the consequences of closure

Schools with more students of color are more likely to be shut down — and three other things to know about a big new study

Student protested school closures in 2010.

Shutting down schools with low test scores doesn’t help student learning and disproportionately affects students of color, according to one of the largest studies ever of school closures.

The results, released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, indicate that closing a school doesn’t help student achievement as much as advocates have hoped — or harm it as much as some have feared.

The findings, the researchers write, “call for caution in implementing this bold policy measure.”

The study examines school closures in 26 states, from 2006 to 2013. Shuttering schools — both for financial and performance reasons — has become a common, contested phenomenon in a number of cities. High-profile education leaders like Joel Klein in New York City and John White in Louisiana have pushed school closures as a necessary, even moral, response to low performance.

Here are four things we learned from the report.

1. Closures don’t help (or substantially hurt) student achievement on average.

Overall, being displaced from a low-performing school had virtually no effect on student test scores. This undercuts rhetoric that closing “failing” schools will help students, as well as that it will dramatically harm their academic trajectories.

One caveat is that the study defines low performance of schools using absolute test scores — not how much a school’s students improve, a metric most researchers say is better for measuring school quality. Past studies in New Orleans and Ohio have found closures based on academic growth do help student learning.

Another caution is that it’s unclear just how similar the schools being compared to one another actually are. The researchers compare displaced students’ performance to students in low-achieving schools that were not shut down. If the low-scoring schools that remained open were on a more positive trajectory or had just hired a dynamic new principal, for example, that might skew the comparison.

2. When students move to higher-achieving schools they do better, but when they switch to similar schools they do worse.

Unsurprisingly, students who switched from a lower-achieving school that closed to a significantly higher achieving school — about half of the displaced students — saw their scores improve, relative to similar students whose schools weren’t closed. This is consistent with common sense and past research.

However, switching to a similarly achieving school caused a decline in test scores, perhaps because of the disruption of moving schools.

And switching to a school with lower test scores led to even bigger drops in achievement. This was relatively rare, though — in part because few schools had significantly worse test scores than the ones that closed.

3. Schools that serve more black and Hispanic students are more likely to be shut down.

Critics of school closures have long argued that they disproportionately impact — even target — black and Hispanic communities. The latest research gives some credence to this view.

It shows that schools serving a larger share of students of color were somewhat more likely to be shut down than schools with fewer students of color and similar achievement. There was also some evidence that higher poverty schools were more likely to be closed.

4. Lower-achieving charter schools are more likely to close than traditional public schools.

The study finds that 5.5 percent of low-scoring charter schools were closed down from 2006 to 2013, as compared to 3.2 percent of district schools.

One notable exception: Michigan. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has argued that traditional schools there lack accountability because, she said, none has ever been closed for low performance. But many have shut down, presumably for other reasons. In the time period studied, 9 percent of low-achieving Michigan district schools were shuttered, compared to less than 6 percent of low-scoring charter schools.

Four key questions the study doesn’t answer:

1. Why do low-achieving schools with more students of color close more often?

One explanation is simple: racism and lack of political power. School closures are controversial and often draw serious opposition. Students and families of color may be less successful in opposing closures if policymakers are less sympathetic to their claims.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which advocates for closing persistently low-performing charters, implicitly acknowledged that possibility.

“We are especially troubled by the report’s observation of different school closure patterns based on race, ethnicity, and poverty,” president Greg Richmond said in a statement. “These differences were present among both charter schools and traditional public schools and serve as a wake-up call to examine our practices to ensure all schools and students are being treated equitably.”

But the study can’t explain why closures happen more often in certain communities. For instance, if low-achieving schools with many white students are especially likely to be located in rural areas where there are fewer alternative schools, that may help explain the results.

Another explanation could be that the expansion of charter schools in high-minority areas puts additional fiscal and enrollment pressure on districts and charters — as charters expand, other schools may close as their enrollment declines.

What is clear, though, is that black and low-income students and communities are especially likely to have a school closed.

2. How do school closures affect the students who would have gone on to attend schools that were shut down?

The study examined students who were directly affected by closures, not future students who might have otherwise attended a closed school. In one of the only studies to examine this question, those “future” students who would have otherwise attended a closed school were significantly more likely to graduate high school.

3. How do school closures affect things other than test scores?

The latest study only looks at test scores. But critics argue that shuttering a school negatively affects a community, economically and socially, and harms students in ways beyond academic achievement. Some past studies have examined student attendance, high school graduation, and college enrollment, generally showing mixed results.

4. How do school closures affect students at receiving schools?

The CREDO report doesn’t look at how an influx of new students affect the new schools they move to. Past studies have found evidence that receiving schools see a dip in student achievement as a result. This points to potential unintended consequence of closures, even when the directly affected students benefit.

This story has been updated to clarify that the effects on achievement were estimated by comparing students in closed schools to similar students at schools that were not closed.

a chalkbeat cheat sheet

17 studies that tell us something about how school closures affect students

Crispus Attucks Elementary School, which was closed years ago is boarded up in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images)

What happens to students when you close a school?

We wrote about that here.

We know it can be useful to know where those conclusions come from, too. So we’ve collected the studies we examined on the topic below. They’re listed in order of how many schools they look at, with the national study first.

National (26 states), 1,522 schools closed between 2006 and 2012 (Chalkbeat story)

  • What happened to students in schools that closed? “Charter closure students had weaker growth than [similar students] from low-performing charter schools that remained open… [Traditional public school] closure students also made less academic progress than did [comparison students] …. The relative negative growth of charter and TPS closure students suggests that closure of low-performing schools somewhat hampered academic progress for the average student.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “Closure students who attended better schools tended to make greater academic gains than did their peers from not-closed low-performing schools in the same sector, while those ending up in worse or equivalent schools had weaker academic growth than their peers in comparable low- performing settings.”

Michigan, 246 elementary and middle schools closed between 2006 and 2009

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “For reading, students experience no significant change in test scores at the time of displacement. For mathematics, students in closed schools are falling behind their peers in the district prior to closure, and this dip prior to displacement is not the result of formal school closing announcements. Student achievement in mathematics remains low in the first year in their new school, but improves markedly thereafter. In the second year following displacement, student test scores in mathematics are substantially higher than they were in the year prior to being displaced.”
  • Were students at schools that absorb new students from closed schools affected? “School closings create modest negative spillover effects onto students in receiving schools, however, and these effects persist for multiple years.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “In mathematics, students displaced from relatively low-performing schools experience gains in achievement compared to their prior performance at the closed school. In addition, the estimated effects on receiving schools vary with respect to the performance level of the closed schools. If students are displaced from relatively low-performing schools, the spillover effects are larger in magnitude.”

Ohio (8 cities), 198 elementary and middle schools closed between 2006 and 2012

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “The results indicate that the closure of a district-run school increased the reading and math achievement of displaced students by 0.073 and 0.065 standard deviations, respectively …by the third year after closure. The achievement effects differ somewhat for students displaced by charter-school closure. … The closure of charter schools increased math achievement by about 0.087 standard deviation…by the third year after closure. In reading achievement, however, our analysis indicates that the initial positive impact of closure becomes negligible by the third year after closure.”
  • Were students at schools that absorb new students from closed schools affected? “The quality of the schools that take in displaced students declines by 0.10 and 0.18 standard deviations—for district and charter schools, respectively—before and after absorbing students and staff from closing schools.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “For both school types, the achievement gains associated with closure were, unsurprisingly, significantly greater if a displaced student subsequently attended a school of higher quality than her closed school.”

Chicago, 47 elementary schools closed in 2013

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “Students from closed schools experienced a long-term negative impact on their math test scores; slightly lower and short-term effects for reading test scores. Reading test scores rose back to expected levels the second year post-closings for students from closed schools, but their test scores did not improve at a higher pace than students in similar schools. However, the gap in math test scores remained for four years post-closings, the last year in our analyses… All students affected by school closures had no changes in absences or suspension rates…..Other learning measures, such as core GPA, were not affected immediately after closures, although we found some negative effects three and four years post-closures for students from closed schools.
  • Were students at schools that absorb new students from closed schools affected? “Students from [receiving] schools had lower than expected reading test scores the first year after the merger….This was a short-term effect, as reading test scores rebounded the next year.”

Milwaukee, 33 schools that include high school grades closed between 2006 and 2013

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “I find that, after closure, students’ GPA and attendance are negatively affected in the short term (1-2 years after closure) declining by approximately 10% and 4% respectively. Standardized test scores are not significantly affected, but this is due, at least partly, to lower statistical power for that part of the analysis. The negative effects on GPA and attendance fade over time, but do not quite reach their pre-closure levels three years after the closure, which, for many students is past the point they would be enrolled in high school. Importantly, students who experience a closure while in high school are less likely to graduate high school and less likely to attend college. These effects are large showing a 6% to 10% reduction in high school graduation and a 3% to 5% reduction in college attendance.”
  • Were students at schools that absorb new students from closed schools affected? “I find some evidence that test scores of students in recipient schools are negatively affected, but that GPA, attendance, and disciplinary incidents are not.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “High school graduation variables suggest that students are less likely to graduate if they attend a worse quality school after closure than if they attend a better quality school. However, students who graduate are less likely to go to college if they attend a “better” school.”

Washington, D.C., 32 elementary and middle schools closed in 2008

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “The resulting estimates of the investigation show statistically significant, albeit temporary, declines in student achievement in the year of the closure announcement and in the first year following the closures. However, no detectable differences in student achievement are observed in the second year after closures. Student performance drops in affected students by 0.10 to 0.20 standard deviations in the very near term, but appears to rebound very quickly and is indistinguishable from students unaffected by the restructuring initiative. The results also show no evidence of student mobility increasing in relation to the large-scale restructuring effort.”

Louisiana (New Orleans and Baton Rouge), 31 school closures and external takeovers between 2008 and 2014

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “New Orleans elementary students’ math standardized test scores increased by 13 percentile points after the interventions, but the policies may have reduced the college entry rates of high school students. The results varied greatly between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. New Orleans high school students experienced positive effects, while Baton Rouge high school interventions reduced the high school graduation rate by 10 percentage points and reduced the college entry rate as well.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “The effects for both elementary and high schools are much more positive for students experiencing more positive changes in school quality than for those experiencing reductions or smaller improvements in school quality. In elementary schools, for example, students’ test scores improved by 0.43 s.d. (16 percentile points) among students with high school quality improvement, but by only 0.27 s.d. (11 percentile points) for other students.”
  • How were “future” students affected by the closure of schools they otherwise would have attended? “Our best estimate is that the closure and takeover policies account for 25% to 40% of the total improvement of New Orleans’ schools through 2012.”

New York City, 29 high schools designated for closure between 2002 and 2008 (Chalkbeat story)

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “The phaseout process itself did not have a systematic impact, positive or negative, on the academic outcomes and attendance of students enrolled in these high schools at the time. The gains made by students in the phaseout schools were generally similar to gains made by students in other low-performing schools.”
  • How were “future” students affected by the closure of schools they otherwise would have attended? “Closures improved graduation rates for the [future] students by 15.1 percentage points … Closing a high school had a systematic impact on graduation rates, including the rate at which students received the more rigorous Regents diploma, and on several precursors to these longer-term outcomes, including attendance and credit accumulation in the 9th grade.”

Houston, 27 school closures between 2003 and 2010

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “Closures were not associated with higher achievement than would have been expected in the absence of closures, save for small, short-term gains in math.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “We find that closures have the potential to benefit the achievement of displaced students if they transfer to high-performing campuses. Unfortunately, our analyses of student transfer patterns suggest that few students, particularly low-performing students and students of color, transfer to such high-performing campuses.”

Anonymous city school district, 22 elementary and middle schools closed in 2006

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “We find that students displaced from closed schools can experience negative effects on achievement and attendance, but the effect on achievement can be offset when students move to schools with higher performance. Moreover, the initial effect on absenteeism disappears after the first year following school closure.
  • Were students at schools that absorb new students from closed schools affected? “The analysis also shows no adverse effects (as measured by test scores or absenteeism) on students in the schools receiving the transfer students.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “Students relocated to schools of substantially higher quality experienced no significant drop in achievement. On the other hand, students relocated to schools of similar quality experienced a large, initially significant and apparently persistent drop in achievement.”

Philadelphia, 20 elementary and middle schools closed in 2012 and 2013

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? the average academic achievement of displaced students … School closures significantly increased the days of school missed due to absences, and the effect of closures on absences was greater for displaced students attending schools with a higher concentration of displaced students. School absences and out-of-school suspension days increased as the distance displaced students traveled to their new schools increased.
  • Were students at schools that absorb new students from closed schools affected? “Students attending schools that received displaced students experienced a significant decline in academic achievement; these negative spillover effects persisted for two years after receiving displaced students, and the decline in achievement was greatest for students attending schools with the highest concentration of displaced students. … School absences and out-of-school suspension days were greatest among students attending receiving-schools with the highest concentration of displaced students.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “ELA achievement was significantly greater for displaced students whose receiving schools have higher pre-closure ELA performance. Specifically, displaced student ELA achievement increased by 0.06 standard deviations by the end of the first post-closure year if they enrolled in a receiving school with pre-closure mean ELA proficiency 20 percentage points higher than the mean pre-closure proficiency of their closed school.”

Chicago, 18 elementary and middle schools closed between 2001 and 2006

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “One year after students left their closed schools, their achievement in reading and math was not significantly different from what we would have expected had their schools not been closed. During this time, students overcame the negative impact suffered during the announcement year and returned to their expected learning trajectory. Achievement remained at this expected level two and three years after their schools were closed.”
  • Did it matter if students ended up at better-performing schools? “Displaced students who enrolled in top performing CPS schools had higher test scores one year later than displaced students who enrolled in low performing schools or in schools that were similar to the schools they left. … However, only 6 percent of students enrolled in top performing CPS schools after they were displaced.”

Ohio (charters), 18 elementary and middle charter schools closed between 2008 and 2012

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “The results indicate that requiring poor-performing schools to close has a positive effect on the achievement of their students. Three years after schools are identified for closure—and two years after schools are required to shut down—students from closing schools post reading and math scores that are typically between 0.2 and 0.3 standard deviations higher than those of students whose schools just avoid mandatory closure. The analysis also indicates that these gains are associated with displaced students ending up in higher-quality schools as measured by school value-added in math and reading.”

Newark, 14 elementary and middle schools closed between 2012 and 2014 (Chalkbeat story)

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “Post-closure, we find that students from closed schools had a statistically significant increase in value-added in the year following closure in math and ELA. Specifically, these students grew 0.14 SD in math and 0.11 SD in ELA more in the first years after closure than they did pre-closure, controlling for statewide changes in growth over this period … Overall, students in Newark’s closed schools appeared to benefit academically from closure, in both math and ELA. This growth was sustained for three years after closure on average.”

New York City, six high schools designated for closure in 2007 and 2009

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “There was either no impact (for the 2006-2007 cohort analysis) or a negative impact (for the 2008-2009 cohort analysis) on a student’s probability of graduating on time. For both cohorts, however, there was a significant negative impact on the type of the diploma obtained by students. Those in the treatment groups tended to earn a local diploma more often and a Regents diploma less often. In both cohorts of closed schools, the impacts on tenth graders were statistically significant. In the earlier cohort, the impacts on ninth graders were also significant. The impacts on eleventh graders were more muted, as expected since they were already close to their expected graduation date at the time of the announcements”

North Carolina (three districts), five middle schools closed in 2012

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “Our results indicate that closure has a negative effect on performance on [end-of-grade] reading assessments for displaced students. … There were no further significant changes in student performance in the closure year, even for students who attended a higher achieving school.”

Anonymous large city district in western U.S., a single high school closed in 2006

  • What happened to students from schools that closed? “Across the three content areas, comparison students typically gained about 10 points each year. In contrast, the Transition Cohort scores declined across the three content areas after the closure announcement. … Minority [low-income students with average achievement had a 7% chance of dropping out preclosure. Those students had a 15% chance of dropping out postclosure. … Whereas minority [low-income] students with average achievement had a 71% chance of graduating in the preclosure years, they had a 49% chance of graduating postclosure.”

research review

Five things we’ve learned from a decade of research on school closures

People protest during a Panel for Educational Policy meeting at Brooklyn Tech High School before they vote on whether to close or partially close 23 schools that the Department of Education considers failing on February 9, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Oakland school board has a problem: too many schools and too few students. To stay afloat, the district plans to close as many as two dozen schools over the next five years.

That decision has not gone over well with the teachers and students affected.

“I know you think that [it] is a low-quality school, but they produce high-quality students,” one teacher said at the emotional meeting when the board announced the first closure.

Similar scenes have played out across the country. In some cities, the rapid growth of charter schools mean students are spread too thinly across too many district buildings, prompting closures. In other places, a declining number of school-age students is the culprit. And elsewhere, policymakers have been motivated to close schools by a desire to improve academic performance.

In the 2014-15 school year, more than 210,000 students attended a school that would be closed that year, according to the most recent data from the federal government.

So what are the consequences? Overall, do school closures set displaced students on a negative academic trajectory, or do they more often help students escape schools that have long struggled?

At this point, we have some answers. A new study focusing on the effects of 20 school closures in Philadelphia is just the latest in a substantial body of research on what happens when a school is shuttered.

Chalkbeat reviewed 17 studies published over the last decade, which look at how closures affected students’ academic performance in different cities and states. (You can find all the studies here.) They help answer a key question for those who fear closures hurt students academically — though they can’t capture other impacts of school closing on a community.

Here’s what we learned.

1. In many places, closures hurt students academically; in some others, they helped. Nationwide, closures appear to slightly lower test scores.

In a few cases, students whose schools closed benefitted in at least some way. That was true in four studies Chalkbeat reviewed: in Ohio, for instance, students saw major jumps in test scores post-closure; in New Orleans, closures boosted high school graduation rates by about 20 percentage points.

But these results were more exception than rule. In several other places, displaced students were harmed in measurable ways.

In Milwaukee, for instance, high school closures caused steep declines in high school graduation and college enrollment rates. A recent Chicago study — focusing on the highly controversial round of nearly 50 school closures in 2013 — showed that affected students had lower math scores even four years after the closure. (There were no clear effects on suspension or attendance rates.)

In another handful of studies, students’ academic performance declined but eventually bounced back, suggesting the closures were disruptive but the effects were temporary. A Michigan study looking at nearly 250 closures over a few years found a drop in math scores for displaced students after one year, though by year three the negative effect had faded away.

Based on these divergent results, it’s not a surprise that a major national study lands somewhere in between. This 2017 paper looking at over 1,500 closures across 26 states found, on average, very small negative effects in math and reading on displaced students.

2. It really matters the quality of the school displaced students end up moving to.

It seems obvious, even circular: students who move to a higher-performing schools do better. Research has confirmed as much. In eight of nine studies looking at this, there is evidence that students who end up at higher-performing schools are better off than those who switch to less successful schools. That includes the national study.

This can make all the difference: In some cases, students in better schools benefit academically from closures, while students in worse schools are harmed.

The problem is that in many places, displaced students don’t end up in schools that are much  better, which helps explain the mixed results overall for closures.

“We find that closures have the potential to benefit the achievement of displaced students if they transfer to high-performing campuses,” write researchers in a Houston study. “Unfortunately, our analyses of student transfer patterns suggest that few students, particularly low-performing students and students of color, transfer to such high-performing campuses.”

3. In some cases, other students do (slightly) worse when their schools receive an influx of students from closed schools.

The impact on the students at the schools that receive lots of displaced students often doesn’t get a great deal of attention in debates about school closures. But it’s an important issue that at least six studies have examined. Four found that closing schools clearly hurt the academic progress of students whose schools weren’t closed but received new students as a result.

In general, these effects were modest. For example, in the recent Philadelphia study, receipt of new students caused suspension rates of existing students to increase by about 3 percent. In the Chicago study, new students hurt reading scores among students previously enrolled, but that effect disappeared after one year.

4. Researchers know little about how school closures affect future students.

This is a crucial issue, because closing a school also affects students who would have attended that school but now end up elsewhere.

That’s difficult to study, and there appears to be only one paper directly examining this question, focused on a group of New York City students who would have otherwise attended a high school that was closed.

“This shift in [students’] enrollment options led to improvements in students’ attendance, progress toward graduation, and ultimately, their graduation rates,” the researcher wrote. The gains were large: graduation rates jumped 15 percentage points for those students.

The New Orleans study simulated the consequences of closure for future students, and also estimated that the academic impact was positive.

Another way to answer this question is to look at the performance of a city’s newest schools, since closures are often caused by the opening of other schools. Those new schools are frequently charter schools; nationwide, charter and district schools perform comparably, but charters tend to do better in cities.

5. The impact of a school closure on communities and students goes beyond academics, and researchers have documented consequences that aren’t easy to measure.

Even when schools are closed as part of an effort to save money, public debate often focuses on another outcome: the pain caused by shuttering a community institution.

“Institutional mourning is the idea that people mourn institutions the way they also mourn people,” University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing told Chalkbeat recently. She coined the phrase after conducting interviews with Chicago residents affected by closure. “The way they used this intensely intimate and emotional language to talk about their own reaction to that perceived death is something that happened over and over,” she said.

School closures may also galvanize political activism. Chicago residents who lived near a closed school were more likely to vote and take political action, and less likely to support Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who controlled the schools, other research has found.

In another study, 40 percent of students reported that the closure of their high school damaged their friendships or other relationships. Others said they were stereotyped at their new schools. “People label us as bad, stupid, or useless but people don’t know what it feels like to be forced out and no one will ever understand the struggles we face every day,” a student said.

Research in Philadelphia found that arguments about hard-to-measure characteristics of a school and the strain of closures on families, were generally not persuasive to the state-run school board.

A final issue is the fact that school closures disproportionately affect low-income students of color. The national study found that even among low-achieving schools, those with more students of color, particularly in the charter sector, were more likely to close.

“It causes political conflict and incurs hidden costs for both districts and local communities, especially low-income communities of color that are differentially affected by school closings,” wrote researchers in a report critical of school closures.