The idea of closing “low performing schools” has undeniable appeal, at least in theory. The basic notion is that some schools are so dysfunctional that they cannot be saved and may be doing irreparable harm to their students every day they are open. Thus, it is argued, closing such schools and sending their students elsewhere is the best option – even if students end up in “average” schools, proponents argue, they will be better off.
Such closures are very controversial, however, and for good reason. For one thing, given adequate time and resources, schools may improve – i.e., there are less drastic interventions that might be equally (or more) effective as a way to help students. Moreover, closing a school represents a disruption in students’ lives (and often, by the way, to the larger community). In this sense, any closure must offer cumulative positive effects sufficient to offset an initial negative effect. Much depends on how and why schools are identified for closure, and the quality of the schools that displaced students attend. In practice, then, closure is a fairly risky policy, both educationally and (perhaps especially) politically. This disconnect between the appeal of theoretical school closures and the actual risks, in practice, may help explain why U.S. educational policy has been designed such that many schools operate at some risk of closure, but relatively few ever end up shutting their doors.
Despite the always contentious debates about the risks and merits of closing “low performing schools,” there has not been a tremendous amount of strong evidence about effects (in part because such closures have been somewhat rare). A new report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) helps fill the gap, using a very large dataset to examine the test-based impact of school closures (among other things). The results speak directly to the closure debate, in both specific and general terms, but interpreting them is complicated by the fact that this analysis evaluates what is at best a policy done poorly.