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How Does School Closure Play Into a Student's Success?

A new study sheds doubt on the efficacy of closures as a solution to struggling schools.

A new, nationwide study offers typically middling insights into large-scale school reform: School closures, on average, don’t much help or hurt student performance.

That's the finding of a big report released last week by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which looked at the effects of low-performing school closures on the students who, in turn, become displaced. Researchers collected data from 1,204 traditional public schools and 318 charter schools between 2006 and 2013. A little less than half of the students pushed out of closed schools ended up in higher-performing institutions, the researchers report. The majority moved on to equal or worse schools, and showed weaker academic growth than students who stayed in other low-performing schools that hadn't been shuttered.

The report also found disproportionate closure effects for students living in poverty and black and Hispanic students. The more those demographics contributed to a low-performing school's make-up, the more likely the school was to close, suggesting that already disadvantaged students are the most likely to be affected.

These findings shed doubt on the efficacy of closures as a solution to struggling schools—bad news for an approach that many reformers have pushed, particularly in urban districts. As Michael Hobbes reported in the August/September issue of Pacific Standard, a major school reform movement through the 2000s sought to move students into smaller schools, based on the idea that small communities were essential for learning. Evaluations of these attempts pointed to closures as the strongest route to smaller, better schools:

"Nobody has developed a reliable framework other than closing schools and reopening them," says Tom Vander Ark, one of the architects of the Gates Foundation's small-schools grants in the early 2000s. Every time the foundation opened a new school, he says, the small learning communities worked. When it tried to convert existing schools, however, it ended up in a briar patch of confused parents, resistant teachers, and aloof districts that took years to untangle.

This latest study, however, shows that closing schools is not a sure bet either. The most reliable predictor for students' success in the Stanford study was quality of the schools they moved to—a detail that should be scrutinized before students are displaced.