School Closures Are Just One Part of Building a Better Public School System

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The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University released their new study on public school closures titled “Lights Off: Practice and Impact of Closing Low-Performing Schools.” Utilizing student-level data from 26 states, CREDO looked at the performance of schools before they closed and the impact on displaced students after their school closed. Between 2006-07 and 2012-13, CREDO identified 1,522 low-performing, full-time, and non-alternative public schools that closed—of which 1,204 where district schools and 318 were charter schools. Schools were labeled as low-performing if their average math and reading scores were in the bottom 20 percent of their state distribution.

While closing a public school is an undoubtedly difficult decision, a growing number of leaders and policymakers have begun to utilize closures as one small, but sometimes necessary, part of building a better public school system. The report found that the rate of closures increased for both district and charter public schools over the study period. CREDO summarized the changing appetite for closures in stating, “After more than a decade of school-based accountability, policymakers have increasingly realized that there are limits to how much effort should be made to turn around a low-performing school. Many education leaders feel a strong sense of urgency that the life chances of the students enrolled in these schools are diminished with each year of continued operation.”

Key Findings:

  • School turnaround strategies have largely failed. CREDO notes that “the widespread failure of school improvement strategies” coupled with “fifteen years of evidence that alternative strategies have not produced substantial improvement” has led to an acknowledgement among many policymakers that reforming chronically underperforming schools is “unattractive and impractical.”
  • Academic performance improves if displaced students land at a better school—but less than 50 percent do. Displaced students from closed schools made greater academic gains than their peers at low-performing schools that did not close—but only when these students managed to enroll at a better public school. CREDO found that less than half of displaced students were able to do so.
  • There is significant variation across states, districts, and authorizers in their appetite for closing low-performing schools. While more district schools closed over the study period, the rate of closures was higher for charter schools. CREDO notes that school districts “have been more tolerant of low-performing [public schools], as evidenced by lower rates of closures of low-performing schools in sum and by category.” CREDO found that the rate of closures varied significantly across states, districts, and authorizers. The report also found that low-performing elementary schools, urban schools, and schools in several key states were much more likely to face closure than their similarly performing peers.
  • Closures disproportionately happen at high-poverty and high-minority schools that that are low-performing. CREDO found that low-performing schools with a larger share of Black and Hispanic students were more likely to be closed than similarly performing schools with a smaller share of disadvantaged students. In addition, schools with higher levels of poverty faced higher rates of closure than similarly performing schools with wealthier students.
  • Closed schools exhibit clear signals of distress as academic performance suffers and enrollment levels drop. In their last three years, closed schools exhibited steady declines in both academic achievement and academic growth. These schools also saw enrollment declines concurrent with their deteriorating academic performance.

These findings have some obvious and not so obvious policy implications:

  • We need more high-quality options. Too many failing schools are still open, which means we need more high-quality public school options for students in order to build a better public school system, empower students and families, and strengthen neighborhoods and communities. Fostering the creation of new charter schools is one of the best ways to do this, but there are many barriers that inhibit their creation, including: state policies that cap and limit their growth, funding inequities, lack of affordable facilities, and issues with the teacher and leadership pipeline. We must continue to address these barriers in order to increase the number of high-quality public school options.
  • If a school closes, there should be a better option in place for its students. The findings of this study show that it isn’t in a student’s best interest to close a school if there isn’t a better workable option for students and families. The CREDO report found that less than half of displaced students were able to land in a better public school. Displaced students that were not able to find a better public school option performed worse than students who remained in a low-performing school that never closed. Opening new schools or expanding the capacity of higher performing schools is one way to ensure that there are sufficient seats for students displaced by closed schools.
  • We need to continue to work toward closing underperforming charter schools. It is not acceptable to let students languish in a low-performing school that does not meet their needs and diminishes their chances of living a happy, successful, and fulfilling life. The important work of ensuring that there are more high-quality options in place must go hand in hand with the work of closing chronically low-performing schools.
  • More districts should implement well-designed and robust systems of public school choice. When parents and students have options, they are not forced to sit in a low-performing public school. When disadvantaged students are assigned to a low-performing school their situation can feel hopeless and daunting. Robust systems of public school choice provide tremendous benefits to low-income and disadvantaged students while also providing the opportunity for competition and specialization.

School closures are always difficult events. They can be jarring, messy, stressful and painful—but ultimately the fate of young lives is at stake. Every child should have access to a high-quality public school option and no child should have to sit in a chronically underperforming school.

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