Shutting Down Schools To Save Them?

By Jacqueline Klingebiel

Oct 28, 2009 5:55pm

The Obama administration is aiming to turn around 5,000 failing public schools over the next five years. In what stands out as one of the Education Department’s most controversial reform efforts, Secretary Arne Duncan has called on administrators to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers and principals or shut them down completely. But can you help students and save the public schools by simply shutting them down?

ABC News’ Mary Bruce Reports: When it comes to turning around the nation’s lowest performing schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan often highlights his efforts in Chicago to shut down failing schools. However, a new study shows school closures in Chicago have reaped little academic gain. The study, by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, found that the majority of relocated students in Chicago were transferred from one low-performing school to another and thus did not significantly improve academically.

Duncan, who was the head of the Chicago public school system from 2001 to 2008, often points to school closures as an important element in the administration’s “turnaround” strategy and has scolded administrators who are unwilling to close failing schools. The administration also supports measures to keep failing schools open but replace the principal and the entire staff, a method Duncan also employed in Chicago.

“The effects really depend on the receiving schools,” the study’s lead researcher Marisa de la Torre explained.  “It’s definitely something that we really need to understand, where the kids end up going, because that is what’s going to affect the learning outcomes later on.”

According to the report, 40 percent of the students displaced in Chicago between 2001 and 2006 were enrolled in schools that were on academic probation and 42 percent went to schools where basic skills scores were in the city's lowest quartile. While students who went from one failing school to another did not see improvements, those who were transferred to some of city’s highest-performing schools did show academic progress.

“What they found is kind of intuitive, but it suggests that we need to take this policy seriously,” Andrew Smarick of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute said. “The concern is a lot of people just think about closures and you have to think about other factors, you can’t think about it in isolation.” Smarick suggested policy makers also take into account geography, class size, and the opening of new schools when considering student relocations.

The impact of closures in Chicago has gained a lot of attention recently in light of rising student violence. Many claim relocations have lead to increased tension between rival student groups, who are often forced into the same classroom, a notion that Duncan called “absolutely ridiculous” earlier this month.

The Education Department has indicated it plans to use stimulus funds to invest in school turnarounds.

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