Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing bottom-ranked high schools did not harm students at the shuttered schools and benefitted later students who were forced to enroll elsewhere, according to a new study.
The study, which looked at 29 high schools whose closures began during the first half of Bloomberg’s tenure, is sure to rekindle debates over one of the most divisive education policies in the city’s history. It found that students who would have attended the shuttered schools landed at higher-performing schools — in many cases, new small schools that the city created in droves during that 2002 to 2008 period — and ended up with better academic outcomes.
“They were prevented from attending the low-performing schools that were their most likely choice,” said the report’s author, James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a nonpartisan center based at New York University. He said the evidence suggests school closure “may be beneficial, but only if you think about it in the context of providing better options for students and opening up a choice process.”
The new study did not examine how the years-long closure process affected educators, local communities that lost historic institutions, or surrounding schools that absorbed many challenging students. Over the years, the strategy became increasingly unpopular among parents and educators, eventually prompting lawsuits, rancorous public hearings, and scathing criticism by the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, who has largely rejected that approach.
Despite the backlash, high school graduation rates improved under Bloomberg, and this latest study suggests that individual students fared better as a result of the school closures. Former Bloomberg officials seized on the report as another vindication of their approach, while opponents such as the city teachers union downplayed the findings.
Kemple said the closings may have been a “necessary triage” when many large high schools were in a dismal condition. But now that so many of those schools have been replaced, he and other researchers said closure may be less appropriate and less effective as an engine of system-wide change.
“Closing schools is something you only want to do when you’re declaring a state of emergency,” said Leslie Santee Siskin, a research professor at NYU who has studied efforts to reform the city’s high schools but was not involved in the new report. Each closure triggers disruptions that should not be dismissed just because they can be hard to quantify, she added.
“There are costs that don’t get measured in tracking academic performance,” she said.
The city’s four-year graduation rate was 51 percent when Bloomberg took office in 2002, according to the city’s traditional calculations, with many high schools considered unsafe and dysfunctional. His response was to “phase out” 157 schools during his three terms as mayor and create hundreds of replacements, including more than 200 new high schools. (Previous studies have found that certain small high schools outperform other schools, but this study was the first to examine the effects of the city’s school closures themselves.)
High schools closed during the first half of the Bloomberg administration include:
- 2003-04: John Jay High School
- 2004-05: South Bronx High School
- 2005-06: Martin Luther King High School, Morris High School, High School of Redirection
- 2006-07: Seward Park High School, Park West High School, Manhattan Institute for Academic & Visual Arts, William H. Taft High School, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Prospect Heights High School, Campus Academy for Science and Math, George W. Wingate High School, Bushwick High School
- 2007-08: Harry Van Arsdale High School, Erasmus Campus – Humanities, Erasmus Campus – Business/Technology, Thomas Jefferson High School, Springfield Gardens High School
- 2008-09: Walton High School, Evander Childs High School, Comprehensive Night High School of Brooklyn
The targeted schools were among the worst in the city on several measures, yet other schools with similar records evaded closure, the report found. The shuttered schools served a percentage of poor students and ones with special needs comparable to the city average, but a far higher share of students who had struggled in middle school.
The closure process, which was fiercely resisted by the teachers union and many community groups, was widely considered demoralizing for educators and destabilizing for some students. It slowly drained the schools of students and funding, causing advanced courses and enrichment programs to vanish, as new schools took their place.
Yet the report found that the process did not have a statistically significant impact — either positive or negative — on the academic performance or attendance of students who remained at the schools during their multi-year phaseouts. It did prompt a disproportionate number of students to transfer to different schools, but not to drop out of school entirely.
Those students who switched to different schools did worse academically than students who stayed at the closing schools, the report found. That finding confirms the fear of many teachers that students who fled closing schools stumbled in their new surroundings, and those who failed to graduate before their schools closed faced uncertain futures.
“There’s a whole bunch of kids who fell through the cracks,” said Stefanie Siegel, a former teacher at Paul Robeson High School, which closed in 2014 and was not one of the schools analyzed in the report.
After the closure of the 29 high schools featured in the report, incoming freshmen found a variety of other options.
On average, the students who would have attended each shuttered school fanned out to 82 different schools, though nearly 45 percent enrolled in schools in the same buildings as those that closed, the study found. The schools where they landed tended to be smaller than the closed schools, with higher graduation rates and students who had performed better in middle school.
At those schools, the students’ attendance and graduation rates were higher than their peers’ had been at the schools that closed. However, the report points out that their outcomes still were not great: even in those different schools, only 56 percent of the students graduated within four years.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew highlighted that part of the report, as well as its finding that some low-performing schools that dodged closure during that period managed to improve. For those reasons, he said in a statement Wednesday, the “report shows that closing schools is no route to real progress for our students.”
But two of Bloomberg’s former school chiefs released their own statement saying that the latest study added to a “a steady drumbeat of research” that shows his strategy of closing troubled schools and opening small ones worked.
“Today’s study from NYU shows thousands of students graduated who otherwise would not have because the Mayor chose to focus on what was right for kids,” Joel Klein and Dennis Walcott said.
De Blasio has disparaged that approach, saying Bloomberg opted to condemn schools rather than fix them, treating closure as a “panacea.” In a major reversal, he has stopped targeting low-performing schools for closure, and instead selected 94 of them to receive nearly $400 million in assistance over three years through his “Renewal” turnaround program.
Still, he has been reluctant to completely abandon closure, which Bloomberg’s allies and some state officials have argued is a crucial tool for accountability. So he has insisted that he will consider shuttering schools that flounder despite the city’s help.
“As the Mayor and Chancellor have made clear, we must give schools aggressive supports to turnaround, including an extended school day, community school services, targeted teacher training and curriculum overhauls,” said education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye, “but we will also not hesitate to close schools that have the opportunity to improve and do not.”
Geoff Decker contributed reporting.