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School Closures Work if There are Better Schools for Students to go to, Study Finds

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Closing poorly-performing schools or converting them into charter schools can improve student performance, but only under specific conditions, according to a new study published by the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University.

The most important factor in the effectiveness of school closure and takeover policies, researchers found, was whether students ended up in a better-performing school after their original one was closed.

"That might seem obvious ... but the public debate about these policies and most prior studies have generally not considered this," said Doug Harris, the Education Research Alliance's director, in a statement. "Sometimes education leaders intervene in schools that are more effective than they seem, and students end up moving to schools that are struggling even more."

For the study, the researchers looked at 26 schools in New Orleans and five in Baton Rouge, using data on test scores, high school graduation rates, and college entrance rates from the Louisiana Department of Education.

Louisiana has a special state-run district, called the Recovery School District, that has taken over persistently struggling schools in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and converted them into charter schools.

Following Hurricane Katrina, the state swept the majority of New Orleans' locally-run schools into the RSD. As a result, over 90 percent of New Orleans' students now attend a charter school.

Although closing low-performing schools in New Orleans had an overall positive effect on student achievement, those findings did not hold true in Baton Rouge, where students often ended up in lower-performing schools.

That disparity is due partly to the fact that New Orleans tended to shut down only its lowest-performing schools and was more successful at attracting high-performing charter schools.

"[C]an effective charter operators be brought in to take over failing schools? Our results in Baton Rouge, as well as prior evidence in Tennessee, suggest that this is not guaranteed," write the study's authors.

They also observed that charter operators tend to shy away from takeovers, preferring to start new schools.

"This means that the availability of quality charter schools may be more limited even though takeovers may be less disruptive than closures," the study said.

The researchers also found that school closures and takeovers in New Orleans were more beneficial for elementary school students than high schoolers.

While math test scores for elementary students went up by 13 percentile points after a school closure or takeover, those same policies may have lowered college-entry rates for high schoolers.

You can read the full study, "Extreme Measures: When and How School Closures and Charter Takeovers Benefit Students," here.

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