Color-Evasive Research: Limited and Inconclusive Evidence on School Closures

School closure is now a widely implemented policy response to chronic school failure in districts primarily seiwing low-income students of color. Yet ironically, there are very few studies to drawn upon that propose positive outcomes of the reform. There are a few studies with findings suggesting that students displaced by closure who then transfer to academically higher-performing schools show some academic gains. Yet, these findings should be considered with caution, because improvement in academic achievement can only occur if a displaced student has the opportunity to transfer to a school that is higher performing than the school they left (Engberg, Gill, Zamaro, & Zimmer, 2012). However, most students displaced by closure do not get that opportunity. For instance, Kirshner, Gaertner, and Pozzoboni (2010) found that post-school closure Latinx and African American students in their new school experienced decline in academic performance, were more likely to drop out of school, and less likely to graduate. Finally, students do not necessarily experience the fresh start that is assumed to come with school closure.

Likewise, de la Torre and Gwynne (2009) found in their study of school closures in CPS between 2001 and 2006, that most displaced students re-enrolled in schools that were some of the weakest schools in the school system academically. More specifically, 40% of students displaced re-enrolled in schools that were on probation, and 42% of this same group of students re-enrolled in schools in the bottom quartile of the district on the standardized assessment. At the same time, only 6% transferred to schools that were in the top-quartile in academic performance. The researchers speculate that very few displaced students re-enrolled in top performing schools because limited seats were available, the schools were perhaps too long a distance away to travel, or parents were unfamiliar with the schools’ neighborhoods. Moreover, while Reading scores of students displaced by school closure in Chicago got back on track within a year, the Math scores of this same group of students continued to trail behind, and this academic decline is attributed to the disruption that students and their families experienced when transitioning to their new school (Gordon, de la Torre, Cowhy, Moore, Sartain, & Knight, 2018)

We also find that most quantitative research studies on school closure, that is the few that are available, are rather decontextualized and raceneutral in their execution and overall presentation of the findings. These studies for the most part do recognize that school closure is a very controversial and political policy, given there is much public concern for how school closure will impact students, parents, and teachers. Yet, what is pointedly absent from the policy background description in these studies is how the political tensions around school closure are also tied to racial matters, especially the racial realities that school communities threatened by closure face. When discussions of how school closure impacts students of color are generally absent, technical aspects of the policy background, such as the criteria a district or state used to close schools, are provided instead. Furthermore, most quantitative studies on school closure fail to mention any racial indicators or any other intersecting demographic characteristics of the context of study, and when they do, no connections are made between the racial demographics and the policy in question or the study’s ultimate findings. For example, Engberg et al. (2012), one of the most widely cited quantitative studies on school closure, did conduct an analysis of the demographic characteristics in the anonymous district they studied, to find that African American students, 48%, and students who receive free and reduced lunch, 84%, were more likely to be displaced by school closure. However, to us the rate at which African American and low-income students experience school closure is disconcerting, given these subpopulations only represented 28% and 69% respectively of the district, a disproportionality that the authors failed to even mention. What’s more, the authors did not disaggregate the achievement data of students displaced due to school closure by race.

Nonetheless, the sequence of events surrounding school closure are indeed contextual and, in most cases, localized. For instance, public housing closures in Black neighborhoods across the South Side of Chicago triggered a perpetual decline in student enrollment and subsequent closure of public schools in these communities. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans presented the state with a window of opportunity to unravel and replace the public school system with charters. Then, in Detroit, the series of school closures over time was uniquely tied to the city’s financial bankruptcy. These examples represent just a few of the many cases from which to infer that context matters to the nature of school closures.

Two of the most referenced studies in school closure research present what we question as giving too much of a bird’s eye view of a policy that has proven to be so locally embroiled. Carlson and Lavertu’s (2015) study (supported by Fordham Institute, an organization noted as supporting market-oriented policies), examined school closures in eight major urban public districts in Ohio and charters near these districts; while Brummet (2014) studied elementary and middle school closures in urban and suburban districts in Michigan. Both studies found that displaced students did eventually experience gains in academic achievement at their new school, only if, of course, the new school was higher-achieving than their former one. We have concerns that such a decontextualized, wide lens of analysis at the state level might misleadingly present school closure as a one-size-fits-all policy solution, not taking into account that when it comes to school closure the unique localized context does indeed matter.

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