Research News

Students displaced by school closures need high-quality alternatives


Closing schools can have negative effects on displaced students, but these ramifications can be counteracted if students are moved to schools that are substantially higher-performing.

A new study from the RAND Corporation, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and Mathematica Policy Research finds that closing low-performing schools does not necessarily benefit their students and can undermine student achievement—depending on the quality of the students’ new schools.

School closures have become increasingly common in some districts due to declining enrollments and financial constraints. Further, reinforcing existing sanctions in the No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama administration is encouraging states and districts to consider closing schools that are chronically low-performing.

These new findings argue that many students displaced by school closures experience adverse effects both on test scores and attendance—unless they are transferred to substantially higher-performing schools.

Ron Zimmer
Ron Zimmer (Steve Green/Vanderbilt)

“Closing schools is one of the most controversial actions a district can take, but districts across the nation are closing schools due to declining enrollments and low achievement,” said Peabody’s Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education. “This recent upsurge has given rise to concerns about the impact on student achievement, neighborhoods, families and teaching staff.”

The researchers examined an anonymous urban school district in which decreasing enrollment and financial strain made school closures a necessity. The district used prior school performance as the main criterion for choosing schools to close, rather than often-used criteria such as building condition or neighborhood support.

The anonymous district hoped the closures would provide an opportunity to improve student achievement.

“What we actually found is that students who moved to similarly performing schools experienced declines in reading and math test scores,” said Gema Zamarro, an economist at the RAND Corporation. “Our study suggests that students would have to transfer to much higher-performing schools before they would score at the same level as they had prior to the move.”

Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica, said, “[rquote]Simply closing a low-performing school is not enough to improve student outcomes.[/rquote] When schools are closed, districts should ensure that displaced students have the opportunity to attend high-performing schools.”

The researchers also found that displaced students initially experienced lower attendance, but the negative effect on attendance disappeared after the first year in the new school.

The authors caution that further research needs to be conducted across a wide array of districts before strong conclusions can be drawn. Follow-up research should also examine longer-term implications of school closings, including effects on later cohorts of students who never attended the closed schools and therefore did not experience the disruption associated with displacement.

The study was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education and is currently in press with Journal of Urban Economics.