A new study suggests that physical environment could be just as important to learning as the education itself.
The physical environment in which students learn could be just as important as the educational material itself, according to a University of California-Los Angeles study.
The argument comes in the midst of a nationwide debate, with concern over a lack of consistency related to the level of education provided, often measured through textbook and other materials provided to students — yet the issue of classroom environmental inequality is one that’s rarely raised.
This month, a state known for its snow-related school closures faced a new health and safety threat. High temperatures and humidity caused some Minneapolis schools to close their doors, claiming a lack of air conditioning and proper fan ventilation systems were creating hazardous conditions for students.
Yet in the midst of the heatwave, not all districts had the same response — those in more affluent neighborhoods kept their doors open, comforted by central air conditioning units and comfortable classroom temperatures.
Those that couldn’t afford it turned students away, only to later welcome them back to conditions not suited for students suffering from asthma and other respiratory conditions.
The UCLA study echoes the sentiments of those pointing to the physical environment in which students learn as an area that needs to be taken seriously, alongside class size, education material and teacher effectiveness.
“School building design features and components are those impacting temperature, lighting, acoustics and age,” the report states. “Researchers have found negative impact upon student performance in buildings where deficiencies in any of these features exist.”
According to the study, the achievement gap for students in inadequate buildings is as high as 17 percent, with low-income minority communities suffering the consequences at higher rates than those living in affluent areas.
The 2000 Office of Education Research and Improvement assessment indicated it would cost more than $127 billion to get those buildings up-to-date. According to the National Education Association, the situation is even more dire — the association puts those estimates at double that of the Office of Education Research and Improvement.
When compared to the cost U.S. taxpayers contribute to other areas, including in tax breaks for oil companies, the cost for improving America’s education infrastructure isn’t so robust — In 2011, subsidies for the oil industry reached $7 billion. In 2012, British Petroleum alone received tax breaks worth $300 million.
Education gap between rich and poor
Since the 1960s, the gap between the nation’s rich and poor students has increased by a dramatic 40 percent, according to a report published by Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociology professor.
Reardon’s data focussed on standardized test scores, noting the growing imbalance between students stemming from affluent households and those whose families were considered low income.
Factors that contribute to that gap have been attributed to many moving pieces, including educational support delivered at home and kindergarten preparedness. Another factor, however, focusses on the different levels of quality education and physical environments from one school to another.
Most state systems are set up in a way that allows individual districts to pass referendums for school levies. In states like Minnesota, those local levies are passed by area residents, who decide whether to increase taxes for the sake of supporting the local school district.
As noted by Reardon, students enrolled in low-income areas throughout the nation are suffering the consequences, leaving the nation with a public school system that unevenly favors those already on the winning end.
Districts that hold more wealth tend to vote on behalf of such tax increases, creating a difference in funding from one school to the next.
States like Wisconsin, for example, have safety nets in place that seek to limit the impact of district operating levies, using a formula that delivers fewer state funds to districts with collective property values. The idea is that districts with levies won’t surpass those without, yet it doesn’t always do the trick.
The addition of state-funded vouchers for private charter schools has also dealt a blow to public school systems who, based on standardized tests, can be hit while they’re down — low test scores can lead to districts losing students to charter schools, which have the luxury of picking and choosing the students that sit in their classrooms.
This year, Wisconsin introduced its private school voucher program, which uses public dollars to provide low-income students the chance to enroll in private schools.
While seen as a move to bolster low-income education, many claim those schools can be selective and aren’t held to the same standards. The voucher system also takes away from the public school system, which education advocates claim is sorely in need of all the help it can get.
Suffering without the basics
When a school is woefully underfunded, building repairs are often last on the list of priorities. This, according to the report published by UCLA, results in an environment not conducive to learning.
An aspect as simple as temperature is one that has been discovered to greatly impact the effectiveness of school lessons. While a moderate temperature classroom may seem like a luxury to some, academic studies say otherwise, claiming it could be contributing to test scores below students’ potential.
Citing a 1974 study, the University of California report notes that students’ performance in mathematics and reading was compromised when the learning environment rose above roughly 74 degrees. Optimal learning temperatures ranged from 68 to 74 degrees.
The report, this time citing a 1999 study, further states that “after the socioeconomic status of the students, the most influential building condition variable that influenced student achievement was air conditioning.”
According to a report archived with the Department of Education, students attending class in Washington D.C. buildings classified as being in poor condition displayed achievement ratings 6 percent lower than those who attended buildings considered to be in fair condition — those same students’ achievement levels were 11 percent lower than their peers’ attendings school buildings deemed to be in excellent condition.
That same trend captured in Washington D.C. was also documented in Virginia and North Dakota with similar results, according to the Department of Education.
“Decaying environmental conditions, such as peeling paint, crumbling plaster, non-functioning toilets, poor lighting, inadequate ventilation, and inoperative heating and cooling systems can affect the learning as well as the health and morale of students,” the Department states in its report.
According to a series, “The Walls Speak,” published by South Dakota State University, evidence that students do not perform to their potential in inadequate buildings isn’t good news for a large portion of America’s youth, as 21 percent of schools are more than 50 years old.
“The needs of school building construction and repair present us with a tremendous challenge and, at the same time, an extraordinary opportunity,” The Walls Speak report states. “With the investment of such large expenditures of taxpayer money comes the responsibility to be thoughtful as we approach the issue of school design.”
That is, of course, if the district has the financial means to do so.