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Closures in Ohio's Districts Led Most Students to Better Schools, Report Says

The decision to close schools is wrenching: educationally, politically, and emotionally. It's full of possible perils for those impacted by the closures and those making the decisions to close schools.

Example 1: Chicago in 2013, and the months of recriminations that preceded and followed Mayor Rahm Emanuel's decision to shutter nearly 50 neighborhood schools deemed by the city and school administration to be under-performing and under-enrolled.

Example 2: Philadelphia in 2013, and the school board's vote to close 23 schools to get a handle on a gaping budget deficit, followed by profound community dissatisfaction that still lingers.

But a new report released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute makes the case that politicians and educators should take that difficult step and close bad schools because, in the end, students come out on top. The Washington-based think tank examined 120 district and 78 charter school closures in Ohio between the 2005-06 and 2012-13 school year for its study.

The report, "School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio's Urban District and Charter Schools," by Deven Carlson and Stephane Lavertu, professors at the University of Oklahoma and Ohio State University, respectively, focused on closures in Ohio's "Big Eight" urban districts—Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown. Those cities have had to come to terms with significant student enrollment losses in their regular district schools, along with an increase in charters.

Thumbnail image for where students landed.JPG

Among the findings:

  • School closures, on average, resulted in the displaced students moving to better performing schools. Sixty percent of the students from regular district schools moved to schools with higher average reading scores than their closed schools, and 59 percent of students from district schools ended up in district schools with higher year-to-year student achievement than their previous schools. For charter students, 72 percent enrolled in schools with higher reading scores than their old schools had during the last year of operation, while 68 percent ended up in schools with higher year-to-year achievement than their previous schools. 
  • Closing schools, generally, led to positive impacts on displaced students'  performance in math and reading. By the third year in their new schools, regular district students gained, on average, the equivalent of 49 additional days of instruction in reading. In math, they gained the equivalent of 34 days of extra learning by the third year at the new school. Displaced charter school students gained the equivalent of 46 additional days of learning in math, but the statistically insignificant equivalent of two extra days of learning in reading.
  • The effects were even more positive for students who landed in higher-performing schools. District students who ended up in higher-quality schools gained the equivalent of 69 extra days of learning in reading and 63 extra days in math. For charter school students, those gains were 58 additional days in reading and 88 extra days in math by the third year.
  • Displaced students started making gains in the very first year after they relocated, and those continued through the third year.
  • Student re-enrollment patterns differed depending on the sector. Ninety-three percent of regular district students reenrolled in district schools, while 50 percent of displaced charter students went to another charter school.

The huge caveat here was that the impacts of school closures have positive impacts only if the schools that were being shuttered were of lower quality than the remaining ones. 

"The results are consistent with the notion that closure has a  positive impact only if closed schools are of sufficiently low quality compared to other nearby schooling options," the authors wrote in the conclusion.

"If the difference in quality between a student's closing school and the one she subsequently attends is not as large as it was in our study, school closure may not have such a positive effect on a displaced student—a tradeoff that policy makers will need to consider as they seek to increase the quality of educational options," they later wrote.

Research in 2009 from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that while there were few effects—positive or negative—on the displaced students' achievement, those who ended up in schools with higher average achievement in math and reading did better than those who enrolled in lower-performing schools.

Newer research the consortium released this year, which examined the impacts on students of Chicago's massive wave of closures in 2013, showed that the vast majority of students ended up in schools that were higher-performing than their old schools; however, only 21 percent attended level one or top-ranked schools.

Looking at the Ohio results, Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said this week:  "Closing a school is a painful decision, whether it's a neighborhood public school or a charter school. This study should give policymakers, district officials, and charter school authorizers some confidence, though, that it's sometimes the right thing to do for the kids."

In the report's foreword, Petrilli and Aaron Churchill, the institute's Ohio research director, wrote that given the study's findings, policymakers, who are loathe to close bad schools, should take a "tougher line" on closures despite the process being "fraught with controversy and political peril." 

"...Shuttering bad schools might just be a saving grace for students who need the best education they can get," they wrote.

Image source: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

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