What to do with Failing Schools

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Erika Rosenberg

Closing failing schools and replacing them with new–hopefully better–schools is at the heart of the Portfolio Plan strategy in place in the Rochester City School District. It sure sounds appealing, especially to those who have long felt that education is a world shielded from the consequences of failure. But does it work?

The answer is critically important, not only for the obvious reason that we all want effective schools for children, but also because closing a school necessarily means dismantling a school community. Perhaps that community was dysfunctional, unhealthy, even dangerous, but it was still the daytime home for the students and staff members in it.

Hence, when districts propose to close low-performing schools, there is often an outcry among students, parents, teachers and other staff members. We have certainly seen this in Rochester, as school communities at the School of Applied Technology at Edison and others rallied together to speak out against closure. While outsiders may be puzzled at these protests, to those directly affected, closing a school means uncertainty, upheaval and pain. Relationships are broken, the negative stigma associated with a school often becomes worse, and there is no guarantee for students and staff members that something better lies ahead.

Research on the effectiveness of this approach, what little that has been conducted, is mixed. While there are studies finding that small schools formed in the wake of school closures achieved some higher outcomes and created stronger relationships among students and teachers, other research on school closures suggests they might not benefit students. Studies of Chicago, a city with extensive experience in closing failing schools, found performance among students who moved to other schools did not significantly improve, in part because students often transferred to other poor schools.

The authors of a study summing up existing research on school closure also point to the potentially harmful effects simply of moving students around (see report). Even controlling for related factors such as previously low achievement and socioeconomic status, research has established that mobility has its own, separate negative effect on students’ likelihood of graduating.

Yet under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, school districts are required to do something drastic about the lowest performing schools. Closure is one option; others include replacing all or most of the staff, reopening as a charter school or yielding to a state takeover.

So we’re left in a quandary. We know that some schools have failed generation after generation of students. And we know that turning around a failing school is brutally difficult. Yet we’re told that the evidence in favor of closure as a general strategy is weak. The secret to a successful “portfolio” strategy depends on whether the new schools are a significant improvement over the schools that have been closed.

The Rochester City School District is phasing out 8 low-performing schools, restructuring two more and this year opened two new schools in addition to the five begun last school year.

The cautionary tales from Chicago and elsewhere suggest that good implementation is critical to making the strategy successful here. We at CGR have been a part of the effort to make sure that happens; CGR conducted a first-year implementation evaluation of the five schools opened in 2010-11. We found the schools, whose students were generally quite similar to the overall district population, had some higher outcomes than the district (including attendance, GPAs, and high school credits) and had established positive climates. But state test results were mixed, with the new schools exceeding district performance in 6 of 12 comparisons, and the schools all have work to do to increase academic rigor and student engagement in learning.

Our study didn’t focus on the population most at-risk under this strategy: the students in the phasing out schools. Although some of these students transferred to other schools, including the new schools, for those in higher grades there were few realistic options. We did interview a number of those students and found a range of experiences, with some students reporting that their phasing out schools were still generally pretty good and others saying they had greatly declined since the announcement that they were being closed. Generally speaking, performance at the phasing out schools continues to be low, though two of the schools improved enough last year to come off the state’s watch list.

But if the lesson to draw from Chicago is that there must be more high-performing schools created for the school-closure strategy to work, then Rochester is taking some of the right steps toward giving more students quality educational options.

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