Three years ago, we released a study on school closures in Ohio that found mostly positive results for displaced students, particularly when those students transferred to higher-quality schools. The latest edition of Economics of Education Review includes a study of school closures in Philadelphia and finds a similar pattern. Matthew Steinberg and John MacDonald examine the impact of closures on student achievement and behavioral outcomes—specifically absences and out-of-school suspensions (OSS) up to three years after closure. The School District of Philadelphia closed more than 10 percent of its lowest-performing and most under-enrolled traditional schools between the 2011–12 and 2012–13 school years. In total, twenty schools closed with over 3,800 students displaced.

Analysts use student-level data for pupils in grades three through eighth attending a traditional school in the 2010–11 through 2015–16 school years. Their difference-in-differences approach compares changes in student outcomes for displaced students who were required to change schools and their receiving-school peers, relative to students attending schools that did not receive displaced students in the year after closure. They are able to demonstrate that pre-closure student achievement trends evolved similarly for the three groups, which is key to the efficacy of their study design. Since displaced students left lower performing and more disadvantaged schools (on average), the change in outcomes experienced by students in the receiving schools may simply reflect the inclusion of the displaced peers. So they take care to separate the groups, estimating the effect of closures on displaced students and those in the receiving schools, as well as distinguish between students in non-closed schools that did and did not receive displaced pupils.

The key finding is that closing schools had, on average, no impact on the academic achievement of displaced students. However, achievement improved significantly for displaced kids who enrolled in higher-performing schools (cue our Ohio study), and schools with a lower concentration of displaced students following closure. In contrast, pupils attending schools that received displaced students experienced a significant decline in academic achievement; specifically, they saw a decrease of 0.04 standard deviation in math and 0.06 SD in English language arts by the end of year two. The decline in achievement was greatest for students attending schools with the highest concentration of displaced students (approximately 25 percent).

School closures also affected the behavioral outcomes for both displaced and receiving-school peers. For displaced students, closures significantly increased the days of school missed due to absences; that impact was even more negative for displaced students attending schools with a higher concentration of other displaced peers. Absences and OSS days also increased as the distance that displaced students travelled to their new schools increased (e.g., those who travelled an additional one mile to their new school realized a 5 percent increase in days missed due to OSS). Finally, OSS and absences were greatest among the receiving-school students whose schools had the highest concentrations of displaced students, compared to receiving- school students in schools with lower concentrations.

As you can see, the study is chock full of findings for various groups by various outcomes. But its message is simple: Closing low-performing or under-enrolled schools is necessary but should be done with care. Unfortunately, that’s way easier said than done. Students need to be placed in higher performing schools to see an academic payoff, but there aren’t enough of them. And when you find them, local officials shouldn’t relocate large cohorts of displaced students in any one school since they likely won’t be well accommodated en masse (perhaps due to negative peer effects?). But if you try to spread them out, make sure the kids aren’t travelling long distances. Geez, that’s a tough job!

SOURCE: Matthew P. Steinberg and John M. MacDonald, “The effects of closing urban schools on students’ academic and behavioral outcomes: Evidence from Philadelphia,” Economics of Education (2019).

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

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