Before Closing a School, Consider the “Upgrade Rule”

Many students who depart closing schools end up in schools that are no better.

There are education studies that surprise us and challenge us to rethink old assumptions. And then there are studies that seem so obvious, you wonder if we needed a study in the first place. They mostly confirm what we already know, and remind us that if we want better results, we can’t keep doing the same things.

Not long ago, Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) treated us to a doozy on school closures. You can read the whole executive summary here, but when it comes to closing schools for poor performance, let me summarize a few high points:

  • Schools that get closed are usually performing very poorly and declining. They tend to be losing enrollment, too. Otherwise, they probably would not be closed. It is a difficult, emotional process that displaces families and educators. Administrators and elected officials aren’t eager to do it.
  • Schools serving higher percentages of low income and minority students are more likely to be closed than schools with similar performance but lower percentages of low income and minority students. Put simply, race and class seem to matter in school closures. Communities that have historically had less power in the political arena see more of their schools closed. While this is not surprising, it is still painful.
  • Many students who depart closing schools end up in schools that are no better. This finding mirrors earlier research and makes sense, since schools with high performance do not typically have high numbers of open seats that could accommodate transferring students. The schools with open seats are probably going to be the ones with low performance. But what’s the use of shuffling students around only to put them in another school that is not doing well?
  • When students from a closing school get a seat in a better school, their academic performance is better than when they get a seat in a weaker school. Possibly the least surprising finding you can imagine.

So let’s review: School closures are painful (if occasionally necessary) processes that generally constitute more hardship and disruption for low income and minority families who already bear the brunt of educational inequality—unless students have the opportunity to upgrade to a better school through the transfer process.

Raise your hand if this is news. Please, now, not everybody at once.

This is common sense. What matters is not only the closing school but the schools where students end up after the closure occurs.

And yet, much of the time, we only think through the first half of the equation. Should this school close? Is it irredeemably bad? Has it exhausted all patience and second chances? Have we tried a switch of leadership? New programming? Additional resources?

What if we insisted on thinking through the second half of the equation, too? What if every school closure required a plan to ensure that the vast majority of affected families had the option to transfer to meaningfully better schools within a reasonable geographic distance, rather than being asked to fend for themselves?

Let’s call it the Upgrade Rule. You can’t close a school until you can offer families something better. Isn’t that common sense, too?

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