“It is particularly troubling that not only are economically disadvantaged and black students more likely to experience closures, but they are the least likely to subsequently transfer to the types of high-performing schools that are critical to their future academic success,” — Meredith Richards, SMU

School closures disproportionately displace impoverished and black students, according to a new study from researchers at Southern Methodist University and Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium.

In a look at the Houston Independent School District’s school closures between 2003 and 2010, researchers found that schools with a higher proportion of black students were particularly likely to be targeted by closures, said education policy researcher Meredith Richards, co-author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at SMU, Dallas.

“This is particularly concerning,” Richards said, “given the pernicious history of inequity and structural racism and the already problematic achievement gaps between blacks and whites in Houston and nationally.”

Also, more than 90 percent of students were economically disadvantaged, qualifying for free or reduced meals under the federal school lunch program.

School closures in the face of tight budgets are a challenge nationwide — for both urban and rural districts.

The researchers note that students displaced by school closures in Houston did generally transfer to schools that were better performing than those that closed. However, there were concerning racial differences in transfer patterns.

White and Asian students displaced by closure are twice as likely as black and Hispanic students to transfer to high-performing schools, while most black and Hispanic students transferred to low-quality schools.

“Unfortunately, the negative effects of closures are disproportionately borne by Houston’s most disadvantaged students,” Richards said. “It’s also important to note that, despite going to higher quality schools on average, we find that students generally have slower achievement growth after closures — even students who transfer to high-quality schools. This suggests that although school closures may be necessary for budgetary reasons, they are not likely to be a successful reform strategy for improving student achievement.”

Findings of the study are presented by HERC as a research brief. For the study’s data, Richards and her colleague Kori Stroub, a researcher at Rice’s HERC, examined 4,168 students displaced by 27 of HISD’s 55 school closures between 2003 and 2010 and compared them with a matched group of students that did not experience closures during the same time period.

The paper used data from the state of Texas supplied by the Texas Education Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

School closures impact students as well as the wider community
Richards — whose research generally concerns the impact of a broad range of policies, particularly their unintended consequences for disadvantaged groups — first witnessed the impact of school closures while a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s school district proposed closing 37 schools, she recalls.

“The response of the local community and the media was overwhelming — a number of people were even arrested in protesting the closures,” she said. “I became interested in the effect of closures on not only students, but on the local communities in which schools are such important cultural institutions.”

Closures in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and other major cities in the Midwest and Northeast have received considerable attention.

“Kori and I realized that districts like Houston were more quietly shuttering urban schools with much less attention,” Richards said. “Thus, we applied for and received a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation to allow us to study the effects of closures in this understudied context.”

Vast majority of students in closed schools are economically disadvantaged
The researchers found that 91 percent of students in HISD schools that were closed were economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualified for free or reduced meals under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Program, compared with 80 percent in HISD as a whole.

Also, 43 percent of students affected by those school closures were black, even though only 27 percent of HISD’s students were black.

Stroub, who is lead author on the study, and Richards, the grant’s principal investigator, also examined whether students from the closed schools transferred to high-performing schools (those in the top third of HISD schools based on Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, test scores) or low-performing schools (those in the bottom third of HISD schools based on TAKS scores).

High-achieving students were more likely to transfer to high-performing schools
Fifty-two percent of displaced students transferred to schools in the bottom third of the district in math achievement and 43 percent of displaced students transferred to schools in the bottom third of HISD in reading achievement.

Only 21 percent of displaced students transferred to high-performing schools in terms of math achievement and 18 percent transferred to schools with high reading achievement.

In addition, high-achieving students (those in the top third of HISD students) were 1.6 times more likely to transfer to high-performing schools than low-achieving students (those in the bottom third of HISD students).

However, low- and high-achieving students were about equally likely to transfer to low-performing schools (55 percent and 49 percent, respectively).

Students of color transferred disproportionately to low-achieving schools
Breaking things down by race, the researchers found that 51 percent of displaced white students transferred to schools that ranked in the top third of schools in terms of achievement and only 28 percent of black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students transferred to high-achieving campuses. By comparison, 26 percent of displaced white students, 42 percent of displaced black students and 53 percent of displaced Hispanic students transferred to low-achieving schools.

“It is particularly troubling that not only are economically disadvantaged and black students more likely to experience closures, but they are the least likely to subsequently transfer to the types of high-performing schools that are critical to their future academic success,” Richards said.

School closures and transfers take a toll on student achievement over time
The researchers also focused on the impact of school closures on student achievement over time, as measured by the math and reading TAKS scores of the displaced students and the type of schools to which they transferred.

Overall:
During their first year at a new school, displaced students got 1.3 more questions correct on their math TAKS compared with nondisplaced students. There was no significant change in their reading TAKS results.

In the years following closure, displaced students had slower academic progress than their nondisplaced peers. By their fourth year at a new school, displaced students got 0.3 fewer questions correct on their math TAKS and one fewer question correct on their reading TAKS compared with nondisplaced students.

Students transferred to low-performing schools:
During their first year at a new school, there was no effect on the math TAKS scores of displaced students, but the same students got two fewer questions correct on their reading TAKS compared with nondisplaced students.

In the years following closure, displaced students who transferred to low-performing schools had slower academic achievement than their nondisplaced peers. By their fourth year at a new school, displaced students got 4.1 fewer questions correct on their math TAKS and 3.6 fewer questions correct on their reading TAKS than nondisplaced students.

Students that transferred to high-performing schools:
During their first year at a new school, displaced students got 3.1 more questions correct on their math TAKS and 1.9 more questions correct on their reading TAKS than nondisplaced students.

In the years following closure, displaced students who transferred to high-performing schools had slower growth in academic achievement than their nondisplaced peers. By their fourth year at a new school, the initial bump in achievement after closure had narrowed to 2.2 questions on the math TAKS and 1.3 questions on the reading TAKS.

Findings imply closure policies should mitigate impact on students
“To help minimize the negative effects of closures, the district must be judicious in closing only the lowest-performing schools,” the authors said.

“In addition, students must be offered high-performing transfer options to the extent feasible. We recommend that displaced students are reassigned to schools that are significantly higher-performing than the schools from which they came,” they note. “We also suggest that displaced students be given preferential admissions or reserved slots in several high-performing campuses across the district.”

Stroub said this was especially important because low-performing schools tend to cluster geographically.

“The bulk of displaced students may not live near a meaningfully higher-performing school to which they can be re-zoned,” he said.

“However, HISD can leverage its well-developed choice programs to provide displaced students increased access to higher-performing schools.”

The study and research brief are Part 1 of a larger project, “Evaluating the impact of school closures in Houston ISD.” — Rice University, Houston, and SMU