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Moving Forward in the Wake of School Closings

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May 29, 2013

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 29, 2013.

By Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

After weeks of public debate, the Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously last week to shutter an unprecedented 50 schools. As a result, thousands of students will be forced to switch schools next year. Parents and teachers have protested the closings, even disrupting board meetings with heckling and sit-ins.

However, the best research suggests that these closings are unlikely to cause long-term harm to students. I am not hardhearted — I am a parent myself — and there is little doubt that even in the best-case scenario, the transition will be difficult. But after the dust settles, Chicago Public Schools will likely be stronger.

Together with colleagues from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the University of Chicago, I have been studying the impact of earlier waves of Chicago school closings from 1998 to 2005. Those years saw one to nine elementary schools closed per year — far fewer closings than we face this year.

We find that any time a student changes schools for any reason, whether it results from the choice to switch to another charter or public school, due to a residential relocation or a forced move because of a school closing, the disruption temporarily depresses the student's test scores for a year or two after the move.

Eventually, the student's achievement level rebounds to meet the original trajectory, suggesting that children are not permanently damaged by the moves. Our work suggests that students in the so-called "welcoming" schools that receive an influx of displaced students are not permanently harmed, either.

Students who experience a school closing fit this same pattern, with one important exception. Their test scores decline sharply during their final year at the closed school. This could reflect a tendency of teachers and students to become discouraged and give up on some classwork as they face the upcoming closing.

Even though research suggests that the children who are being displaced will not suffer long-term damage from the move, my heart goes out to them as they face this disruption because I remember what it was like to go through a similar situation. When I was a second-grader in the early 1980s, my school district in suburban St. Louis had to close schools. I remember how scary it was as an 8-year-old to have to leave my neighborhood school that I loved and face the prospect of being bused over to a different school where I did not know anyone.

The saving grace for me was being assigned to a great teacher. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that high-quality teachers permanently improve student outcomes and can even be measured in higher lifetime earnings of students. For me, Mrs. Viola Murphy was one of those life-changing teachers, helping us newcomers assimilate to our new school without missing a beat in developing our academic and social skills.

I hope that when principals in CPS' welcoming schools are making classroom assignments, they will go out of their way to ensure that the displaced students are taught by the very best teachers. The outcry from dedicated Chicago teachers who for years have been working diligently to combat the problems that plague their schools reminds me that most educators have the welfare of their students in mind.

Research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that children who relocate to high-achieving schools improve academically. Unfortunately, most students in this year's closing schools will move to schools that are only marginally better than the ones they are leaving. Acknowledging this point, Board of Education President David Vitale said he hopes that CPS can prove this research wrong.

One way to increase the likelihood of actually improving student academic outcomes would be to use some of the resources saved by consolidating schools to reduce class size or implement other proven methods to improve instruction. Research shows that there are positive impacts of smaller class sizes in the early grades on long-term outcomes such as college graduation. These impacts are consistently larger for children who attend schools with a high fraction of low-income students, like students affected by this massive round of school closings. So far, the district's plans have not been clear on how they will reinvest the freed-up resources to improve instructional quality.

The images and testimonies of teachers who risked their lives to save their students from the tornadoes that devastated Moore, Okla., serve as a reminder of the lengths a teacher will go for his or her students.

In the wake of the disastrous budgetary environment that has forced the closing of dozens of Chicago schools, the children need us to move forward with hope and commitment.

- Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University.