School Closings Are Hugely Controversial, But a New Study Suggests They Boost Student Performance

In Ohio, clear gains on test scores for kids who transferred from shuttered schools.

The two most polarizing words in Philadelphia education might be “portfolio model.” The phrase has induced hunger strikes, enraged Diane Ravitch and paved the way for two dozen Philadelphia public school closures in 2013. If you’re not familiar, “portfolio model” is shorthand for a theory that endorses reallocating funds to higher-achieving schools and closing the lowest-performing schools. It’s a model that has become increasingly common in urban school districts across the country, and the source of consternation from parents and school-choice skeptics everywhere.

The head of the Philadelphia School Partnership, Mark Gleason, bluntly explained the portfolio model this way last year: “You keep dumping the losers and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.” Schools activist (and now City Council candidate) Helen Gym responded by calling Gleason “a relentless promoter of questionable reform models that have really wreaked havoc in other places.”

But what does the data say? A new study from conservative think tank Fordham Institute attempts to parse out statistically whether school closures are a positive or negative force on student achievement. The authors claim their findings show that vehement parents in Chicago, Detroit and Philly are wrong, and that there are noticeable improvement in academic scores when students of failing schools are relocated.

The authors — assistant professors at the University of Oklahoma and Ohio State University — analyzed the test scores of 22,722 students in third to eighth grade, both before and after their school closed. All the students had attended one of 198 urban schools (both district and charter) which closed over the past eight years in the “Big Eight” cities of Akron, Canton, Cincianatti, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown. Like Philadelphia schools, these Ohio districts are coping with declining enrollment at traditional public schools (50,000 fewer students since 2006 in those eight cities) and rapid charter school expansion (growing from 50 to 400 schools since 2000). The authors say their data shows that students perform better on standardized tests after leaving shuttered schools:

This finding should challenge the common notion that all types of student mobility induce a short-term drop in achievement. In the case of school closures, displaced students, on average, did not suffer adverse academic effects immediately after switching schools.

After beginning at “low-performing” schools with standardized test scores lower than the statewide mean, those same students’ scores were markedly better at the next school they were placed at. The gains were made, the study argues, despite the fact that most of the students ending up attending other below-average schools, with only slightly better test scores than the ones they left.

Of course, many of the disruptive effects that come along with school closures — difficult social adjustment for students, potentially longer commutes, family disruption, the loss of a major community asset and social hub — are not factored into the authors’ statistical analysis of the success of school closures. It examines test scores and test scores only. But the study does suggest that test scores rise for students after they land in new schools, both in the short and long terms.

The authors’ findings are summarized in this chart. The gains in math and reading scores are measured in “days of learning,” a metric the study defines as “indicating the number of additional days of learning a displaced student would have needed in order to achieve at the same level if she were still attending her closed school.”

For the displaced students of charter schools, the impact was also significant, and less gradual. Interestingly, only one half of these students ended up in a another charter, while the other half went to a district school once their original school closed (whereas over 90 percent of district school kids ended up back in district schools).

Given the deep unpopularity of school closings, this study is sure to provoke controversy. So far, though, nobody appears to have raised serious questions about the study’s methodology. But before you jump on the portfolio-model bandwagon, there is a caveat to keep in mind. The authors conclude that the jury’s still out on whether school closures improve the overall well-being of students across the district:

The study provides suggestive (but not conclusive) evidence that there might be minor side effects — the value-added scores of schools absorbing displaced students fall slightly. The net effect of closure remains an open empirical question.

It’s too early to tell if Philadelphia students forced to enroll at new schools after the mass closures in 2013 will post similar gains on test scores.