Wednesday, March 6, 2013

School closings could do educational harm to thousands of students

Stockton Elementary School on the North Side is one of 129 CPS grade schools still being considered for closing. (Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune)
Despite the claims by some Chicago education and political leaders that mass school closings will boost student learning outcomes, closing schools usually does little to raise so-called "student achievement" levels and in many cases actually causes great harm.

That's true for three reasons. First, closing thousands of schools, as mandated under Race To The Top, increases mobility rates, causes even greater instability in children's lives, especially in the lives of the poorest and neediest. Children need a stable, nurturing learning environment in which to study and learn.

According to a 2009 study, " Does Closing Schools Cause Educational Harm?" by Sunderman & Payne:
The negative effect of mobility is not just confined to the student who has changed schools; the entire school is impacted, affecting the achievement level of the non-mobile students as well. Teachers from classrooms with a high number of mobile students report that the constant student turnover disrupts the functioning of their classroom. Mobile students are typically already performing below grade level and require more review and attention from teachers. As a result, the pace of instruction is slower and the test scores of both mobile students and non-mobile students tend to be lower in highly mobile schools. One study comparing the curricular pace of stable schools and highly mobile schools in Chicago found that highly mobile schools lagged behind stable schools by one grade level on average.
Second:   Students are generally shipped across the city to schools that perform little or no better than the one that was closed. Take for example the mass school closings now being planned in Philadelphia. Those schools slated for closing have performed similarly, by most measures of academic achievement, to those of the potential receiving schools. This according to a study done by the group Research for Action. Their study compared state test scores and yearly progress benchmarks of the 29 schools slated for closure with those of the 48 receiving schools. Of the receiving schools, 44 exhibited similar scores in reading, and 36 were similar in math on last year's state exam known as the PSSA.

Elaine Simon is co-director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has studied and written about Philadelphia school reform for almost three decades She calls school closings the "new urban renewal" and warns that students in schools slated for closing "are likely to wind up in schools much like the ones they were in before."

A 2009 study by Marisa de la Torre and Julia Gwynne for the Consortium on Chicago School Research,  revealed that 8 in 10 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students displaced by school closings transferred to schools ranking in the bottom half of system schools on standardized tests.

The third reason that closing schools actually does no good and usually does harm is that school closings will often make things even worse for student learning in the receiving schools. A Michigan State University study found that "while the closing of low-performing schools may generate some achievement gains for displaced students, part of these gains will likely be offset by spillover effects onto receiving schools." For one thing, closings will lead to increased class sizes and overcrowding.  Exploding class sizes are already a major negative factor because of continuing budget cuts and reduction in the teaching force. But now, school closing proponents are suggesting that even extremely high class sizes can produce better results.

In Chicago, for example, where the mayor has autocratic control over the schools, Rahm Emanuel's PR squad has launched a "bigger-is-better" class size media campaign, to justify his closing of possibly hundreds of neighborhood schools, primarily in black and Latino neighborhoods.

According to this morning's Tribune:
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's push to close dozens of schools hinges on a vision of the "ideal" size for kindergarten through eighth-grade classes as 30 students, far larger than is the case now in the typical Chicago classroom.
Actually, many schools already have classrooms with more than 30 students in them. The problem here is that Rahm and CEO Byrd-Bennett are using the  number 30 to assess whether a school is "underutilized" or not. Schools with averages below the magical 30 number are being slated for closure without any research-based consideration of impact on student learning or on the out-of-school lives of students and their families.

Rahm's flack Becky Carroll takes it from ridiculous to farcical with her comments today, supporting class sizes of 40.
"It's the quality of teaching in that classroom," Carroll said. "You could have a teacher that is high-quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed."
Here she is just repeating claims made by Arne Duncan at a recent American Enterprise Institute conference, posing the false choice between a good teacher or a rational class size -- a choice wealthy suburban or private school parents never have to make.

I doubt that either Becky Carroll, Duncan, nor the mayor would ever send their own children to a school that had class sizes above 30. I'm also not sure what Carroll knows about "high-quality" teaching. She surely isn't speaking with the benefit of any valid or reliable research base on class size. But I can tell her one thing. There's no evidence that packing 40 children into a kindergarten or first grade class is anything but murderous to the learning process, no matter the skill of any particular teacher.

Ironically, some of the best research summaries on the benefits of smaller class size can be found right on the D.O.E.'s own website. Other resources include:

The National Class Size data base
Heros, Inc.
Class Size Matters

In conclusion, if you were to design a foolproof plan to ensure that the most disadvantaged students continued to do poorly in schools, that they didn't perform up to and beyond their capacity, and to guarantee a widening of the so-called "achievement gap," you could do no better than to close neighborhood schools and send those children to schools that are ill-equipped to receive them, schools where they were removed from their own learning communities where they were known well by their teachers. If you then stuffed them into classrooms of 30-40 or more students, their fate would be sealed.


  1. Hi Mike,

    As an FYI to Stockton, from my condo, I've watched Stockton's roof be retrofitted for the past 18 months or so. It looks like it now has a new roof and HVAC system in place. Of course, I can't confirm that. However, I'm pissed that it seems like it will be one of the schools closed. Makes me wonder which charter school is "buying" this retrofitted property from CPS.

  2. Perhaps, a very important factor is what happens to the students and teachers as their school closes. When my high school was closed, we were notified 5 months before it happened. It was as if our entire school was going through mourning during that time. Students were scared, angry, frustrated, mistrustful, and felt alienated. They felt that there were not valued. All of the teachers had to look for new jobs, and thinking about how to support yourself took precedence over planning high quality lesson plans. We needed to be able to pay your bills. Our school had a pallor over us during those months. Both students and teachers were an emotional mess. We tried our best to heal our students who felt as if their home had been taken away, but many a times,the faculty did not have the emotional strength, physical ability, or time to be the teachers we were. We were under attack too. It was such a disheartening time. The learning environment plummeted. Please don't shut down schools, but help strengthen them from within. Invest in schools, don't penalize them when they struggle.


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