Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new report shows Bloomberg’s controversial closures have had some positive effects, contrary to popular opinion.
At the turn of the 21st century, New York City found itself at the center of a crisis in education. With the highest concentration of “drop-out factories” in the country, graduation rates from its public high schools hovered at around 51 percent. The system badly needed intervention, and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg settled on a radical course of action: Close failing schools, start smaller new ones in their place, and open up enrollment across the district, so that students had more of a choice about where they attended.
The school closures were by far the most controversial measure, sparking protests, petitions, and lawsuits. Critics felt that the city administration was placing blame on schools, rather than funding them sufficiently to meet the often high needs of students at “failing” institutions, or addressing other the structural differences in the resources available in the schools’ neighborhoods. Some speculated that students would be damaged by being forced transfer, or, if they were allowed to stay at closing schools over a phase-out period, they’d suffer from dwindling staff and resources.
But for all of the speculation, few studies rigorously examined the effects of school closures on students, since they began in 2002. Now, a major report by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University shows that the closures themselves were not detrimental for students. In fact, for some students, they were positive.
In a study of 29 low-performing high schools stamped for closure between 2002 and 2008, the Research Alliance executive director and NYU education scholar James J. Kemple found three striking results:
In terms of academic performance and attendance, high-school students who were enrolled in schools at the time that those schools were designated to close neither suffered nor improved by staying put.
In fact, compared to students enrolled in the same high-schools before the closure decisions, these “phase-out” students actually had higher rates of graduation and attendance, and received higher scores on standardized Regents exams. However, Kemple writes, “these gains were similar to gains made in the other low-performing high schools at the same time—suggesting that the phaseout process, in and of itself, had little effect on these outcomes.”
High-school students who chose to transfer out of schools designated for closure also saw neither positive nor negative effects.
Although high-school transfer rates obviously increased, the characteristics of students who transferred were the same as before the closure decisions in terms of their demographic, academic performance, and need for services.
Middle-schoolers who would have enrolled in a under-performing school had it not been designated for closure benefited.
In general, incoming ninth-graders who would have otherwise been headed for a “drop-out factory” high-school wound up attending higher-performing schools, in terms of attendance and achievement. And compared to students who went to high schools as low-performing as the ones that closed, “post-closure” students saw a 15-point increase in their graduation rates.
Still, it’s crucial to note that this study measured only the effects of school closures, and only on high-school students. It did not measure effects on other grade levels, or on neighborhoods, parents, or teachers. It also didn’t look at the effects of New York City’s new, smaller schools (prior studies have shown these to have had positive effects for students). And it did not look at how the city’s open-enrollment policy served its students throughout the closures. (Studies of a similar program in Chicago public schools, at least, have pointed to negative outcomes.)
And then, Kemple writes, there’s this:
[W]hile our study shows that students who likely would have attended the closed schools fared better, they still did not fare well. On average, just 56 percent of these students graduated from high school within four years[.] This highlights deeply entrenched inequalities in the City’s schools, where poor students of color lag far behind their more privileged peers on a wide range of measures.
School closures in New York City may have produced positive effects for some students, but policymakers should take caution not to interpret closures as a single-handed solution to school systems in distress.