Closing schools doesn’t always bring intended results
(Calif.) Earlier this week, the Oakland School Board voted to shutter a middle school campus, the first of what might be more than 20 site closures, in an effort to bridge a $30 million budget gap.
Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said the move would result in the district providing better educational services because more resources could be concentrated in fewer schools.
But that logic drew a quick rebuttal from officials at the National Education Policy Center, a research think tank based at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The center published an in-depth look at the relationship between school closures and student performance in 2017, which found closures produced few good results.
“School closures as a strategy for remedying student achievement in low-performing schools is a high-risk/low-gain strategy that fails to hold promise with respect to either student achievement or non-cognitive well-being,” authors of the report said. “It causes political conflict and incurs hidden costs for both districts and local communities, especially low-income communities of color that are differentially affected by school closings. It stands to reason that in many instances, students, parents, local communities, district and state policymakers may be better off investing in persistently low-performing schools rather than closing them.”
The analysis was undertaken by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of California, Berkeley. At least part of the impetus for their report was the growing use of school closure as an intervention tool for low-performing schools.
As part of a policy platform being pushed by the Obama administration, states and districts were offered millions in federal support through the School Improvement Grant. The grants required administrators undertake one of several restructuring options, one of which was school closure.
While the problems facing Oakland officials have more to do with declining enrollment and funding efficiency, the rational for closing schools to improve performance is similar.
“The logic of closing schools for reasons of student performance goes like this: by closing low-performing schools and sending their students to better-performing schools, student achievement will improve,” the authors of the 2017 report said. “The reality, our review of research finds, is more complex and nuanced.”
The authors based their opinions on a number of prior studies in several jurisdictions including Chicago, Detroit, New York and Washington D.C.
Among the findings:
- Student achievement fell in the year directly leading up to school closure.
They found an unintended “fadeout” effect that ranged from a drop in test scores to changes in dropout and graduation rates at the high school level.
- Students were not necessarily transferred to better schools.
Only 6 percent of students in a Chicago study were moved to a school in the top quartile of the district; 40 percent went to schools that were already on probation; and 42 percent went to one of the lowest performing schools still left open.
- Closing schools still costs money.
In Detroit, where nearly 200 schools were closed since 2000, millions of dollars were spent on boarding up buildings and securing empty classrooms. The district spent millions more clearing out school buildings and maintaining supplies.