School Closings Due to Bad Weather Have Little to No Effect on Student Achievement
But individual absences caused by weather when schools don’t close have negative effects on achievement
Tasked with deciding whether to close schools due to bad weather, superintendents must weigh concerns about student and staff safety against the loss of student learning time. While past studies have suggested that snow day school closings reduce student learning, new research from Joshua Goodman at the Harvard Kennedy School shows that closings due to snow days have little impact on achievement. Instead, it is individual student absences, which increase on days when schools remain open despite the bad weather, that affect student achievement, especially in math.
Given the negative impact of individual absences on achievement, Goodman recommends superintendents lean toward cancellation when snow is severe enough to substantially disrupt student attendance.
Using student-level achievement data from Massachusetts covering 2003-2010, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Data Online, Goodman compares instances where snowfall resulted in school closings, in which all students miss school, with less snowy days in which schools typically remained open but a subset of students remained home. Massachusetts was an ideal state to conduct the study, as the amount of snowfall in the state has varied widely from year to year, with days with more than four inches of snow experienced by the average school ranging from just a single day in 2007 to nearly five days in 2005.
Goodman finds that school closings have no effect on student achievement overall in either math or English language arts. However, absences induced by snowfall decrease all students’ math achievement by up to 5 percent of a standard deviation, roughly equivalent to 6 percent of the gap in math performance between low-income and non-poor students in Massachusetts. Because absences are greater among low-income students, absences could account for as much as one-quarter of the income-based achievement gap in the state.
According to Goodman a “likely explanation is that schools and teachers are well prepared to deal with the coordinated disruptions caused by snow days—much more so than they are to handle the less dramatic but more frequent disruptions caused by poor student attendance.”
Goodman shows that achievement is harmed both by individual students’ own absences and by the absences of others in the classroom. “When a single student misses a day or more of instruction, the teacher can review the recently presented material for the student who missed it, in which case the absent student’s peers lose out on valuable instructional time, or she may move forward with new material and risk having the absent student fall behind.”
The effect of absences on achievement is particularly pronounced in math, perhaps because “in math, much more so than in ELA, understanding the current topic depends on having understood prior topics.” Goodman notes that: “Teachers may feel more obligated during math instructional time to try to catch up students who have been absent, thus depriving the rest of the class of instructional time.”
The average Massachusetts student misses eight school days per year, according to Goodman, but student absences vary by poverty status, with poor students being absent ten days per year on average, three days more than nonpoor students.
“Closing school for everyone appears to be better for student learning than adding to the challenges posed by American students’ already low attendance rates,” Goodman concludes.
“In Defense of Snow Days: Students who stay home when school is in session are a much larger problem,” by Joshua Goodman is available now on https://www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Summer 2015 issue of Education Next.
About the Author
Joshua Goodman is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
About Education Next
Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: https://www.educationnext.org.