If a company can’t make profit or manage its business correctly, the company inevitably fails and a better one takes its place. When public schools fail, they rarely “go out of business,” but instead go through a process of remediation and restructuring. There has been no evidence to show that restructuring procedures lead to significantly better academic outcomes, leaving many states to make the decision either to close or restructure their failing schools.
What Constitutes a “Failing” School?
No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2001 with the intention of pulling up low-performing schools. NCLB included a requirement that all schools receiving Title I funding must show Adequate Yearly Progress, meaning all students are required to meet or exceed minimum levels of improvement on standardized tests as defined by the state. NCLB does not necessarily require school closings, just their restructuring. If schools fail to meet their AYP target for two or more consecutive years, the school is deemed “in need of improvement” and faces consequences, depending on the number of years each school has failed to meet AYP. Starting with two consecutive years of failure, schools are required to offer student transfer options. For each additional year the school fails to meet AYP, other consequences are put into place that include supplemental services and corrective action. It’s not until a school has been failing for five years that restructuring plans are designed, and not until the sixth year that these plans are implemented.
Restructuring and Turnarounds
When schools reach the “restructuring” phase of NCLB, they must either close and reopen as a charter, replace staff, turn the school over to the state or contact outside help. The problem is that to fix a school with a long track record of low performance requires a change in school culture. In a study for New Schools Venture Fund, researchers found that changing the culture of existing schools to facilitate learning was practically impossible. Of the schools required to restructure in the 2004-05 school year, only 19 percent were able to exit “needs improvement” status within two years. Restructuring has simply yielded no consistent or dramatic increases in student performance, while costing taxpayers millions of dollars in futile efforts.
What It Means to Close
Districts close schools by both closing the school building and transferring students and staff to another facility, or they close the school and it reopens under new staff and leadership, possibly as a charter school. When schools are forced to close down, it’s not just an abandoned building left standing — the community is left standing as well. Closing a school means dismantling a school community for students, teachers and parents. The problem for many school districts is the question of how shuffling low-performing students to possibly other low-performing schools is going to make any improvement.
Does Closing Solve the Problem?
Unless there are better options than the current school, closing a school for performance reasons is usually ineffective. Studies show that closing schools and transferring students does not result in improvements in student achievement as measured by standardized test scores, graduation or drop-out rates. One 2006-07 study of an urban school district in the western U.S. researched the effects of closing a high school for low performance. Students were given a choice of attending either another school within the district or exit the district through other means such as a charter school. Of 558 students, 175 students exited the district by moving or dropping out while 380 students went to 17 different schools. Those 380 students suffered from lower test scores, weaker relationships with teachers and a negative attitude about the difficulty level of their new school. While there is no easy answer, districts looking to close, or restructure, low-performing schools should have a plan in place that includes support for those students who are displaced.