School closure is a tactic we don’t have to take.
Under the new national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have been freed to employ strategies they deem fit just as long as they act on the bottom 5 percent.
When we’re talking about improving urban districts, though, we always seem to land on the “solution” of closing them.
Black communities are constantly losing the anchor institutions we actually need strengthened.
Within those very districts, there are schools that offer somewhat of a model. The elements that make those schools successful could be replicated in others if we valued the teachers and leaders enough to build their capacity. We build people’s capacity when we believe they can improve.
The Education Research Alliance of Tulane University earlier this month released “Extreme Measures: When and How School Closures and Charter Takeovers Benefit Students” (pdf).
The study examined the effects of school closures in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., from 2008 to 2014 to show that school closures can have positive effects on student outcomes.
“What gets measured gets done.” If research never leaves the confines of the “gap closing” framework, “growth” will always burden black families—not the institutions that caused inequities in the first place. Being compared with whites, which gap-closing work and research constantly reinforce, insidiously assumes that white institutions and people are not problems to be solved.
Many other urban districts, including Newark, N.J., Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia, have used school closure as an approach to improve overall performance while reducing the number of ineffective institutions.
The theory is, if you close failing schools and move students into better ones, you’ll get better educational options and eventually outcomes.
There are many ways to close schools and various reasons why. The most extreme kind of closure is to completely shutter a building. In August, Michigan school officials warned that they might shutter schools that performed on the state's exams among the bottom 5 percent, which represents more than 100 schools. This would be the most aggressive action taken by a state.
Most “closures” translate to reconstituting a school’s leadership and/or staff to varying degrees. And most closures aren’t due to academic performance. Demographic shifts and finances are two common reasons schools close. However, using closure as a gap-closing strategy has been encouraged by the highest levels. “Too many administrators are unwilling to close failing schools and create better options for these children,” said former Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a speech to charter school leaders.
In the Tulane study, the findings are rather intuitive. Students formerly in failing schools that ended up in higher-performing schools showed better outcomes. There wasn’t a guarantee that students ended up in better schools after these actions. Baton Rouge’s student outcomes actually got worse, largely because students ended up in schools that were weaker than those that were closed. The most significant finding was: “The positive effects of closure and takeover in New Orleans explain 25 to 40 percent of the total effect of the New Orleans post-Katrina school reforms on student achievement.” This finding suggests that school closure is a tool worth keeping.
But the value of the appraisal to use for school closure always goes up when the people in them are devalued. Starting-over approaches in schools are more likely to occur when the people in them aren’t trusted or valued enough to give them the resources to grow. The sheer number of failing and nonfailing schools in urban districts increases the likelihood that closing a school will happen in a black neighborhood. Closing the one high school in a rural area because of performance isn’t really feasible. We seldom see the neighborhood school in an urban district as being as vital to a community as the school to a small town. But it is.
The use of the most extreme form of closure reflects a wipe-the-slate clean decision that’s easy to make when you don’t value the people it affects. School closures are the not-so-distant cousins of policing, housing and health policies that seek to unearth, delete or disperse community assets as a way to improve outcomes. All typically have deleterious impacts on black folk.
In New Orleans, in particular, our penchant to incarcerate our way to safety actually decimated families and limited academic and professional growth, which has negatively affected children for generations to come. In addition, thousands of the poorest residents in the city could not return in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina because the city decided to shutter our way to housing improvements—leaving behind thousands of mostly black residents. In the wake of the closing of the state’s Charity Hospital, we still have not replaced the mental-health services it used to provide. The new hospital, which looks nice, did not improve continuity of care.
The Tulane school-closure study does introduce measures—high school graduation and college access—that have greater bearing on a student’s life. In general, the study found school closure to be more disruptive on high school students. Nevertheless, we need to introduce more social, economic and political variables that further illuminate more relevant quality-of-life impacts that school closure and other reforms can have on a community.
The gap-closing paradigm keeps us data-driven instead of being community-driven.
"It's a tough balancing act,” said Douglas Harris, the Alliance’s director of education research, in a text-message discussion about this column, adding, “Any effort to turn around low-performing schools (closure, takeover, or anything else) is going to create disproportionate upheaval for people of color. We have to weigh the short-term upheaval against the academic and other possible benefits of ending up in better schools.” Harris is also a professor of economics and the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education at Tulane.
We shouldn’t do anything to black people so that they can be like our white counterparts. Judging from the direction that education is headed, higher test scores will eventually justify taking away children’s right to happiness, just as long as there is evidence that the achievement gap is closing.
To be clear, school closure isn’t a by any means necessary action. It’s actually a throwing up of one's hands to say we can’t do anything for this school or the people in it.
For once, let’s say we will ensure that there will be a great school in every black neighborhood—by any means necessary.
This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.