Do School Facilities Really Impact A Child's Education?

Reproduced by Permission*

An introduction to the issues

By John B. Lyons

Learning is a complex activity that supremely tests students'
motivation and physical condition. Teaching resources, teachers' skill,
and curriculum -- these all play a vital role in a child's education.
But what about the physical condition and design of the actual school
facility itself? How do they shape a child's learning experience?

Today's busy parents may never know. With most of them working, parents
generally find little time to experience, much less evaluate, the
physical condition of their child's school. When they do visit, often
during parent-teacher's night, discussions will mostly focus on their
child's learning, achievement, and progress, not on school maintenance
or design issues. There are few opportunities for parents to observe a
classroom or school during the school day. But it is just during this
time that a significant number of students and teachers struggle with
such things as noise, glare, mildew, lack of fresh air, and hot or cold
temperatures. About 40 percent of our schools report unsatisfactory
environmental conditions.14

News about these environmental nuisances is beginning to appear more
and more in the media. And research is uncovering growing evidence
showing that conditions like these and many other aspects of school
facilities have a huge and often negative impact on children's

Aside from things like mold and mildew, superficial conditions that
exist in schools often because of poor maintenance, other problems are
much more systemic. One is age. The average school today at 42 years
old faces demands that were never intended or even conceived when the
building was built. Another problem is that education today is
delivered in an entirely new manner, with new tools, techniques, and
teaching methods that increasingly don't fit the simplistic conventions
of 42-year-old school designs.

There are about 91,000 public schools today, down from 262,000 in 1930.
Student population, meanwhile, has grown from 25 million in 1950 to
more than 47 million today. More than 75 percent of our schools were
built before 1970 -- three decades ago. By age 40, most buildings start
deteriorating rapidly, even if all original equipment is replaced.
Typical market forces suggest retiring our 42-year-old schools. But
their service continues, perpetuating crowded classrooms, outmoded
designs, poor communications systems, limited technology, and
inadequate security.

Many older schools can't meet Americans with Disabilities Act
accessibility requirements without extensive and often expensive
renovation. Moreover, their static, inflexible design can preclude the
use of advanced teaching processes such as peer-to-peer and group
participation. These highly interactive group learning experiences,
which have overshadowed the decades-old lecture/listen style of
learning, are mandated in the evolved, technologically driven working
environment that students are preparing for. The core of this teaching
approach requires school designs that have open, flexible floor plans,
modular furniture and highly mobile learning tools such as electronic
chalkboards, portable computers, expandable networking, and interactive
video. Few 42-year-old schools designs can fill these needs. And the
difference to a child between receiving an education in a really well-
designed, modern new school and a typical 42-year-old school can be
like the difference between writing in the sand and surfing the

Problems with older schools have been met by a flurry of critical
reports and an infusion of funding. Figures on capital outlay for
school construction from the National Center for Education Statistics
show a 66 percent increase between 1994 and 1999. The Federal
Government has initiated a one-year state grant program for emergency
repairs and renovation to the neediest school districts.** But momentum
is against finding a simple, fast solution.

School Facilities Can Breed Trouble There are adverse yet solvable
environmental conditions in many school facilities today that are
particularly troublesome because of their very real and negative impact
on learning. The first is asthma, a chronic disease of the body's
airways accounting for a half million hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths
each year. The number of asthmatic children increased 60 percent in the
1980s. Asthma affects 29 million people, more than 4.8 million of them
children, and costs $3.6 billion annually. By 2020, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 million Americans will
suffer.1 One in five Americans spends at least part of the day in a
school building. In February 1995, the U.S. Government Accounting
Office released a survey indicating that more than half of U.S. schools
have deficiencies that adversely affect indoor air quality. In
addition to triggering asthma attacks in susceptible children, poor
indoor air quality causes drowsiness, inability to concentrate, and
lethargy. Whether poor air quality forces students to actually miss
class because of asthma attack, or whether it simply reduces
attentiveness, learning is compromised.

Schools have four times as many occupants per square foot as offices,
and they contain a host of pollution sources, including lab chemicals,
cleaning supplies, chalk dust, and molds.2 On any given school day a
significant percentage of students are absent for extended periods
either from the school or the classroom. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) states that asthma is the leading cause of
school absenteeism due to a chronic illness, accounting for over 10
million missed school days per year. The American Lung Association
states flatly that asthma is the leading cause of school absences.

Asthma also accounts for interrupted sleep, limitation of activity, and
disruption of family and care-giver routines. Asthma symptoms that are
not severe enough to require a visit to an emergency room or to a
physician can still prevent a child from living a fully active life.
EPA's Science Advisory Board has consistently ranked indoor air
pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health.2

The recently completed Cincinnati Asthma Prevention Study found that
indoor irritants, long suspected of influencing rising asthma rates in
young children, could be the key to asthma problems for four out of ten
children.3 Perhaps there is a significant potential for reducing asthma
problems in the classroom and beyond if school air quality can be
maintained at a healthy level.

Temperature and Ventilation Concerns Related to troubling asthma
problems in schools are concerns about temperature and ventilation.
Faulty classroom temperature and air circulation are one of the worst
problems in schools today. They may be caused by poor design, but often
stem from subsequent construction changes, inadequate maintenance and
the fact that many schools' heating, ventilation, and air conditioning
(HVAC) systems are simply inefficient and outdated.

A good ventilation system is an effective means of keeping both toxic
and nuisance materials out of the air. Indoor ventilation problems
began attracting attention during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when
buildings were sealed more tightly to reduce air leakage and minimize
costs required to heat or cool air drawn in from outside. Problems
associated with this energy crisis are still with us. The EPA recently
concluded a study of human exposure to air pollutants. It indicated
that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times higher than
outdoor levels and sometimes even 100 times higher.4 Common practice
among building owners during the 1970s was to decrease ventilation
rates from 15 cubic feet per minute per person, a standard recommended
by the American Society of Heating and Refrigeration and Air-
Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), to an average of 5 cubic feet per
minute per person. Imagine the effect on learners in rooms where the
air exchange is reduced by two-thirds while maintenance remains absent
or sporadic at best.

Not all children suffer the same way when air inside a classroom
becomes unhealthy or marginally so, yet children as a group are
considered most vulnerable to environmental contaminants because they
have higher breathing and metabolic rates than adults and less fully
formed biological defense mechanisms.5

Good Acoustics Vital for Learning Good acoustics are important in any
learning situation, but noise in classrooms often makes children
struggle to hear and concentrate, defeating the learning process at the
outset. In a typical school, classrooms may bombard students with three
sources of noise: 1. Noise from outdoors, 2. Mechanical noise generated
between rooms or between corridors and rooms, 3. Noise generated within
the classroom, including the ventilation system. Taken all together,
the noise can stifle a child's chance to learn.

At any one time, 15 percent of students in an average classroom suffer
a hearing problem that is either genetically based, noise-induced, or
caused by infection.6

Students require a higher level of acoustic quality than adults, and to
attain the good speech recognition necessary for optimal comprehension
and learning, classrooms must limit background noise, carefully manage
reverberation of sounds, and keep outdoor noise to a minimum. But
schools and their classrooms in particular generally have hard walls
and floors, which create poor acoustics.

A study in Tennessee shows that children with a slight hearing loss are
more likely to repeat a grade than students with normal hearing.
Typically, children don't fully develop the ability to sort sounds from
background noise until well into their teen years. Further studies have
linked a student's hearing problems to being held back a grade.7

Even low-level noise in an open office setting produced higher levels
of stress, a study found in the October 2000 issue of the Journal of
Applied Psychology. A study from Cornell University found that students
who had to put up with airplane noise in class don't learn to read as
well as students who learn in a quieter environment. Cornell
researchers Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans, who compared first- and
second-graders at two New York City schools, found that students
attending the quieter school scored as much as 20 percent higher on a
word recognition test than students who learned with noisy airplanes
flying overhead.

There are literally thousands of schools located in areas of high
noise. How do young children whose senses are still developing cope
with the background din that permeates some classrooms because of
internal or external factors?

Full-Spectrum Lighting Essential Natural light has a profound influence
on our body and mind. It affects our circadian rhythm -- our body's
natural regulating biologic system, which governs all activities. It
can alter our mood and is a major source of Vitamin D, required for
strong bones and healthy teeth.

"Daylighting in Schools," by Heschong Mahone Group in Fair Oaks,
Calif., is a detailed new study investigating the relationship between
daylighting and human performance that involved thousands of students
from more than three states.8 The study's initial report shows that
students in a classroom that had a well-designed, adjustable skylight
that diffused daylight throughout the room and reduced glare, improved
their learning substantially faster than students in more traditional
classrooms. Though criticized because the initial report lacked control
for teacher quality -- one of the main determinants for student
achievement -- the final study report will incorporate this control

Other reports on use of natural light, including the one by Warren E.
Hathaway called "Effects of School Lighting on Physical Development and
School Performance,"9 clearly show that the visual environment is one
of the most important factors in learning, affecting mental attitude,
class attendance, and performance.10

Links Between the School Facility, Society, and Educational Outcomes
Study after study concludes that there is an explicit relationship
between the physical characteristics of school buildings and
educational outcomes. And while good maintenance, modern systems, and
flexible designs are clearly required, there are even more complex,
outside societal factors that need to be addressed.

Parents and society are demanding more accountability and uniform
standards in evaluating student achievement. Parents in particular want
to be able to evaluate their child's learning achievements and academic
standing among other students.

Educators have reacted by lengthening school schedules and requiring
longer school days and shorter vacation times. Efforts to improve
student learning have also resulted in stricter achievement standards
and more student testing. All of these changes and trends are necessary
in this technological age and they are here to stay, even at the
earliest grade levels. And even though the student population will
continue to grow for several more years, the goal to reduce class
size has been set in many areas of the country.

Generally our student population is becoming more multi-cultural.
Teachers will need to continue to ensure that their individual teaching
style encompasses students' diverse cultural needs. Emphasis on math
and science will continue to be essential for a proper education.
Teachers are becoming more involved in team teaching, where individual
teachers share a common theme with students. Some school systems allow
teachers to stay with the same student through several grade levels.12

Linkages between different subject areas are growing, and teachers, of
necessity, are enhancing their multi-disciplinary capabilities.
Students are becoming increasingly collaborative, working in groups to
obtain a common learning goal.

All these changes in teaching methods require changes in school
facilities. The old adage, "the building fits the curriculum," a saying
that developed because the physical structure limited the learning
experience, no longer holds true. School facilities and classrooms can
be flexible enough to accommodate changing learning patterns and
methods. Unfortunately many of our 91,000 school buildings lack this
flexibility, and this compromises a child's education.

Optimum School Size Whether we like it or not, bigness is a pervasive
part of our culture: growing population, bigger houses, cars, and
schools. Consolidation of schools has been taking place for a long time
in this country -- from more than 250,000 schools in the 1930s to
91,000 today. Almost all of the downsizing in the past has been
accomplished by closing either very small schools or one-room schools.
In the past decade, however, we have seen consolidation of larger and
larger schools to form mega schools.

Today, high-school enrollments of more than 2,000 are common, with
some schools exceeding 5,000 students. While educators and
administrators disagree about optimum school size and how school size
alone affects student achievement, research has shown that smaller
schools enhance social interaction and influence students in many
positive ways. At first this may appear illogical, because larger
schools usually offer greater opportunities in extracurricular
activities and specialized courses and thus provide students with a
more stimulating environment.

Though some students seem to learn quite well in large schools, a
growing body of research shows a greater number of positive advantages
for the majority of students in smaller schools. These include higher
attendance rates, greater participation in extracurricular
opportunities, fewer problems in social behavior, and activities
associated with higher student performance like team teaching, frequent
teacher interaction and assessments, and cooperative group learning.
Smaller schools also graduate a higher percentage of students, and more
of those students attend post secondary schools.

Whether we like it or not, mega schools will be with us for a long
time. And a number of concepts applied to overcome the problems of
bigness, such as schools within schools (literally more than one school
within a large facility) or student academies (class grouping by field
of interest) have not yet equaled the advantages found in smaller
schools. Some state legislatures are beginning to react to problems
generated by oversized schools by developing size recommendations or
passing restrictions. One of the first States to do so, Florida,
passed a law requiring smaller new school facilities. The law requires
that schools built after July 1, 2003, be limited in size, with high
schools limited to 900 students. Other state legislatures are
beginning to review and develop similar approaches.

School enrollments in some areas of the country are still
growing substantially. And with the average new high school costing $26
million to build, it is not surprising to see school districts
purchasing record numbers of prefabricated classrooms, commonly called
relocatables or portables, to keep classrooms from bursting at the
seams. These structures can have a profound impact on a child's
education. About a third of our schools use portable classrooms and
about one fifth use temporary instructional space such as cafeterias
and gyms, etc.

Relocatables have improved greatly since the early "off-the-street"
trailers first employed, and they undoubtedly meet a temporary need.
Usually acquired through group district purchases at the lowest price,
relocatables are often the weakest link in the educational facility
chain -- a generally austere solution built to minimal standards -- the
quick fix that too often becomes permanent.

Not all portable classrooms are bad, but most have inherent problems
that are difficult to solve. Relocatables often incorporate materials
that off-gas formaldehyde, a significant health-risk for some
individuals. They are generally located away from the main school
facility and sited on inadequately prepared fields where walking and
lighting are poor. Or they are placed on parking lots, which have their
own attendant problems. Students and teachers must transfer not within
a building but between buildings for restrooms, media centers, gym
classes and other specialized classrooms such as art, science, and
music. All relocatables, whether they are the most basic structures or
something substantially more, require high maintenance.

Relocatables of course can be purchased with quality design and
materials, and can be clustered in such a manner as to overcome a
number of their inherent handicaps; but frequently, this doesn't

If relocatables are required, (the industry estimates a projected
growth rate of 20 percent per year) parents should insist that adequate
resources, including time, money, and maintenance, be allocated also.
And their use should be limited. In Florida, the typical, supposedly
temporary relocatable classroom, is 19 years old. Some are aged 40.
Many other states have similar experiences.15

Conclusion While it has been said, "A good teacher can teach anywhere,"
a growing body of research literature also strongly suggests a direct
relation between the condition and utility of the school facility and
learning. The classroom is the most important area within a school. It
is here that students spend most of their time, hopefully in an
environment conducive to learning. Learning in the classroom requires a
reasonable level of concentration, listening, writing, and reading.
Individual classrooms and entire facilities need to be evaluated, not
only on how they meet changing educational requirements, but also on
how they meet the environmental requirements for health, safety, and

According to a report from the American Association of School
Administrators, "Students are more likely to prosper when their
environment is conducive to learning. Architecture can be designed to
support greater safety and security. Environmentally responsive
heating, air conditioning and ventilating systems, for example, either
in a new or renovated school, provide a more comfortable learning
environment. Such well-designed systems send a powerful message to kids
about the importance their community places on education."16

There are many elements, ranging from community involvement to
educational leadership, that influence the condition of the school
facility, and none of these elements operates in isolation.

The links connected to student achievements are subtle, but there is
enough data and evidence to draw some pretty convincing conclusions. A
number of research studies suggest a strong link between the condition
of the school building and community involvement and support. As early
as 1982 a report that reviewed 88 published studies concluded that old
and obsolete buildings have negative consequences for the learning
process while safe, modern, controlled environments enhance the
learning process.

Four recent studies that evaluated the relationship between school
buildings and student achievement found higher test scores for students
learning in better buildings and lower scores for students learning in
substandard buildings. One of the more recent of these studies showed a
difference in student test scores ranging from 5 to 17 percentile
points. "Facility condition may have a stronger effect on student
performance than the combined influences of family background, socio-
economic status, school attendance, and behavior." This comment comes
from a recent report evaluating school facilities in Milwaukee,
completed by the Council of Educational Facility Planners

While additional and more detailed studies will provide a better
measure of the correlation, we already have enough evidence to conclude
that a relationship exists. If we can agree that public education is a
primary concern of the nation, why shouldn't we solve the problem of
poor classroom conditions and improve our children's learning
opportunities now?

As with everything else, as long as the average citizen thinks schools
are doing well, ignorance or apathy will continue to be pervasive. We
need to inform ourselves about the condition of our school buildings --
and appreciate the important difference a facility can make in
educating our children.

Approximately $1.2 billion has been appropriated by Congress
under the Omnibus Appropriations Act Section 321, P.L. 106-554) for
emergency repair and renovation of high poverty and rural schools and
other school systems with special needs.

Mr. Lyons has worked in the U.S. Department of Education for several
decades and presently manages the National Clearinghouse for
Educational Facilities.
The views expressed here represent his
professional knowledge and expertise and do not necessarily represent
the policies of the Department.
*Dr. Barbara Kent Lawrence
112 Vassal Lane
Cambridge, MA 02138
Fax: 617-546-3693
Date: Fri, 3 Aug 2001 11:16:40 -04000 From:
"Barbara Kent Lawrence" <>
The Rural School and Community Trust

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