Closing schools gives mixed results on performance, savings

Closing schools gives mixed results on performance, savings

(Colo.) About 2 percent of the nation’s schools are closed every year either because of declining enrollment or the result of lingering academic problems.

But a new study out from the National Education Policy Center suggests that district leaders looking to either save money or improve student performance need to carefully evaluate the action because outcomes on both options are mixed.

Prior to adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act, fewer than 1,000 schools were closed in the U.S. annually. But because NCLB introduced new goals for states and local officials to “turn-around” the lowest performing schools, the option of simply closing the doors and transferring the students to another site became a lot more common.

Researchers from NEPC found that after NCLB was on the books, the number of school closed jumped to as many as 2,000 in a single year.

To gain a perspective on the issue, the team—Gail L. Sunderman of the University of Maryland; Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop both from UC Berkeley—looked at four studies that investigated why schools were closed and how transferred students did after their original school shutdown.

“Closure decisions were based on a mix of factors, such as the overall condition of the school buildings, location and enrollment,” the study authors said. “But district officials often chose to make student achievement a major factor in determining which schools to close.”

One study of more than 200 elementary and middle schools in Michigan found that student performance in math fell during the last year the site was open compared to the prior three years. Implicit with the findings was that “school closures caused significant stress in the lives of students and teachers, with negative effects on both math and reading scores during the last year of school operations.”

Transferred students tended to experience a drop in performance the first year at a new school, but scores improved in years two and three. Those gains, however, were “not significantly different from their expected level of learning had those students not transferred.”

While the intention is to transfer students to higher preforming schools, the research showed that doesn’t always happen. A study of 18 elementary school closures in Chicago found that only 6 percent of the students were sent to the system’s highest performing schools. About 40 percent went to schools that were also on academic probation, and 42 percent were enrolled in the city’s lowest performance quartile.

It is also noteworthy the mixed results districts have experienced when they’ve closed schools just to save money. A study undertaken by the Pew Charitable Trust that looked at the outcome of about 500 properties closed by 12 large urban districts since 2005 found that, while the districts were able to sell, lease of reuse 267 of the sites, they still owned 300 of them, which were still vacant.

In Detroit, where nearly 200 schools have been closed since 2000, the school district still spends millions of dollars a year in security and management costs. Those dollars come on top of the expenses that came with clearing out the abandoned classrooms, accommodating the transfer of students and teachers as well as storage of instructional materials. These so-called “hidden costs” amounted to $4.5 million in 2008.