The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chicago promised that closing nearly 50 schools would help kids in 2013. A new report says it didn’t.

The Chicago Teachers Union in 2013 protested plans to close dozens of schools in the city. (John Gress/Reuters)

In 2013, the Chicago school district closed 49 elementary schools and one high school program in the face of a $1 billion deficit, the largest mass school closure in the country’s modern history. Schools officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel made this promise to nearly 12,000 mostly African American students from families living in poverty: When you are sent to a new school, there will be better opportunities for academic success. But a new report says that isn’t exactly what happened.

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research just released a report (see below) looking at what happened when the schools were closed five years ago and the effects on students. The researchers found multiple problems. Academic achievement — as measured by standardized test scores, which has been favored by Emanuel — were not what was expected.

Closing schools has been a favored tool among school reformers who have tried to operate public schools as if they were businesses rather than civic institutions. Though research has shown that promised academic gains don’t materialize, reformers have closed schools anyway, sometimes because they were underused or persistently low performers, or to address financial woes.

What research really says about closing schools — and why it’s a bad idea for kids

The University of Chicago researchers looked at the short-term and multi-year effects of the closures on students’ academic, behavioral and other outcomes. They sought to answer two questions about the school closings, which were strongly opposed by the affected communities:

  • How did staff and students affected by school closings experience the school closings process and subsequent transfer into designated welcoming schools?
  • What effect did closing schools have on closed and welcoming schools students’ mobility, attendance, suspensions, test scores, and core GPAs?

The fundamental answer to both questions: not at all well.

The researchers found the following, taken from the report:

  • School staff said that the planning process for merging closed schools into welcoming schools was not sufficient, resulting in staff feeling unprepared.
  • Getting school buildings ready to receive students on time was challenging because the moving process was chaotic.
  • When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning.
  • A lack of proactive efforts to support welcoming school communities in integrating the populations created challenging “us” vs. “them” dynamics.
  • Students who were attending welcoming schools that relocated into the building of closed schools transferred out at higher rates just before the merger; mobility was not affected by school closures in subsequent years for either group of students.
  • All students affected by school closures had no changes in absences or suspension rates after the merger.
  • Students affected by school closures did experience negative learning effects, especially students from closed schools. The largest negative impact of school closures was on the test scores of students from closed schools; their scores were lower than expected the year of the announcement.
  • Students from closed schools experienced a long-term negative impact on their math test scores; slightly lower and short-term effects for reading test scores.
  • Students from welcoming schools had lower than expected reading test scores the first year after the merger but they rebounded the next year.
  • Other learning measures, such as core GPA, were not affected immediately after closures, although the researchers said they found some negative effects three and four years post-closures for students from closed schools.

To support the move, the district provided some funding to the welcoming schools to improve technology and resources and to create “Safe Passage,” a program that hires workers to stand along designated walkways before and after school to help keep students from harm. The report said students and staff appreciated those investments, but wished they had been longer term.

Chicago officials were warned by parents, educators and others that the plan to close so many schools would not work as promised. In fact, the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board wrote a piece saying just that after the release of the report:

We told you so.
Parents, community activists, teachers, education experts and this editorial page all warned City Hall back in 2013 that closing dozens of schools in one fell swoop was a bad idea.
And if Mayor Rahm Emanuel still didn’t get it, plenty of research sounded the same warning: School closings can really set kids back, academically and socially.

In 2013, Chicago placed a five-year moratorium on school closings, and that is just about to end. More closings of public schools are expected.

Will Chicago officials learn anything from their last closures?

(Clarification: Making clearer how the research was done and what happened to test scores.)

Here’s the report: