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High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students' Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility

November 1, 2015
By James J. Kemple

In the first decade of the 21st century, the NYC Department of Education implemented a set of large-scale and much debated high school reforms, which included closing large, low-performing schools, opening new small schools and extending high school

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In the first decade of the 21st century, the NYC Department of Education implemented a set of large-scale and much debated high school reforms, which included closing large, low-performing schools, opening new small schools and extending high school choice to students throughout the district. The school closure process was the most controversial of these efforts. Yet, apart from the general sense that school closures are painful, there has never been a rigorous assessment of their impact in NYC.

To begin to fill this gap, the Research Alliance undertook a study of the 29 low-performing high schools that were designated for closure in New York City between 2002 and 2008, looking particularly at the impact of these closures on students’ academic performance, attendance, and mobility. Key findings include:

  • The schools designated for closure were, in fact, among the lowest performing in the City, based on a composite of 10 performance indicators averaged over four years leading up to the closure decision. Even after accounting for differences in the demographics and prior achievement of incoming students, these schools performed poorly in relation to others in the system. It should be noted, however, that there were a number of high schools in the district (between 10 and 29 depending on the year) that exhibited similarly low performance but were not closed. A subset of these schools serve as a comparison group in our study.
  • Closures had little impact, positive or negative, on the academic outcomes of students who were enrolled during the phaseout process. These students had better outcomes, compared to students enrolled in the same schools prior to the closure decisions. However, these gains were similar to gains made in the other low-performing high schools at the same time—suggesting that the phaseout process, in and of itself, had little effect on these outcomes.
  • The phaseout process did increase student mobility, largely through transfers to other New York City high schools, rather than transfers to other districts or students dropping out. Notably, while transfer rates increased, the characteristics of students who transferred were virtually the same as the characteristics of students who transferred before the phaseout.
  • Closing high schools produced meaningful benefits for future students—i.e., middle schoolers who had to choose another high school because the school they likely would have attended was closing. These students ended up going to schools that were higher performing than the closed schools, both in terms of the achievement and attendance of incoming students and on the basis of longer-term outcomes. In addition, “post-closure” students’ outcomes improved significantly more than students in the comparison group, including a 15-point increase in graduation rates.
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