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Closing Bad Schools Can Actually Be Great for Kids When It's Done Right

Closing bad schools is tough even when it’s the right thing to do. Now, misleading reports on a new study are going to make that process even more difficult. In August, Education Week posted a story with this halting headline: Closing Failing Schools Doesn't Help Most Students, Study Finds. The truth, if people dig a little deeper, is that closing failing schools doesn’t help students if they don’t have a better school to go to. And unfortunately, about half the time, students don’t. They end up at another school that was just as bad. Sadder still, is that school closures have a disproportionate effect on poor and minority students. But when students go to a better school, one where more kids are doing grade-level math and reading, and where students are making stronger academic growth, the students from the closed failing school tend to do better. “The academic gains on test scores were particularly significant for Black and Latino students who ended up in better schools,” Education Week reports. “Most striking was the finding for Hispanic students: Those who ended up [in] higher-performing schools gained the equivalent of 74 additional days of learning in math.”

Words Matter

The Education Week report does mention all these facts, but in a world where most people only read the headlines on Facebook, most will never find that out. They’ll simply see it in passing, and believe that closing a failing school, regardless of what comes next for those students, won’t do any good. That definitive headline implies our education leaders should stop calling for bad schools to be closed. That would be a mistake. About a year ago, we got another report with basically the same finding, but a vastly different headline: Research Shows Students Can Benefit When a School Closes—But Only If There Are Better Ones to Attend And a year before that: Closing Bad NYC Schools Helped Next Generation of Students All three studies say basically the same thing: The only way this form of accountability works for the students is if they make it to a better school after theirs closes.

The Right Way to Close a Failing School

The real takeaway should be for policymakers and education leaders across the country to make sure kids get better options available in those situations. That’s doable today. Every state has a way to tell which schools are doing well. If a better school isn’t nearby, many have high-quality charter schools available, or programs that provide money for individual students to enroll at private schools or pay for transportation to better traditional public schools. Successful schools and programs that expand options for kids should be supported and expanded as much as possible. The wrong thing to do is to believe misleading headlines and let our precious children languish in a hopeless situation, or just leave it to chance and hope the nearest school is a good one. Closing a failing school can be traumatic for an entire community, not to mention the students involved. But it’s well worth the cost if kids can land in a school that better meets their needs. It can literally change their lives for the better.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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