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School Closures: Under Studied and Over Demonized?

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Does closing poorly performing schools ultimately help or hurt students? According to a new study commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the answer is help.

But the report also says the impact of school closures has not been studied extensively, even though the charter movement was in part based on the idea that if the independently run public schools fail to perform, they are shut down—something often referred to as the "charter bargain."

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate separately the academic impact of closing charter schools," write Aaron Churchill and Michael Petrilli in the study's forward. Petrilli is the president of the Washington-based think tank, while Churchill directs the Fordham Institute's research in Ohio. "To date, policymakers and practitioners have had precious little research to anchor their thinking and inform their decisionmaking. We could only locate three such studies, and their conclusions differed," they said.

Despite a lack of research on the topic, closing underperforming schools is a major tenet of the charter school movement, and there are concerns that closing schools, even failing ones, hurt students academically. For example, students may not have better schools to switch to, and several studies have shown that student mobility lowers achievement.

However, this new study estimates that Ohio students from shuttered urban district schools gained, on average, 49 extra days of learning in reading, and 34 in math by the end of their third year in a new school. Students from closed charters didn't show any meaningful gains in reading, but gained 46 days in math by year three.

The study looks at achievement data for over 22,000 students attending both district and charter elementary and middle schools that were shut down between the 2005-06 school year and the 2011-12 school year. Most of those students were from low-income black families, and they were compared to students who did not have to switch schools because of a closure. Shuttered schools were closed for a variety of reasons, such as enrollment losses and financial problems, as well as poor academic performance. You can dig into the full findings and methodology here.

Now what does all this mean for policy? The report says, based on its findings, that automatic closure laws are potentially an effective means for raising academic achievement, but that policymakers should reconsider the effectiveness of school turnaround efforts.

Related stories: 

Charter School Authorizers Grapple With Closures

Charter Operators Pull Back From Memphis Turnaround Effort

The Pros, Cons, and Caveats to Automatic Closure Laws


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