Schools with a higher enrollment of black and poor students are more likely to be shut down for poor performance, and the majority of students displaced by closures do not end up in better schools.
But for those students who landed in better schools, their academic progress outpaced that of students in low-performing schools that remained open, according to new research released Thursday by the Center for Research and Education Outcomes, CREDO, at Stanford University. And the academic gains on test scores were particularly significant for black and Latino students who ended up in better schools. Most striking was the finding for Hispanic students: Those who ended up higher-performing schools gained the equivalent of 74 additional days of learning in math.
Those findings—from one of the largest studies to date on how shuttering schools affects student achievement—back up smaller, more localized research on the fraught and controversial practice of closing schools.
The study, which looked at both charter and regular public schools in 26 states between the 2006-07 and 2012-13 academic years, found that most school closures during that period—69 percent in both sectors—were in urban areas. Twenty percent of the schools that were shut down were in suburban areas. Both supporters and opponents of shutting down public schools are likely to see findings in the study to fortify their arguments.
Kaitlin Banner, the deputy director of the Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Project, said the findings on the disparate impact for black and Latino students were consistent with what the civil rights group has heard from communities in which it works.
“Our partners have found that school closings aren’t the answer,” Banner said. “They often do not have a say ... students are sent out into various communities, they have high transportation needs, and they are unable to really access the quality of education that school closures seem to promise to them.”
Most Students Don’t End Up in Better Schools
In both the charter and regular public school sectors, black and Hispanic students were more likely to be in closed schools. Among regular public schools, low-performing schools with higher poverty rates were more likely to be closed than low-performing schools with fewer low-income students, according to the report.
Less than half of students from closed schools ended up in schools that were better than the ones they left behind as measured by their performance on state tests, according to the study. But a higher percentage of charter school students landed in better schools than their peers at regular public schools, an indication, researchers posited, that charter school parents are more experienced at seeking out different schooling options.
Students who left before the low-performing schools were closed had a better shot of landing in a better school, the study said.
Researchers said they hope that the report would provide evidence to help inform the often emotional and contentious debate around school closures as a means to improve achievement, particularly with the addition of data on the academic performance of students over time.
Closing low-performing schools seemed to be inevitable, given that other school improvement strategies have not had widespread success, the researchers wrote. But their findings show that the practice in and of itself does not lead to higher performance: students must have better schools to go to, and alternatives are often limited.
Advocates argue that closing low-performing schools gives students who would otherwise be stuck in those schools the opportunity to attend a higher-performing school. Students who moved to better schools did better academically than those in other low-performing schools that remained open, the study found. In regular public schools, for example, students who moved to higher-performing schools saw the equivalent of 11 extra days of learning in reading.
Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said the report underscores the need for more quality charter schools.
“The fact remains that school closure is an essential part of the charter bargain that recognizes educating children is a privilege, one that every school should continually earn,” he said in a statement. “No school should have a perpetual right to exist, especially schools that consistently fail to educate children.”
The finding that closure patterns varied based on race and socio-economic status was troubling and should serve “as a wake-up call to examine our practices to ensure all schools and students are being treated equitably,” he said.
“Authorizers have a responsibility to give all students—especially underserved populations—equal access to quality charter schools,” he said.
On the other side of the debate, opponents and some civil rights groups argue that the burden of school closures falls disproportionately on poor, black, and Hispanic students. The study did bear that out—and researchers said such concerns about equity should be an integral part of the decision-making process. But it also found that schools that were closed displayed low-academic performance and low enrollment up to three years leading up to the closure and that they performed significantly worse in math and reading than those that stayed open.
Most Low-Performing Schools Remain Open
Still, only a small fraction of the low-performing schools identified during the period studied were closed: 5.5 percent for charters compared to 3.2 percent for regular public schools. That means that thousands of students continued to go to schools where the average math and reading scores were in the bottom 20 percent on state assessments for two years—the definition the researchers used for low-performing.
Across the 26 states included in the study, researchers identified 1,522 low-performing schools. Seventy-nine percent were regular public schools; the rest were charters.
The study also found significant differences in how charter operators and regular public school districts or states dealt with their lowest-performing schools. While authorities who oversee charter schools shut down their lowest-performing schools at a higher rate than their counterparts in the regular public school sector, according to the report, the sector still allowed other low-performing charters to continue operating despite contracts that often contain language about specific achievement targets.
“In this sense, charter authorizers’ determination and practice of shutting down low-performing schools still fell short of the stipulation in their contract with charter schools, although they were more likely to close poor-performing schools relative to districts,” the researchers wrote. “Meanwhile, districts were evidently tolerant of low levels of, and deterioration in, performance and enrollment.”
In raw numbers, more elementary schools closed, but middle schools had the highest rate of closure in both sectors, according to the report.
The study also found that charter schools had a higher, though not statistically significant, rate of closure before the Obama administration’s $7 billion School Improvement Grant program, which provided several options, including closures, to turn around chronically low-performing schools. There was no significant change in the closure rate for traditional public schools before and after the implementation of the SIG program, the report said.
A January study by The Institute of Education Sciences found that the SIG program did not lead to significant gains in reading and math for students whose schools got the funds, when compared with low-performing schools that were not in the program.
School closings can be disruptive for students and communities. In this June 2017 video, reporter Denisa Superville shares data from the Urban Institute on where schools are closing and which students are likely to be affected:
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as For Most Students, Closing Failing Schools Doesn’t Help