Closing failing schools should be the last resort, but a viable option

Closing a school because it is failing students and the community should be the last resort of education reformers. But it should not be rejected altogether, a study in Ohio indicates.

Simply shutting a school down and moving students elsewhere certainly is a challenge. For one thing, communities become invested in their local schools. For another, forcing children to leave a building and teachers to whom they have become accustomed can be a major upheaval for them.

But a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Columbus found benefits for students can outweigh drawbacks of moving them. The study was done by researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Oklahoma.

In contrast to some studies, the Fordham product had an impressive base. It looked at 22,000 students in grades 3-8 whose schools were closed from 2006-12. Most of the children were black and from poor households. Most were not doing well in their old schools.

But when they were sent instead to better schools, many of the students did much better in the classroom. On average, children from closed public schools improved in reading by the equivalent of 49 additional days in class and in mathematics by 34 days.

Those are impressive gains. Still, the key is that the children were transferred to schools demonstrably better than the ones that were closed. In some cities, those high-quality schools are hard to find.

Still, the study puts to rest contentions that simply giving up on a school is a bad thing. Education reformers – along with legislators and parents -everywhere should keep that in mind.

At some point, when repeated efforts to improve a school have failed, that institution should be closed. If a high-quality replacement is not convenient to the displaced students, an entirely new one – started, in effect, from scratch with no traces of the failed institution remaining – may be the best solution.