How far to go for quality education?

Across the country, many school systems have designated “turnaround schools,” which means that the schools remain open but new staff is hired.

As of 2009, 12 Chicago Public Schools were designated turnaround schools: Charles S. Deneen Elementary School, as well as George W. Curtis Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side are two of them. Both schools are currently trying to fill multiple positions.

However, other schools aren’t so lucky and are forced to close because of low enrollment or because of consistently low levels of academic performance. Schools also closed because of underutilization of the school’s space, the conversion of schools to charter schools and a building’s poor physical condition. Since 2001, CPS has closed 44: Twenty-six closed because of low enrollment and poor academic standing.

For Andy Smarick, a visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, school closures makes economic sense, as he compared ailing schools to other failing industries.

“The surprise and shame is that urban public education, unlike nearly every other industry, profession and field, has never developed a sensible solution to its continuous failures.” Smarick wrote in The Turnaround Fallacy.

“After undergoing improvement efforts, a struggling private firm that continues to lose money will close, get taken over, or go bankrupt. Unfit elected officials are voted out of office. The worst lawyers can be disbarred, and the most negligent doctors can lose their licenses. Urban school districts, at long last, need an equivalent.”

According to the study, “When Schools Close: Effects on Displaced Students in Chicago Public Schools,” authors found that after schools closed, displaced students enrolled in equally underperforming schools.”

In fact, 40 percent of displaced students enrolled in schools on probation and another 42 percent of students enrolled in schools that reported some of the lowest test scores. Only 6 percent enrolled in a higher academic-achieving school. However, those students’ commute averaged 3.5 miles.

Julia Gwynne and Marisa de la Torre, both analysts at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, and authors of the study, found that keeping underperforming and underutilized are expensive to maintain and especially during CPS’s dire budget issues, resources could be better allocated to other areas of CPS.

And while parents, teachers and students protest the CPS building in droves and pack board of education meetings, Gwynne and de la Torre concluded that school closings have little affect on students’ academic performance, but addressed the merit of school closings.

Gwynne and de la Torres reported students did better when they attended a better school after their schools closed. “This also suggests that the success of a school closing policy crucially depends on a large supply of ‘better’ schools and on an intentional strategy to enroll displaced students in these schools.”

But for every school that closes, Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 initiative guarantees to establish 100 quality schools by the end of the year. Williams school closed after the 2001-2002 school year, but by 2003-2004, four new schools opened in the same building.

“Our knowledge base about improving failing schools is still staggeringly small,” Smarick wrote. “And exceptional urban schools are nearly always start-ups or consistently excellent schools, not drastically improved once-failing schools.”

Related Links

Chicago Public Schools |   Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 |   Consortium on School Chicago Research |

GEM: Grassroots Eduction Movement

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