Closing public schools is a political minefield — just ask Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had a tough reelection bid this year after dozens of school closures on his watch left voters concerned.

But what do school closings mean for student achievement?

Critics of closings have long argued that shuttering schools not only undermines communities but also destabilizes students. They say a child’s ability to learn is disrupted when routines and trusted adults are ripped away.

Now a new study from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute challenges that orthodoxy, concluding that students displaced by school closings actually tend to make gains faster on math and reading tests than their peers in schools that stay open.

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“Everyone agrees that shutting down low-performing schools is beneficial to those students who have not yet entered them,” write the authors. “However, we show that this is also the case for the students currently attending them.”

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The study tracked more than 20,000 Ohio children who were students in nearly 200 traditional and charter schools that closed between 2006 and 2012. It found that, three years after their schools closed:

  • Students from traditional public schools that closed ended up gaining the equivalent of 49 extra days of learning in reading and 34 extra days in math
  • Students from shuttered charter schools had 46 extra days of learning in math and no statistically significant extra days in reading
  • Students from shuttered traditional public schools who went to “higher-quality” schools (as judged by test scores), had the equivalent of 69 extra days of learning in reading and 63 extra days in math
  • Students from shuttered charter schools who went to higher-quality school, had 88 extra days of learning in reading and 58 extra days in math.

The findings come with a few grains of salt. The study focuses on Ohio, so it’s not clear how the conclusions might translate elsewhere, and it zeroes in on math and reading test scores, which — many critics of ed-reform argue — fail to capture important things, including students’ social-emotional well being.

The study also confirms what one might suspect, concluding that displaced children who end up in a higher-quality school, as judged by test scores, tend to make bigger gains. But it offers no specifics about the fate of children who end up in lower-quality schools, and they are not a small proportion: About six in 10 children in traditional public schools that close end up in better-performing schools, according to the study. That leaves about four in 10 who do not end up in better-performing schools.

So in order for school closures to work as a way to improve students’ learning, there have to be good schools for displaced children to go to. In many communities, good schools are hard to come by.

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The study also acknowledges that school closures might bring less-than-desirable effects to schools that absorb displaced students. In general, test score gains tend to be diminished at those “receiver schools” as they adjust to the influx of new students.

Still, the findings are sure to add a new dimension to the debate about school closings. Turning around persistently troubled schools has proven difficult, and examples of success are rare. Fordham’s paper argues that closing schools and opening new, better schools could be a faster route to improvement.

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