closures. By 84 percent to 14 percent, Americans said that even when a public school has been failing for several years, the best response is to keep the school open and try to improve it rather than shut it down.
Yet despite that sentiment, some early research suggests that school closures may work as advertised, in that they steer students toward higher-performing schools.
The vogue for closing public schools rose with No Child Left Behind. That federal law, in effect from 2002 to 2015, mandated that struggling schools be restructured, reopened as charters, or closed if they failed to improve test scores for five consecutive years.
According to federal statistics, the number of annual closures fluctuated over that time period. It peaked in 2003-2004 at 2,168 nationwide, fell, then rose again to 2,120 in 2007-2008. In the last year available, 2012-2013, there were 1,493 closures.
Whether for underperformance or underenrollment or both, school closings have prompted public outcry over the past decade in cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit.
Social scientists say that closures are often seen as a blow, both in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods that tend to be majority-minority. Earlier this summer, an episode of NPR’s Embedded podcast chronicled the emotional responses of parents, students and staff to the shutdown of an overwhelmingly black neighborhood school in Wilkinsburg, Pa., that was more than a century old.
But what actually happens to students when schools close? There still aren’t many rigorous research studies focusing on the topic. Two of the biggest were published last year and focused on New York City and Chicago. The outcomes suggested that closings functioned as intended.
James Kemple at NYU’s Steinhardt School took a look at New York City’s shuttering of 29 high schools that were among the lowest-performing in the city. The phaseout took place over several years, allowing students to finish out their educations at the school where they began. At the same time, New York opened a group of small high schools offering open enrollment and personalized attention for students, and it instituted a citywide choice policy.
Kemple followed a matched group of eighth-graders who, based on their middle schools and their neighborhoods, would have been expected to attend one of the closed schools. He studied where they went and what happened to them. The impacts were “quite strong,” he says, in a positive direction.
“They ended up attending high schools that were higher-performing, with higher attendance, better test scores, better graduation rates, and did much better than students we compared them to,” he says. That included a 15-percentage-point increase in the students’ high school graduation rate.
School closings worked a little differently in Chicago, the site of a report released by the University of Chicago in 2015.
In 2013, the city’s school board voted to shut down 47 elementary schools that were both low-performing and underenrolled. The shutdowns took effect at the end of one school year, with no phaseout. And rather than opening new schools and implementing a choice system, the city designated “welcoming schools” for the displaced students, all with higher test scores and better attendance than the ones they left.
Molly F. Gordon and her co-authors found that two-thirds of the displaced Chicago students enrolled in the welcoming school they were assigned to. The rest opted for different schools, often prioritizing a closer location over test scores.
But, no matter where they went, these students ended up at schools with higher ratings from the city, the researchers found. Gordon cautioned that, to describe these results, “I wouldn’t use the word ‘good,’ because we don’t know the academic outcomes yet.”
Her team is doing a follow-up to look at the long-term academic and behavioral results for this group of students.
Although their research results suggest that school closures often send students to a better place, both Kemple and Gordon say they recognize the downsides.
“High schools in the U.S. are community institutions — often of very, very long standing,” says Kemple. “So the prospect of closing down an important centerpiece is fraught with emotional backlash.”
Studies have shown that when neighborhoods lose a school, it can hurt property values and tax revenues. Public schools are gathering places that may be sites for other social services such as parent education, job skills classes, health services or distribution points for donations. When students have to travel farther to school, even by half a mile, it can lower participation in enrichment programs and make it harder for parents to get involved.
Gordon’s report included qualitative interviews to capture families’ feelings about the closures. “Parents weren’t happy that their schools were closing,” she says. “That was a difficult thing. A lot of parents described their school as like a family.”