the consequences of closure

Schools with more students of color are more likely to be shut down — and three other things to know about a big new study

Student protested school closures in 2010.

Shutting down schools with low test scores doesn’t help student learning and disproportionately affects students of color, according to one of the largest studies ever of school closures.

The results, released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, indicate that closing a school doesn’t help student achievement as much as advocates have hoped — or harm it as much as some have feared.

The findings, the researchers write, “call for caution in implementing this bold policy measure.”

The study examines school closures in 26 states, from 2006 to 2013. Shuttering schools — both for financial and performance reasons — has become a common, contested phenomenon in a number of cities. High-profile education leaders like Joel Klein in New York City and John White in Louisiana have pushed school closures as a necessary, even moral, response to low performance.

Here are four things we learned from the report.

1. Closures don’t help (or substantially hurt) student achievement on average.

Overall, being displaced from a low-performing school had virtually no effect on student test scores. This undercuts rhetoric that closing “failing” schools will help students, as well as that it will dramatically harm their academic trajectories.

One caveat is that the study defines low performance of schools using absolute test scores — not how much a school’s students improve, a metric most researchers say is better for measuring school quality. Past studies in New Orleans and Ohio have found closures based on academic growth do help student learning.

Another caution is that it’s unclear just how similar the schools being compared to one another actually are. The researchers compare displaced students’ performance to students in low-achieving schools that were not shut down. If the low-scoring schools that remained open were on a more positive trajectory or had just hired a dynamic new principal, for example, that might skew the comparison.

2. When students move to higher-achieving schools they do better, but when they switch to similar schools they do worse.

Unsurprisingly, students who switched from a lower-achieving school that closed to a significantly higher achieving school — about half of the displaced students — saw their scores improve, relative to similar students whose schools weren’t closed. This is consistent with common sense and past research.

However, switching to a similarly achieving school caused a decline in test scores, perhaps because of the disruption of moving schools.

And switching to a school with lower test scores led to even bigger drops in achievement. This was relatively rare, though — in part because few schools had significantly worse test scores than the ones that closed.

3. Schools that serve more black and Hispanic students are more likely to be shut down.

Critics of school closures have long argued that they disproportionately impact — even target — black and Hispanic communities. The latest research gives some credence to this view.

It shows that schools serving a larger share of students of color were somewhat more likely to be shut down than schools with fewer students of color and similar achievement. There was also some evidence that higher poverty schools were more likely to be closed.

4. Lower-achieving charter schools are more likely to close than traditional public schools.

The study finds that 5.5 percent of low-scoring charter schools were closed down from 2006 to 2013, as compared to 3.2 percent of district schools.

One notable exception: Michigan. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has argued that traditional schools there lack accountability because, she said, none has ever been closed for low performance. But many have shut down, presumably for other reasons. In the time period studied, 9 percent of low-achieving Michigan district schools were shuttered, compared to less than 6 percent of low-scoring charter schools.

Four key questions the study doesn’t answer:

1. Why do low-achieving schools with more students of color close more often?

One explanation is simple: racism and lack of political power. School closures are controversial and often draw serious opposition. Students and families of color may be less successful in opposing closures if policymakers are less sympathetic to their claims.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which advocates for closing persistently low-performing charters, implicitly acknowledged that possibility.

“We are especially troubled by the report’s observation of different school closure patterns based on race, ethnicity, and poverty,” president Greg Richmond said in a statement. “These differences were present among both charter schools and traditional public schools and serve as a wake-up call to examine our practices to ensure all schools and students are being treated equitably.”

But the study can’t explain why closures happen more often in certain communities. For instance, if low-achieving schools with many white students are especially likely to be located in rural areas where there are fewer alternative schools, that may help explain the results.

Another explanation could be that the expansion of charter schools in high-minority areas puts additional fiscal and enrollment pressure on districts and charters — as charters expand, other schools may close as their enrollment declines.

What is clear, though, is that black and low-income students and communities are especially likely to have a school closed.

2. How do school closures affect the students who would have gone on to attend schools that were shut down?

The study examined students who were directly affected by closures, not future students who might have otherwise attended a closed school. In one of the only studies to examine this question, those “future” students who would have otherwise attended a closed school were significantly more likely to graduate high school.

3. How do school closures affect things other than test scores?

The latest study only looks at test scores. But critics argue that shuttering a school negatively affects a community, economically and socially, and harms students in ways beyond academic achievement. Some past studies have examined student attendance, high school graduation, and college enrollment, generally showing mixed results.

4. How do school closures affect students at receiving schools?

The CREDO report doesn’t look at how an influx of new students affect the new schools they move to. Past studies have found evidence that receiving schools see a dip in student achievement as a result. This points to potential unintended consequence of closures, even when the directly affected students benefit.

This story has been updated to clarify that the effects on achievement were estimated by comparing students in closed schools to similar students at schools that were not closed.

School Closings

An Indianapolis high school doubled in size after 3 schools closed. Here’s how it’s coping.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Orchestra and other music offerings have expanded at Shortridge.

In the hours before the first week at Shortridge High School came to a close, about 20 students in the advanced choir class were dashing back and forth across the room. On one side of the classroom, the aim was to guess which student held the key. On the other, it was to pass the key in secret.

For teacher Daria Weingartner, however, the goal of this game had little to do with singing. Rather, it was about bringing together a class with students who’ve come from high schools across the city.

Last school year, Shortridge had fewer than 450 students. This fall, enrollment swelled to more than 1,000, following the closure of three of Indianapolis Public School’s other high school campuses. As a result, Shortridge educators like Weingartner spent their first week trying to build a sense of community at a school where about two-thirds of students are new — including many of the upperclassmen in the advanced choir class.

“It’s OK that we’re all coming from different places,” Weingartner said. “But we’re here now, and we need to build that sense of community and family.”

Weingartner herself is new to Shortridge. She’s been teaching for seven years, but last year, she worked at Warren Central High School.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Shortridge choir was focused on community building games Friday afternoon.

When Shortridge Principal Shane O’Day learned last fall that the historic midtown high school would stay open and three other district high schools would close, he almost immediately began looking for more teachers. At high schools across the district, 418 educators were displaced during the restructuring. Over the past several months, Shortridge — preparing to welcome hundreds more students and to house Broad Ripple High School’s displaced arts programs — hired about 60 new staff members, O’Day said.

This fall, the school added classes in some subjects, such as dance, sculpture, and photography, and it expanded offerings in others, such as music and theater.

The change is part of a broad restructuring that is transforming high schools in the state’s largest district. Last year, Indianapolis Public Schools officials shuttered three of the seven campuses in the district. The redesign was intended to help the district save money, by closing underused campuses and creating larger schools, and to improve academic quality at the four remaining schools. The district also added new focus areas — such as health sciences, business, and construction — eliminated neighborhood boundaries for high school, and encouraged students to choose schools based on their interests.

The changes at high schools could be just the beginning for the district, which may soon be forced to close more than a dozen additional schools to save money.

Shortridge expanded from a dedicated magnet for International Baccalaureate, which allows students to earn college credits in high school. It continues to offer I.B. diplomas, but there are also students focusing on the arts. Students can take courses in both focus areas, regardless their specialization, according to O’Day.

Ultimately, Shortridge staff are focused on creating a school culture that is welcoming of students regardless of where they come from, O’Day said.

“When we talk about culture, it’s a lot of listening,” he said. “When you allow students themselves to share their stories — talk about their backgrounds, their passions, their interests, their hopes, what they want to do to make their world a better place — that’s exciting.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Shortridge is expanding arts offerings, including by offering dance classes.

Sophomore Shayna Bailey is one of the students who will likely benefit from the school’s increasingly diverse academic offerings. A self-described “choir and drama girl” in Weingartner’s choir class, Bailey is also in her second year in the Shortridge I.B. program.

This year, the school is a lot more crowded, she said. But “I’m a very social person, so it just means a lot more friends for me,” Bailey said. “I get to learn more things about new people.”

For the students who are new to the school, the transition can be more challenging.

Senior Marqueshia Allen was so nervous about her first day at Shortridge, she thought about skipping altogether. She had been a student at Broad Ripple High School since she was in sixth grade. She was devastated when that school was closed and she realized she would have to transfer for her senior year.

But Allen was determined to find the good in her new school. By Friday of her first week, she was at ease at Shortridge.

What stands out is how welcoming teachers and students have been, she said. “Everybody is so open. They are willing to help you out,” Allen said. “It’s actually been amazing.”

new schools

Neighbors at odds heading into Near South High School hearing

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Elisabeth Greer, a parent and leader at the National Teachers Academy, speaking at a press conference in June about parents' lawsuit to stop CPS from displacing NTA with a new high school.

On Tuesday, Near South Side residents divided over the opening of a high school on the site of a popular elementary school have a chance to let district officials know how they feel about new attendance boundaries.

The 1,200 student Near South High School would open for the 2019-20 school year by the corner of State Street and Cermak Road, displacing National Teachers Academy, a top-ranked, mostly African-American elementary school whose supporters recently sued to halt Chicago Public Schools’ plans. The lawsuit alleges that the decision to close NTA violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

Members of the Gap community, a northeastern stretch of Bronzeville, had been left out of the proposed high school plan. But on Friday, CPS released an updated boundary map that included the attendance area for Pershing Elementary School, a neighborhood school serving Gap families.

“We’re pleased that they’ve listened to our outcry that we wanted to be included,” said Leonard McGee, president of the GAP Community Organization, which supports the new high school. “We’re still pushing until the board vote is done; anything can happen, we’re not resting on our laurels thinking it’s a done deal.”

He said his organization was “petitioning for children who aren’t even born, for kids who don’t even live in the area yet.”

“We’re looking at this high school as an opportunity for kids who aren’t even born yet to have access to a quality education, and that’s all it’s about,” he said, adding that the school would provide a high-quality option in a racially integrated setting.

At a public hearing last month, residents griped that the school would only serve 1,200 students, saying the need was greater and expressing fears of overcrowding. In a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago, CPS said it determined that the boundary changes could be done without risking overcrowding. CPS spokesman Michael Passman said families “in the Near South Community,” have wanted a high-quality high school for years, and that the district is focused on opening the new high school to as many families as possible.

“We are pleased to be able to provide more Near South families with guaranteed access to a high-quality continuum of schools from pre-K through high school, and we look forward to continuing to work with the community to ensure the new school meets the needs of all local families,” Passman said.

But the boundary change doesn’t satisfy National Teachers Academy parents who are suing the district to stop the school’s closure, said Elisabeth Greer, chair of the academy’s Local School Council and the parent of two students at the school.

PHOTO: Chicago Public Schools
Proposed boundaries for Near South High School. Families living in boundaries for Armor and Holden Elementary schools will receive preference for available seats, according to CPS.

Greer called the new boundaries “CPS’ sad attempt to try to garner more support for this plan” among black parents on the Near South Side.

“This is a decision by CPS to listen to some voices in the community but not others,” Greer said, claiming that the “thousands” who support keeping National Teachers Academy open dwarf neighborhood proponents of the new high school. “This is what CPS does, pit communities against each other. It’s been primarily African-Americans who have stood up against this plan, and this is an attempt to split the black community and get some African-Americans to [support CPS].”

McGee disagreed, characterizing Greer’s statement as “trying to divide the community itself.”

“I’m not getting into why CPS did what they did,” he said. “I’m only advocating for what’s a good educational opportunity for people in the neighborhood.”

But, Greer wants to be clear: “We are not at war with each other in the community.”

“We don’t plan to go in tomorrow night and be angry with the Gap community, we’re going to be there to talk to our neighbors,” she said. “We shouldn’t be fighting over scraps, we should be demanding that our community deserves something bigger and better like a new high school from the ground up.”

While Leonard also said he’d be at the meeting to hear from other concerned community members, he takes issue with Greer’s framing, particularly the word “scraps.”

“Let me have my scraps, and let me decide the value of them,” he said. “In fact, to say that is an insult to me and my community.”

Last month at a public hearing, National Teachers Academy supporters spoke against the project, while residents of Chinatown spoke in favor, arguing that they’ve pushed the district for years for an open-enrollment high school in the area and expressing concerns about the quality and safety of current neighborhood schools.

But at the Chicago Board of Education meeting on July 23, at least one Chinatown community leader blasted CPS.Debbie Liu of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community mentioned Chinatown’s long history of advocating for a high school, but said CPS has gone about meeting those demands the wrong way.

“A 1,200-student capacity is only a stopgap measure compared to projected growth in Chinatown and nearby communities,” she said. “The turmoil we have in the Near South could have been prevented with a more transparent, long-term, equitable planning process.”

Some of the areas zoned for the new high school currently feed Phillips High School, which is under-enrolled, according to CPS.

Community residents will have a chance to chime in about the updated boundary on Tuesday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Second Presbyterian Church, 1936 S. Michigan Ave.