Public schools in the District of Columbia and surrounding suburbs are closed today, which is annoying many of my Slate colleagues. It also made me wonder about the impact of these closures on the students. We know that summer vacation drives a fair share of educational inequality, since poor parents are unable to provide the kind of enriching nonschool environment that higher-income parents give their kids over the summertime. Is a winter storm similar?
The available evidence says no. Snow days are fine for kids. In fact, it's hesitating to pull the trigger on canceling school that may be bad for poor kids.
The news comes to us from Joshua Goodman of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Massachusetts is an unusually well-governed state as well as a rather cold one, so its school officials actually wanted to see a rigorous assessment of their practices. What Goodman found (PDF) was that closures due to snow are unrelated to school performance, most likely because when schools cancel a day they replace it with a "makeup" day at the end of the year. By contrast, student absences from school are very detrimental to learning. The difference, Goodman speculates, is that schools can easily coordinate around schoolwide lost days, while individual student absences disrupt the whole lesson plan. The kicker is that when you look at moderate levels of snowfall—the kind of snow that causes some Massachusetts schools to close but not others—it turns out that snowfall leads to a surge in absences.
So basically a school faced with a gray area level of snow has two choices. One is that it can cancel school for everyone, then stage a makeup day for everyone, and then everyone will be fine. The other is that it can keep school open, knowing that a certain number of kids won't show up and that those absences will be quite bad for their learning. Under the circumstances, closing the school can make sense.