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Do school closings knock students off course?

By Umut Özek and Michael Hansen,

Four years after the last round of school closings in the District, here we are again, back at the chopping block. D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has been holding a series of community dialogues to collect public input on plans to close 20 schools, which will be finalized in January. Concerned parents, teachers and stakeholders fear that school closings will hurt students academically and drive many out of DCPS. Although closings are tough medicine in any community, they will not hurt students as much as you might think.

Let’s go through the facts and fears first. A year after the 2008 round of closures, a joint study by the 21st Century Schools Fund, Brookings and the Urban Institute came to the troubling conclusion that thousands of students had left the DCPS system as a result, a finding cited by several D.C. Council members and public witnesses who testified about the closures last month.

“What happened after school closures in 2008?” is an important question. But can the exodus of students that followed be attributed to the closings? If none of the schools had closed, might students have left anyway?

We decided to dig deeper, tracing the paths of DCPS students starting in the 2006-07 school year — the year before the closure announcement — and following them for the next three years. Looking at the year of the announcement, and the first and the second years after the closures, we also considered another question — “What would have happened had schools not been closed?” — in our analysis. We found that, yes, there was a short-term decline in test scores for students in the schools tagged for closing, as researchers have likewise identified in other cases of closure. But we also found a pretty quick rebound after these students moved on to new schools.

Interestingly, test scores dropped before the schools were shuttered. The scores of students in schools where closings were imminent lagged about two months behind what one would have expected, based on those students’ prior performance, compared with those of similar students in schools not under the gun. Most likely, scores fell because teachers and students were distracted and uncertain about their future. By the second year after schools were shuttered, students forced to move were performing as well as those who stayed put.

What about students leaving the system? We find that worry overblown. Charter enrollment was already trending upward in neighborhoods where schools closed. Take that into account, and the migrating-to-charters argument doesn’t hold water. We looked hard and found no evidence of students in closing schools fleeing to charters, changing residences or otherwise leaving the D.C. school system, compared with choices made by similar students in unaffected schools.

School closings are complex and emotional, but one factor that parents, council members and DCPS officials don’t need to agonize about is whether students are likely to leave the system in droves or suffer long-term harm. Nor should such unfounded fears be used to justify inaction. Let’s worry instead about the learning setbacks that come from protracted contentious battles and be guided by what research indicates: Kids bounce back after school closings.

The writers are senior researchers at the CALDER Center at American Institutes for Research.

Read more from Opinions The Post’s View: A much-needed pruning of D.C.’s overbuilt school system Fred Hiatt: Teachers must make the grade in charter schools The Post’s View: D.C. should make surplus schools available to charters

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