Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Proceed with Caution on School Closings

Though I generally hesitate to stray too far from the issue of teacher certification, the buzz around shutting down failing schools has me concerned.

Lately, I've been struck by the burst of folks calling for more school closures:

What bothers me about this calls is not that they are incorrect. Indeed, where education reform is concerned I long ago gave up on such easy labels. No, what bothers me here is the recklessness and lack of humility with which these calls are being issued. Closing failing schools may be the answer in some cases, but the notion that it is "the option," as Smarick suggests, is simply going too far.

For it to be THE option, we would need to know that students would have good charter schools to go to. But recent studies show us that bad charter schools may well outweigh good ones. Likewise, it might be THE option if data on the impact of switching schools weren't as muddled as it is. But there is simply too much uncertainly around the effects of closing schools and switching students around to pretend that the decision is so simple.

I'm not suggesting I have the answer here, but I join Duncan in recognizing that school turnarounds require a variety of approaches. In the absence of convincing data that show a uniformly salutary effect in school closings, I would ask that we proceed with the greatest of caution.


  1. I know this will seem like an overly general comment - but -

    The school closing talk strikes me as strange if only because it seems like a symptom of a broader disease (in fact, the disease that might make schools "fail" in the first place) - namely, that there is nothing worth saving prior to a given round of reforms.

    For those who work in school buildings who have ever gotten new administrators who have brand new ideas about how to proceed (which basically means everyone who works in a school building), you'll know what I'm talking about.

    Every time we "start over" with a new five-year plan, I just wonder if we don't set ourselves up for failure no matter what the new policy. Every time we start over, we have a new plan whose terms likely will not be fulfilled, and we gut ourselves of the sort of institutional memory that makes functional institutions work. Now, I know the idea is that sometimes there is bad institutional memory, and "pressing reset" is a way to help that, but I just wonder why there is so much (at times even gleeful) desire to close down and then reopen schools, and the pretend we've done something.

    Again - over-general comment - it's like arresting a corner full of drug dealers and thinking you've stop drug dealing on that corner.

    And we conduct both of these tricks on the same populations too...

  2. JB,

    A general comment, yes, but right on. There is indeed a faddishness that goes with this talk of closing. When this doesn't work, we'll try the next thing, etc...

    In the end, I'm inclined to think that nothing short of long term maintenance, be it of a school or a district, will sustain quality. But if our attitude remains so short term - we love charter schools, but only if they work quickly - we're going to keep running in circles.

    Thanks for the insight.

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