Do Failing Schools Deserve a Second Chance?

Studies show tests, achievement don't improve when kids are forced to transfer out of underperforming schools.

Many experts argue that school closure should only be used as a last resort in extreme circumstances. (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Until recently, San Francisco’s impoverished Bayview neighborhood was home to a single middle school: Willie Brown Jr. College Preparatory Academy. In 2010, only 15 percent of students scored proficient in reading and 17 percent in math. Discipline problems were rampant, teacher turnover was high, and enrollment plummeted to one third of capacity. Last June, the school locked its doors for the summer and never reopened them. As part of a federal grant program to fix failing schools, the district chose to close Willie Brown, disappointing many students, teachers, and families.

“You just pretty much broke up the whole community,” said Sheronda Perkins, mom to twin sixth graders and President of the PTA. “It was like a close-knit family.”

Was shutting Willie Brown really the best option for students? According to recent research, closing even the most underperforming schools can have unintended negative consequences.

TakePart contacted Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, to learn more about the impact of school closure on student achievement.

WHEN THE GRASS ISN’T GREENER

In a study to be published by the Journal of Urban Economics, Zimmer and his colleagues John Engberg, Brian Gill, and Gema Zamarro examined an anonymous urban district that shut down several low-performing schools. 

Students’ attendance rates and test scores were measured before and after their transfer to surrounding institutions.

A school building does not cause low achievement

Zimmer told TakePart that even though student achievement was low at the original failing schools, test scores and attendance fell even further during students’ first year at the new ones. 

The only exception was when students transferred to significantly better schools, but even in those cases, test scores remained the same.

“Our research suggests that students would have to transfer to much higher performing schools before they would experience positive results,” Zimmer concluded. “Therefore, at least in the particular district we examined, it may not be an effective strategy for raising student performance for most students.”

Marisa de la Torre, associate director at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, found similar results in her study of 44 Chicago schools closed between 2001 and 2006. 

Most students were re-enrolled in equally low performing institutions, and several years later, were still achieveing at the same level.

“If you want the [closure] model to be successful, it’s going to crucially depend on having a supply of better schools and making an intentional effort to enroll the displaced students,” Torre said.

Given the emotional investment communities have in their schools, the expense and heartache involved in the shutting-down process, and the questionable improvement in subsequent academic outcomes, many experts argue that school closure should only be used as a last resort in extreme circumstances.

“A school building does not cause low achievement,” Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, pointed out in EdWeek. “Bringing new leaders, new staff, and new programs with strong evidence of effectiveness, seem more likely to benefit struggling schools.”

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