Among various school improvement practices, there’s few more disruptive than closing neighborhood schools, even if those schools have been failing students for years. Carol Burris of Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education, for example, writes that school closures “slam poor communities who find beloved institutions shuttered and yanked away.”
But how does this strategy of phasing out chronically-failing schools affect students? A new report in EducationNext by Dr. James J. Kemple of the Steinhardt School at NYU examines student outcomes in New York City between 2003 and 2009 when the Bloomberg Administration, under the direction of then-Chancellor Joel Klein, closed 44 low-performing high schools. (This EdNext report can be regarded as a sequel to Kemple’s 2015 study, “High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students’ Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility.”)
This question is especially pertinent today. Mayor Bill de Blasio has veered sharply away from the Bloomberg/Klein strategy of closing failing schools and giving current students options of staying in their original school during phase-out or transferring to new or higher-performing schools. Instead, de Blasio, has created a “renewal program” that gives 94 failing schools extra resources (about half a billion dollars worth thus far) and a mandate to meet certain metrics. This approach is less disruptive to communities and hailed by UFT. But is it better for kids?
To answer this question Kemple explores “the degree to which a closure affected a range of student outcomes, including graduation rates, mobility, attendance, and academic performance. We analyzed outcomes for 20,600 affected students: 9th-grade students who chose to stay after a closure announcement, 9th graders who transferred elsewhere, and rising 9th graders required to attend different high schools because of a closure.”
His analysis is well worth reading in its entirety but here’s the bottom line:
We found that for students already enrolled in a school that was later closed, the phase-out process did not have a systematic impact, positive or negative, on their attendance or academic performance. This held true whether they remained at the school throughout the phase-out process or transferred to another high school. However, we found that for rising 9th-grade students, the closure of their most likely high-school option led them to enroll in somewhat higher-performing high schools and substantially improved their likelihood of graduating with a New York State Regents diploma.
Our finding…suggest that high school closures in New York City during this particular period produced meaningful benefits for future students while not harming, at least academically, the students most immediately affected by them.
Kemple follows two strands of data: outcomes for students who remained in their: 9th-grade school through the end of their scheduled 12th-grade year, or until they dropped out, and outcomes for students who transferred out. He finds that the pending closing of the school had no statistically significant adverse impacts on students who stayed..But students who transferred out had better outcomes. From his report:
Most notably, closures improved graduation rates for displaced students by 15.1 percentage points—with all of that improvement coming through a 17.4-percentage-point increase in the share of students earning more rigorous Regents diplomas. The closures also produced a net improvement in 9th-grade attendance rates and credit accumulation. Taken together, this is compelling evidence that students benefited from having a low-performing option eliminated from their high-school choice set.
Two important caveats: first, during these school closures New York City was implementing a series of other school reforms like new accountability rules and interventions, so it’s not so easy to isolate the impact of school closures.
And, on a more sober note, Kemple writes,
Although we found that students who likely would have attended the closed schools fared better elsewhere, they still did not fare well. On average, just 56 percent of these students graduated from high school within four years. This highlights deeply entrenched inequalities in New York City schools, where poor students of color lag far behind their more-privileged peers on a wide range of measures. Ultimately, whether or not closures are part of the policy framework in any district, there is a need to invest in vulnerable students and to identify structures and supports that maximize their odds of success.