Tuesday, June 16, 2015

School Closures and Student Achievement - A Review of the Results

A recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute investigated school closures in Ohio for urban district and charter schools. The report found a general increase in the test scores of displaced students. An academic review of the report finds that, despite the encouraging results, they leave un-addressed core questions about closure policy.

The report, School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio’s Urban District and Charter Schools, was authored by Deven Carlson and St├ęphane Lavertu. It was reviewed for the Think Twice think tank review project by Professor Ben Kirshner of University of Colorado Boulder and Matthew Gaertner a senior research scientist at Pearson’s Research and Innovation Network. Think Twice is a project of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the CU Boulder School of Education.

The Fordham report found that students displaced from closed district schools showed greater gains in math and reading relative to students from non-closed schools, after controlling for student characteristics; students displaced from closed charter schools showed gains in math but not reading. Achievement gains associated with closure were greater for those displaced students who transferred to schools with higher levels of test performance (“higher-performing schools”). The overall achievement growth of students in the receiving schools, however, decreased in the year that they accommodated displaced students.

Although the finding that displaced students showed improvement in test scores is encouraging, several factors limit the policy implications of the study. The report itself cautions that the potential for test score gains is dependent on the availability of higher-performing schools for displaced students, a condition that was only partly met in the Ohio case and is not assured in other major urban districts. Forty percent of students in closed schools transferred to schools that were not higher performing; the study did not separately report the academic performance of this sub-population of students. School closure also raises moral and political questions about who gets to make such consequential decisions, which are not answered by empirical data alone.

The reviewers conclude that the report offers some guidance for policy, though they offer four cautions. First, the study suggests benefits only if higher-quality receiving schools are available. Second, nearby schooling options must be accompanied by a guarantee of reliable transportation options. Third, understanding whether the closure resulted in students attending a truly better school requires looking at more than just test scores.

Finally, the nature of the closed and receiving schools in the Fordham study suggests that closure may have resulted in students leaving schools with relatively greater concentrated poverty and racial isolation and then attending more economically and racially integrated schools. This alternative explanation, which would suggest policy implications for reducing segregation and poverty, was not explored in the study. If integration is the goal, then surely there are other strategies than the blunt instrument of school closure.

The reviewers stress that “until people’s fundamental moral right to be part of decisions that affect their children’s lives are taken seriously, discussions about changes in test score performance are important but insufficient.”

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