Education Funding

Study Finds Bad Schools Rarely Get Better—or Shut Down

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 14, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the three states that closed significantly more poor-performing charter schools than district schools. They are Arizona, Florida, and California.

The lowest-performing public K-8 schools often linger in that state for years, neither improving enough to get off accountability life support nor being shuttered completely, and persistently failing charter schools fare no better than regular public schools, a new study finds.

Of 2,025 chronically low-performing elementary and middle schools identified in 10 states in 2003-04, it found, only about 1 percent had improved enough to exceed their states’ average academic performance five years later, and fewer than 10 percent had even broken out of the lowest 25 percent of schools in their states. The findings are in a report released Tuesday by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Basis Policy Research, of Raleigh, N.C.

Despite such a dismal record, only 19 percent of the lowest-performing charter schools and 11 percent of their more-traditional public school peers had been closed after five years, according to lead author David A. Stuit, a founding partner of Basis Policy Research.

Mr. Stuit and his research partners tracked school performance in the 10 biggest charter school states: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. The authors identified all schools serving kindergarten through 8th grade that failed to meet federal proficiency targets in both 2002-03 and 2003-04, and that performed in the bottom 10 percent of schools in their states on state tests of mathematics and reading. High schools were not included because of insufficient data.

The researchers found that while low-performing regular schools had on average 200 more pupils than did the bottom-scoring charters studied, the schools otherwise looked similar. Poorly performing charter and district schools were both twice as likely as better-performing schools of both types to be in an urban center and had twice as many poor and minority students enrolled.

Schools’ improvement trajectories looked similar, too. Charters were more likely than noncharter public schools to improve moderately rather than dramatically, but only 9 percent of either group of schools made at least moderate improvement.

Charter schools were more likely than district schools to close after years of poor performance—19 percent vs. 11 percent—but at the state level, only Arizona, Florida, and California closed significantly more academically poor charter schools than district schools. Even in those states, it was unclear how many schools were closed for academic performance as opposed to low enrollment or fiscal mismanagement. The vast majority of all low-performing schools remained in limbo five years later.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the Fordham Institute’s president, said the findings suggest that during a five-year period after the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions established closure as an option for low-performing schools, improvement interventions “just didn’t work out very often.”

“Real turnarounds are extremely scarce, and shutdowns were a little more common but still pretty scarce,” Mr. Finn said.

Pressure Point

Effective or not, turnaround efforts are an extremely hot topic in education politics. From the No Child Left Behind Act’s five restructuring interventions for schools that don’t make adequate yearly progress to the four turnaround options required in the economic stimulus law’s $3.5 billion iteration of the School Improvement Fund grants, the U.S. Department of Education has pushed low-performing schools to make major changes or close for nearly a decade. In particular, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has advocated that charter schools replace underperforming district schools because the charter model offers greater autonomy to school leaders in exchange for stricter accountability—including the closing of failing schools.

Yet closure remains perennially unpopular as an improvement strategy for charters and district schools alike. (“Rural Schools Get Nearly One-Fourth of Turnaround Grants,” Dec. 10, 2010.) According to new estimates by the Education Department, only 18 of the 730 schools receiving federal School Improvement Fund grants this year opted to shut down, and another 31 schools, or 5 percent, chose the “restart” option to close and reopen the school under a charter or an education management organization.

“The story of the last 10 years has been pretty well documented of schools avoiding the hard questions and taking the path of least resistance when it comes to school turnaround,” Mr. Stuit said.

The findings echo research on school accountability options by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank. Yet Jack Jennings, the president and chief executive officer of the center, said closing a school creates extensive logistical problems, from determining what to do with the remaining facility to smoothing the transition for students.

“You have to start from scratch, and you never know what you’re going to get when you try something radical,” Mr. Jennings said. “It may be the only solution in some situations, but a new school in itself is not necessarily better; that depends on if the new school has better teachers, is safer, has higher goals and aspirations.”

Since it’s not a popular option for schools, there has been less research on the implementation and effects of school closure than on other options.

Marisa de la Torre, an associate director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, conducted one of the few studies of the effects on students who were transferred to another school following closures of poorly performing schools. Her findings weren’t optimistic, either: Students who transferred to schools that were in the top quarter of the district in achievement did perform better academically, but they had to travel an average of 3.5 miles from home to do so. Forty percent of students transferred to schools that were also on academic probation, and a handful of those students transferred again when the second school closed, too.

“I think, given that this is a big disruption in a student’s academic life, administrators should be aware of where the students will end up enrolling,” Ms. de la Torre said. “If the object of the move is to improve their academic performance, there should be an effort to place these students in schools that look different from the ones we are closing.”

Feeling the Pressure

Shawn J. Farr, the chief operating officer of the roughly 8,000-student Harrisburg, Pa. school district, is struggling with such planning now. He came into the district, one of the lowest-performing in the state, in August, at a time when it has been considering closing three of its 10 K-8 schools and potentially reopening new schools under an education management group.

The district has yet to determine the criteria for which schools would be shuttered and how their students would be placed in new or existing schools.

Mr. Farr said the district is only in preliminary planning now, but district officials are confronting the reality that some schools will need radical change. “There’s been a number of things tried over the years, and nothing has led to substantial, sustained gains … We’ve been doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same result,” he said. “It’s a question of, do you want to just maintain the status quo and tweak around the edges, or do you try for something really dramatic for at least a slice of schools, and then see what happens?”

Similar frustration spurred New York City’s decision to phase out 25 of its chronically underperforming schools, according to Paymon Rouhanifard, the director of the 1.1 million-student district’s portfolio planning office. New York bases its closures on a combination of historical achievement, enrollment, and staff-turnover data; in-depth interviews with administrators and other school stakeholders; and information on the school’s growth over time.

“The implementation is challenging,” Mr. Rouhanifard said, adding that the district closes only as many schools as it has new schools ready to replace them. “If we only have 25 credible leaders, what’s the point of phasing out 35 schools?” he said. “We have to think about supply-and-demand dynamics.”

Most schools are phased out over several years to allow the new schools time to hire staff members and build a school culture, though Mr. Rouhanifard said the New York district plans soon to close two low-performing, low-enrolled middle schools completely. It is now working to find transfer spots in better-performing schools for the remaining students.

“We’re looking for higher-quality options,” he said. “If we think this school is just going to be a tiny, corrupted place, let’s just find the students another place to go.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Bad Schools Rarely Get Better—or Shut Down

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