A few weeks ago, the Fordham Institute had Deven Carlson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, as our special guest on the Education Gadfly Show podcast. We were curious about the impacts of school closures—the ones due to poor performance or under-enrollment, not COVID-19—both on students whose schools are shuttered and on their new schoolmates. As an expert on the topic, Deven was happy to enlighten us.
You can listen to the discussion here (or from wherever you normally tune in to podcasts). Summaries of the key questions we asked, along with the most important research studies we referenced, can also be found below. We hope that you learn a little something from this overview. Let us know if there are any important questions you think should be covered in future research deep dive episodes!
1. What's the impact of school closure on the students in the closed schools?
As Deven notes in the first part of the conversation, researchers have now examined the impact of school closures in at least half a dozen states, including Ohio, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York City, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. As one might expect, given the diversity in settings, the findings run the gamut from null or negative effects (e.g., Pittsburgh and Chicago) to mixed results (e.g., Michigan, Philadelphia, and Ohio) to huge, positive impacts (e.g., charter schools in Ohio and New Orleans). For example, in Pittsburgh, students from closed schools experienced negative impacts on math and reading in the first year but statistically insignificant effects in the second and third years (although the negative effect in math may have persisted over time). In contrast, students who had attended a closed district school in Ohio gained forty-nine additional days of learning in reading and thirty-four additional days in math, and students who had attended a closed charter school gained forty-six additional days in math. In general, targeted closures of the lowest performing schools have more positive effects than closures that occur for other reasons (e.g., declining enrollment). Similarly, displaced students fare better if they go on to attend higher-performing schools. And in both cases, results seem to become more positive over time.
For further reading, check out these studies:
- Carlson, Deven, and Stéphane Lavertu. "Charter school closure and student achievement: Evidence from Ohio." Journal of Urban Economics 95 (2016): 31–48.
- Carlson, Deven, and Stéphane Lavertu. "School closures and student achievement: An analysis of Ohio’s urban district and charter schools." Columbus, OH: Thomas B. Fordham Institute (2015).
- De la Torre, Marisa, and Julia Gwynne. When Schools Close: Effects on Displaced Students in Chicago Public Schools. Research Report. University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. (2009).
- Engberg, John, Brian Gill, Gema Zamarro, and Ron Zimmer. "Closing schools in a shrinking district: Do student outcomes depend on which schools are closed?." Journal of Urban Economics 71, no. 2 (2012): 189–203.
- Gordon, Molly F., Marisa de la Torre, Jennifer R. Cowhy, Paul T. Moore, Lauren Sartain, and David Knight. School Closings in Chicago: Staff and Student Experiences and Academic Outcomes. Research Report. University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (2018).
2. What's the impact of school closures on other schools—the ones that take in students from closed schools?
According to Deven, the short answer is that there are small negative effects on students in receiving schools, which persist for multiple years. For example, one study of school closures in Michigan found that the achievement gains for students who were displaced from low-performing schools came at the expense of additional disruption in the receiving schools (due to the influx of previously low-performing new students), and that these spillover effects were even greater when receiving schools were also required to find positions for teachers from the closed schools. Another study from Philadelphia found that both the achievement and behavioral outcomes of students in receiving schools were negatively affected by their acceptance of displaced students.
- Brummet, Quentin. "The effect of school closings on student achievement." Journal of Public Economics 119 (2014): 108–124.
- Steinberg, Matthew P., and John M. MacDonald. "The effects of closing urban schools on students’ academic and behavioral outcomes: Evidence from Philadelphia." Economics of Education Review 69 (2019): 25–60.
3. What's the impact of school closures on neighborhoods?
Research on this topic is ongoing, but one study in Philadelphia found a 15 percent reduction in total crime and a 30 percent reduction in violent crime after schools with high rates of student misconduct and low educational performance were closed. The decline in crime was concentrated in neighborhoods where high schools closed and only occurred during weekday hours when students would have been in school. Although crime did increase in areas that received a larger share of students from closed schools, this increase was smaller than the decline in neighborhoods where closures occurred.
- Steinberg, Matthew P., Benjamin Ukert, and John M. MacDonald. "Schools as places of crime? Evidence from closing chronically underperforming schools." Regional Science and Urban Economics 77 (2019): 125–140.
4. Is some sort of “phase-out” preferable to immediate closure?
Existing evidence suggests that phase-outs are preferable to immediate shutdowns because they are less disruptive for students and receiving schools. For example, a study in Louisiana found that the effects of school closures tended to be more positive when schools were phased out rather than immediately closed.
- Bross, Whitney, Douglas N. Harris, and Lihan Liu. The effects of performance-based school closure and charter takeover on student performance. Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (2016).
- Kemple, James J. High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students' Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility. Report. Research Alliance for New York City Schools (2015).