Report Questions Duncan’s Policy of Closing Failing Schools
By SAM DILLON
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presided over the closing of dozens of failing schools when he was chief executive of the Chicago public schools from 2001 until last December. In his new post, he has drawn on those experiences, putting school turnaround efforts at the center of the nation’s education reform agenda.
“Most students who transferred out of closing schools re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak,” says the report, which was done by the university’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Furthermore, the disruptions of routines in schools scheduled to be closed appeared to hurt student learning in the months after the closing was announced, the researchers found.
The reading scores of students in schools designated for closing “showed a loss of about six weeks of learning” on standardized tests in the months after the closing announcement, the report said. Math scores declined somewhat less, it said.
Partly because of the disruption caused by the closings, Mr. Duncan changed strategy after 2006. Instead of closing schools permanently, or for a year, and then reopening with a new staff, he shifted to the turnaround approach, in which the staff of failing schools was replaced over the summer but the same students returned in the fall.
The new report focused only on the elementary schools closed permanently from 2001 to 2006, and thus offers no conclusions about the effectiveness of the turnaround strategy.
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Mr. Duncan, noted that the report also found that students who ended up in higher-achieving schools showed more gains on standardized tests.
“Clearly, the students who transferred to better schools did better, but the ones who went to similar schools did not,” Mr. Hamilton said. “That’s why we worked in parallel to create more new high-quality learning options.”
Still, the report’s findings are likely to provoke new debate about Mr. Duncan’s efforts to encourage the use of Chicago’s turnaround strategy nationwide. He has set the goal of closing and overhauling 1,000 failing schools a year nationwide, for five years, and Congress appropriated $3 billion in the stimulus law to finance the effort.
A review of the history of school reform efforts, published in the current issue of Education Next, a journal published by Harvard University, argues that school turnaround efforts have failed more often than not.
“This leaves reform advocates in a pickle,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The Obama administration’s solution is that we’re going to make all the lousy schools better, but that’s harder than the administration has let on. The next most attractive alternative is to shut them down, and let the kids go to other schools, but this Consortium report has found that that brought little benefit to students in Chicago.”
LEONIE HAIMSON COMMENT:
More depressing news about how little gains were made in Chicago schools, due to Arne Duncan’s failed policies, which he has now taken to DC and is imposing nationally.
Though the article claims that the district “moved in 2006 toward more frequent use of a turnaround strategy that keeps students in their current buildings but replaces principals and teachers”, Julie Woestehoff, a Chicago parent advocate who is also quoted in the article, has convincingly shown that the student body enrolled in Chicago’s so-called “turn around” schools also undergoes a dramatic shift, with many of the high-needs students transferring out or pushed out of the school.
Published Online: October 28, 2009
Chicago School Closings Found to Yield Few Gains
John Madigan, from left, his daughter Melanie, and his wife Holly visit a classroom at Polaris Charter Academy last year. The school, located in the former Samuel Morse Elementary School, was launched with a $500,000 contribution from the Madigan Family Foundation.
— John Zich for Education Week
A majority of Chicago students affected by school closings were sent to schools that were low-performing, just like those they left behind—moves that had no significant impact on performance for most students, a study released today finds.
The study, by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, examines the academic effects of the closings on students at 18 elementary schools shut down between 2001 and 2006. To measure the impact, the researchers compared students age 8 and older with their counterparts in schools that had similar characteristics but continued to operate. The schools had a combined enrollment of 5,445 students at the time of their closing.
“Certainly, when schools were closed for academic reasons, the idea was to try to change their educational prospects and what they might obtain. Unfortunately, we didn’t find that,” said Julia Gwynne, a senior research analyst with the consortium and the report’s co-author. “The main reason why that seems not to have occurred was because most students did not attend schools that were substantially better than the ones that were closed.”
A Chicago-style strategy is a feature of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s push for the nation to turn around its lowest-performing schools. Mr. Duncan was the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools from 2001 until December 2008, when President Barack Obama nominated him as education secretary. School closings are one element of the so-called “turnaround” plans Mr. Duncan has promoted as secretary, which also include measures that would replace principals and teachers in persistently failing schools.
John Washington picks up his great-grandson, Rayshaun Cates, at Samuel Morse Elementary School in Chicago in January 2006. The school was closed and reopened as a charter school during U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s tenure as the city’s schools chief.
—Charles Rex Arbogast/AP-
The 405,000-student district still closes and consolidates schools, but moved in 2006 toward more frequent use of a turnaround strategy that keeps students in their current buildings but replaces principals and teachers.
Among the students displaced, 40 percent were enrolled in schools that were on probation, and 42 percent were enrolled in schools where Iowa Tests of Basic Skills scores were in the lowest quartile in the city, according to the study. Just 6 percent of displaced students were enrolled in schools with itbs scores in the highest quartile, it says.
“If the findings are correct—for Chicago, at least—we have to question the value of closing schools and creating the dislocations that would attend those school closings for little or no constructive result,” said Daniel L. Duke, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.
Mr. Duke, who runs a university program that prepares leaders to turn around low-performing schools, said placing strong leaders who are supported by teacher-leaders and central-office employees has proved to be an effective strategy for many of the schools the program has worked with.
While students who went from one low-performing school to another did not see achievement gains, the study says, those who transferred to some of the district’s highest-performing schools did show progress.
The announcement that specific schools were closing had a negative impact on student achievement, the study suggests. The announcement was often made in January, a few months before students took standardized tests. In the year that closings were announced, students in schools slated to close fell 1½ months below the expected achievement level in reading and more than a half-month below the expected level in math, based on an analysis of itbs scores.
That negative effect was temporary, however. A year later, the displaced students were achieving again at their expected levels, the study says.
Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a Chicago advocacy group often critical of Mr. Duncan’s initiatives as district chief, said the study’s findings are more evidence that the district’s reform strategies are not working. The group has called for the end of Renaissance 2010, a district program that closes low-performing schools and replaces them with charter and charterlike schools run by private groups.
“When Arne Duncan announced this program, he said it was going to lead to dramatically better education for the children. We were hoping that would be true,” Ms. Woestehoff said. “There hasn’t really been any payoff from all the money that has been spent and all the disruption that has been caused to communities and especially to students.”
Chicago’s school closings returned to the spotlight this fall after a high school student was brutally beaten and killed in a fight near a South Side high school. Local activists have contended that the school closings created a dangerous mixture of students from rival neighborhoods. Mr. Duncan said earlier this month that blaming school closings for the uptick in violence was “absolutely ridiculous.” ("Outcry Against Violence," Oct. 14, 2009.)
Chicago school spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment about the study.
Can They Be Fixed?
The displacement of students after school closings also had an impact on student-mobility rates and participation in the district’s summer school programs, according to the study.
Students were more likely to switch schools again not only in the summer after that first year in the new school, the researchers found, but also during the school year. Third, 6th, and 8th graders were less likely than their peers in similar schools to attend summer school in the summer after their schools had closed.
Rebecca Herman, a managing research analyst for the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, said policymakers should especially focus on making sure that students affected by closings are being placed in higher-performing schools, and ensuring that those schools are equipped with supports to help them take on the new students while maintaining quality.
Particular attention should also be paid to the transition period after announcements of school closings are made, she said.
Ms. Herman, who was the lead author of a federal guide on school turnarounds, said the Chicago study leaves some questions unanswered. For example, were there “differences in [students’] motivation and support for excelling in school that would help explain these findings?” she said.
“If you wanted to apply this policy broadly,” she added, “how would you motivate those 94 percent of students [who did not enroll in top-scoring schools] to go to a school farther away and provide support for them?”
Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, both in Washington, said the study shows the complexities of school turnaround efforts.
“What really jumps out is what school you go to after the school closes is extraordinarily important. The important lesson here is that closures are only one piece of a broader strategy that a city has to develop,” he said.
School administrators must take into account student-transfer policies, geographical considerations, and the impact on the grade levels affected, he said. Successful school administrators are able to show parents and the larger communities the closings are part of a bigger improvement plan, Mr. Smarick said.
“I think a lot of people mistakenly think turnarounds are easy or that turnarounds often succeed. Sometimes there are institutions, whether they are schools, businesses, or nonprofits, that are just broken, low-performing, and they can’t be fixed,” Mr. Smarick said. “That is unsettling for people to think about when we are talking about schools.”Vol. 29, Issue 10