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Closing Schools Can Boost Achievement

Whenever schools are closed for repeated underperformance, there is invariably pushback from parents whose children are affected.  I understand their concerns, but a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute provides evidence that the policy can be beneficial ("Reviewed Ohio Study Suggests Possible Benefits of School Closure on Test Scores," National Education Policy Center, Jun. 15).

After controlling for student characteristics, researchers found that students displaced from closed schools posted greater gains in math and reading compared with students from non-closed schools.  But there are a few caveats.  The gains were for displaced students who transferred to schools with higher levels of test performance.  Moreover, the overall achievement growth of students in the receiving schools decreased in the year that they accomodated the displaced students.

This dual finding calls into question the facile assumption about the closure policy.  For one thing, parents in the receiving school in all likelihood will feel that their own children's education is being negatively affected by the influx.  Many parents have made great sacrifices to buy their homes or rent apartments based largely on the quality of the neighborhood schools.  If they view low test scores in the incoming students as the primary indicator of their ability, they are bound to protest.

For another, the closure policy is predicated on the assumption that better schools are available for displaced students. If they are not, or if reliable transportation cannot be provided, this leaves students abandoned.  They can no longer return to their shuttered school and they can't find a better school close to home.  These are questions that strike at the very core of the policy.

The recent resignation of Cami Anderson as superintendent of the Newark, N.J. public school system is an example of how controversial school closings can be ("Cami Anderson, Picked by Christie, Is Out as Newark Schools Superintendent," The New York Times, Jun. 23).  Schools in Newark have been under state control for 20 years because of their woeful performance. To regain local control, Anderson instituted One Newark, which replaced the tradition of neighborhood schools with  an enrollment system that assigned students by lottery to traditional as well as charter schools.  But it resulted in school closings, and she resigned.

What's the lesson to be learned? If schools cannot improve despite efforts made over the years, then I think we do students in those schools a grave disservice by keeping them open.  But before closing them, it's imperative to ensure that students have a seat in a school that in fact is an impovement over what they attended before. And parents must be made a part of the decision-making process.

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