Who benefits from closing city schools? Not the kids

07.29.13 | Learning on the EDge | 1 Comment

By Jessica Shiller

The battles over school closings have been fierce nationwide. In Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, announcements of public school closings have been met with protest. Urban district leaders have been steadfast, insisting that failing schools must be closed to be able to provide higher performing school options. As Rahm Emmanuel, mayor of Chicago, has said, “The decision to deal with the 54 schools was not taken lightly but it was taken with the notion of ‘How do we make sure that every child can get to a quality school with a quality education?’ Because you do not get a repeat on this.”

We can’t leave urban public education to the whims of the market.
Teachers, parents, and students, on the other hand, have argued that school closures hurt low-income communities by closing anchor institutions.  Moreover, according to two different studies, one by Philadelphia’s Research for Action  and another by Chicago’s Consortium for School Research, there is little evidence to show that school closings would improve education for children, both finding that it’s unlikely that students attending the closing schools would attend schools any better than the ones they had attended. Moreover, closing schools may not even save money. An audit of school closings in Washington, D.C., schools showed closures costing, rather than saving the district money.

So, why do it? Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speculates, “It is clear to us that this massive plan to close schools has nothing to do with the education of the children.” She’s right. Closing schools is part of a larger agenda that reformers have had for urban districts. In a 2010 manifesto entitled “How to Fix Our Schools”, urban district leaders including Michelle Rhee, Philadelphia schools superintendent Bill Hite, and former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein put forth a vision of a school system guided by market ideology, not research. One of their main strategies for improving schools is closing schools whose students don’t perform well on exams, and open charter schools in their place. As the manifesto explained, “We must give parents a better portfolio of school choices. That starts with having the courage to replace low-performing schools and making charter schools a truly viable option.” This strategy ignores research and defines schools as products that parents select in the school marketplace rather than defining schools as community institutions.

Choice sounds good, but not everyone will have great school choices, as the studies in Philadelphia and Chicago have shown. And, even if excellent school options were put in place, not everyone will be able to take advantage of the choices in the school marketplace. Every marketplace has shoppers who can take advantage of the market’s choices and those who can’t. This isn’t good enough. We can’t leave urban public education to the whims of the market. We need a system that guarantees a great education for all students.


About Jessica Shiller

JESSICA SHILLER is an assistant professor of instructional leadership and professional development, Towson University, Towson, Md. Her last Kappan article was “Venture philanthropy’s market strategies fail urban kids,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 2012 (Vol. 93, No. 8), pp. 12-16.

Comments on Who benefits from closing city schools? Not the kids

  1. Lynn Woodworth says:

    If the current system was producing a great education for all students, there would not be any low performing schools to close. Closing for example the 10% lowest performing schools and replacing them with even a school of random quality would lead to an improvement in the overall quality of schools. Doing this over time in a systematic way will result in an ever increasing quality of schools.

    There are only two ways closing the lowest performing schools will not lead to improvement of the education sector. The first is if the students from closed schools were placed in new schools of the exact same quality. This would produce a stable average performance with a constant churn in the bottom 10%. The other way would be if the students from the closed schools were distributed to the remaining schools and the performance of those students did not change. This would bring down the average of those schools, thus maintaining the sector performance. Both of these outcomes relies on the faulty assumption that the educational failure involved lies with the students rather than the schools. For these scenarios to hold, it must be assumed the performance of the schools is an effect caused by the failure of the students attending them rather than the performance of the students being a result of the failure of the schools they attend. If this assumption were true, there would be no reason to even attempt education reform as the cause of low performance at the school level is damaged units (kids).

    The reality is there are schools both traditional and charter making great achievements with students who share the same characteristics of the student bodies of these broken schools. Therefore it is unreasonable to assume the students are broken rather than the schools. Are there students who have issues which no school can overcome? Yes, there are, but they are not uniformly distributed. They certainly don’t all live in the same catchment zone.

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