Do school closures work?

When schools are persistently failing despite efforts to help them, reformers argue that they should be shuttered. The strategy has great intuitive appeal, but does it do what it is supposed to? (“School Closures: When a School is More than Just a School,” National Education Policy Center, May 15).

A study that looked at Chicago, which five years ago closed roughly 50 schools housing 12,000 students, concluded that it didn’t work.  Putting aside the loss of a sense of community that schools foster, the move failed to help students.  Those who moved to schools with higher test scores posted lower achievement the first year and improved only slightly afterward.

Let’s take a closer look at the findings.  High test scores alone do not mean a school is good.  Such scores could be the result of turning classrooms into test preparation factories.  If so, it’s doubtful the school offers an improvement.  But there’s another factor given short shrift in the debate.  Students don’t always transfer to better schools, as assumed.  They may enroll in schools that are a better fit for one reason or another than those they left.

That’s why I support parental choice.  Parents differ widely in what they seek for their children.  The only common factor that I see is safety.  If a school cannot provide that, it needs to be closed.  I’m talking about repeated incidents.  No matter how academically outstanding, any school can be the venue for an isolated act of violence. But when students are subjected to repeated incidents, letting those schools remain open constitutes child endangerment.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

4 Replies to “Do school closures work?”

  1. As is inherently the case when discussing school choice, the threshold issue must be deciding how much credit/blame for a “good”/”bad” school goes to the characteristics of the school itself (administrators, teachers, curriculum, policies, facilities, support services) and how much goes to characteristics of the students who attend the school.

    If School A is “bad” due to deteriorating physical facilities, then it probably makes sense to close the school. If School A is “bad” due to inferior administrators, teachers, curriculum, policies, facilities, support services or students, then it makes no sense to close the school. Rather, the school system should first determine the specific cause(s) of School A being “bad” and then implement reforms targeting the cause(s).

    As I have argued before, by far the most likely cause of School A being “bad” is that the School A students are predominantly from lower-SES families and therefore have characteristics that predispose them to academic failure. Conversely, the most likely cause of School B being “good” is that the School B students are predominantly from higher-SES families and therefore have characteristics that predispose them to academic success.

    Certainly, there are some students from lower-SES families who have characteristics that predispose them to academic success rather than failure. These children will usually have parents who, although lower-SES, have attitudes towards critical parenting aspects that are similar to the attitudes of higher-SES parents. It is these lower-SES parents who will disproportionately enroll their children in charters or, with the help of vouchers, in privates. This is what accounts for some charters and privates achieving high test scores while enrolling mostly lower-SES students.

    For all these reasons, implementing reforms that target the schools will fail. The problem is rarely the schools. The problem is almost always the students. To improve academic outcomes for lower-SES schools, the only rational approach is to implement reforms that target the characteristics of the lower-SES students that are predisposing them to academic failure.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Putting aside concerns about physical safety, I agree with you. But trying to target the causes of the deficits that disadvantaged students bring to school itself is highly controversial. The most promising approach is to provide them with wraparound services beginning at birth. So much of their educational future is determined in the first few years of their lives. The Harlem Children’s Zone was one of the first to provide such services. I wish I could be more optimistic, but I think little will change in the years ahead.


  3. I also agree that schools should be closed for safety reasons. I have to come back to problems with large school systems. There is much more accountability in city/town school systems. From my experience in FL, praising schools where only 50% of third graders pass a reading test is pathetic.
    Many schools are closed to cover up inept policies of superintendents and school boards. Unfortunately, they don’t have a realistic plan to place the students in appropriate schools.
    Many counties in FL initiate special programs in low performing schools that will attract high level students to raise school grades. As a result, the school will remain open.


    1. mathcoach2: Closing persistently underperforming schools has great intuitive appeal, but a plan to provide displaced students with better options needs to first be in place. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.


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