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.

blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”

ASD CLOSURE

Highest-performing state-run high school to close due to ‘sustainability challenges’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

For the third time, a state-run school will shutter in Memphis.

Officials with GRAD Academy announced Monday that they will close their South Memphis high school at the end of this school year. It is the only Memphis school run by Project GRAD USA, a charter organization based in Houston, as a part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

“This decision was made by Project GRAD USA’s board based on the sustainability challenges Memphis GRAD Academy has faced,” said Daryl Ogden, the charter organization’s CEO, in a statement. “The decision was not based on any performance issues.”

The announcement comes on the heels of major changes to the state’s turnaround district and signals the end of its highest-performing high school. GRAD Academy has the greatest percentage of ASD high students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.  

But the high school has lagged in enrollment. About 535 students were enrolled during the 2016-17 school year compared to 468 at the start of the 2017-18 year, a drop of about 13 percent.  

Ogden said students and parents were informed about the upcoming closure on Monday morning. He added that students will receive support through meetings and information sessions as they prepare to find a new school.

Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent, said the state-run district will support those efforts and help teachers there find new positions.

“We have appreciated GRAD Academy’s work to serve additional high school students and are now focused on ensuring those same students can transition seamlessly this summer into their next school or postsecondary institution,” said Airhart. “We want to create as much stability as possible so students’ progress continues over the course of this semester and into the future.”

Memphis GRAD Academy opened in 2013 as a “new start” school under the state-run district, meaning that it started from scratch and was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district with the charge of turning it around.

KIPP Memphis University Middle School, also a new start in south Memphis under the Achievement School District, shuttered last May. Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary shut down last spring after its operator, Gestalt Community Schools, pulled out of the ASD completely. Now, state legislation passed in 2017 prohibits the Achievement School District from creating new start schools. 

Both KIPP and Gestalt cited lagging enrollment as a challenge to long-term sustainability. Ogden did not immediately respond to questions on whether enrollment was the key issue behind the decision to close GRAD Academy.

The Achievement School District was established by the state in 2012 with the goal of vaulting the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years, but test scores and research have shown it’s fallen short of that initial goal. After the closure of GRAD Academy, the state-run district will run 31 schools in Memphis and Nashville.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.