Closing schools does not feel good: it’s painful for families, educators, and politicians.
But closing schools, and opening new better schools, can dramatically help low-income children.
Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to a child is for her school to close.
Closing Schools Led to a +.3 SD Gain for Elementary Students in NOLA
In New Orleans, Tulane researchers found that closing schools and creating new better schools led to very significant achievement gains:
Elementary students who attended a failing school started .1 SD behind their matched peers – two years later, these same students were .2SD ahead of their matched peers.
This +.3 SD impact is higher than the impacts of most educational interventions, and it equates to closing about 33% of the black-white student achievement gap.
You Don’t Have to Harm Existing Children for the Sake of Future Children
What’s incredible about these results is that the students whose schools were closed increased their student achievement.
Before seeing this data, my guess would have been that closing schools slightly harms existing students but is much better for future students who get to attend a better school without going through the disruption of closure.
But the NOLA data indicates that it’s possible to help both existing and future students, which should increase your belief in the benefits of school closure.
You Should Not Close Failing Schools and Send Children to Other Failing Schools
In Baton Rouge, school closure did not lead to positive effects. This seems to be because these students enrolled into other failing schools after their original school was closed.
For school closure to work, a city needs to either have open spaces in existing higher-performing schools or be opening new high-quality schools.
There are Good and Bad Ways to Close Schools
School closures are hard, but they can be done with respect. Families deserve to know why their schools are being closed; families should get support (and preference in unified enrollment systems) in finding a better school; and political leaders should ensure that empty school buildings are put to good use for the community.
Unfortunately, in many cities, political officials do not close schools thoughtfully. Instead of being honest with families about the poor performance of the school, they let failing schools linger for year until enrollment dwindles and the school folds academically and financially.
It is Difficult to Scale Something that Causes Political Pain
It is unclear to me whether or not deliberate school closure will scale. Reforms that cause political pain tend not to do well over time.
However, opening new great schools need not be politically painful, which bodes well for continued charter growth.
Of course, continued charter growth can lead to the closure of failing schools – and this is exactly why charter moratoriums have some political support.
Charter moratoriums have the potential to reduce pain for adults even as they inflict pain on children.
Can New Orleans Continue to Close Schools? Should It?
Over the past few years, academic performance has stagnated in New Orleans:
During this time, there has also been a reduction in school closure activity.
So here is an interesting question: has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans ate up most of the low-hanging fruit of closing schools, or has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans has slowed down on closing failing schools?
At this point, I’m not familiar enough with the data to have strong opinions.
But I do worry that New Orleans, especially as it moves toward more local control, may stop using one of the strategies that has proven to dramatically improve the achievement of its students.