It’s More Than Just an Annoyance, Experts Warn; It Can Hurt Learning

By Ellen Flax — June 05, 1991 5 min read
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One of the first things newcomers to the Bensenville, Ill., school district learn about is the “Bensenville pause.”

Thomas Eson, the district’s interim superintendent and himself a newcomer, said everything comes to a temporary standstill whenever one of the countless planes that are coming or going from nearby O’Hare Airport flies over the district each day.

“It’s just understood here that when the plane goes over, you stop,’' he said in a telephone conversation punctuated several times by the sound of a plane’s lift-off or descent.

In this Chicago suburb, as well as in numerous districts around the country, such noise is viewed as more than just an annoyance.

Experts also say it is an impediment to effective learning.

“Noise is definitely a deterrent to learning,” said Arline L. Bronzaft, who chairs the Noise Committee for the quasi-public Council on the Environment of New York City. “From the time they are toddlers, or even younger, you will find that noise is an educational impediment.”

Hearing experts said in interviews that continuous exposure for more than eight hours a day to loud sounds above 85 decibels, such as the noise produced by a lawnmower or a food blender, can, over the long run, damage hearing.

For higher sound levels, they said, a shorter duration of exposure may be damaging.

Although airplanes, trains, and cars that pass by schools can easily exceed the 85-decibel threshold, school occupants are not exposed to such sounds continuously during the work day. As a result, it is unlikely that their hearing will be damaged as a result of the exposure, audiologists said.

But the typical on-again, off-again pattern of transportation noise can wreak havoc with lesson plans and lead to diminished educational outcomes, educators and hearing experts said.

Studies completed by Ms. Bronzaft, for example, show that the reading scores of children on the noisy side of a Manhattan school facing an elevated subway track lagged behind those on the quiet side by three to four months in the lower grades and by as much as 11 months in the 6th grade.

The differences in reading scores were eliminated after sound buffers were incorporated into the construction of the classrooms and the railway tracks.

Gary W. Evans, a professor of social ecology at the University of California at Irvine, said other studies have also found that children who attend schools near airports have reading problems.

The noise, he said, hinders a child’s ability to distinguish between similar sounds, which has been linked to reading acquisition.

“Children learn to cope or adapt to noise,” he said. “But that adaptation has a cost.”

To reduce the noise caused by airplanes, the Federal Aviation Administration since 1982 has given $95 million to airports and municipalities to pay for projects that soundproof schools that are within the flight path of planes.

A single such project--which often involves installing thick windows and doors, as well as air-conditioning systems--can easily exceed half a million dollars, faa officials said.

But the federal soundproofing program, which attempts to lower the noise in a classroom to 45 decibels, is not foolproof, said James St. Clair, a senior accoustical engineer at Engineering Dynamic International in St. Louis, which has minimized noise levels at several area schools.

“There is no such thing as soundproof,” he said. “All airports and engineers can do is reduce the sound level. We can never make it so that they will never hear the airplane.”

In noisy schools where no soundproofing has been installed, the continual sounds of airplanes and trains whizzing by has fostered some creative adaptations.

At the W.A. Johnson Elementary School in Bensenville, for example, some teachers use wireless microphones and loudspeakers to ensure that they are heard over the airplanes that are landing less than a mile away, said Ovid Wong, the school’s principal.

At P.S. 98 in Manhattan, meanwhile, a yearly room-rotation policy allows teachers who work on the noisy side--about 50 yards from the elevated Number 1 train--to get a reprieve.

“We lose about 11 percent of our instructional time to the noise,” Mark Shapiro, the elementary-school’s principal, said.

Although they can do little to control the outside noise, some educators, at the prompting of hearing experts, are paying more attention to the loud sounds created within the school building.

Unlike airplane noise, the reverberations created by the tools used in shop classes, band practice, school dances, and personal stereos can lead to hearing loss when students are continuously exposed to such noises for an extended period of time, audiologists said.

Since hearing loss is cumulative, “the problem is that the real effects of hearing loss aren’t evident until the fourth or fifth decade,” said Wil8liam W. Clark, a senior research scientist with the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis.

Judy Montgomery, the director of special education for the Fountain Valley, Calif., school district, said she became interested in hearing loss when she found that parents and teachers were unwilling to chaperone dances because they felt the music was too loud.

The results of her subsequent survey of the district’s 1,500 students in grades 2, 8, and 12 confirmed her concerns.

The survey, which measured hearing loss below 25 decibels, or the ability to hear a whisper two feet away, found that students who played in the band or the orchestra were disproportionately likely to have hearing problems.

About 7 percent of the district’s 2nd-grade students showed a hearing loss, about the same as the statewide average. But by the 12th grade, 26 percent of the musicians and 13 percent of the non-musicians had a hearing loss, versus the 9 percent average for other seniors in the state.

Since the survey, Ms. Montgomery said, the band and orchestra leaders automatically lower the volume whenever the sound meter during indoor practices exceeds 85 decibels. Students are also given five-minute breaks every hour.

Efforts to control the noise at school dances, she said, have been less successful.

“We are not out there to ruin kids’ fun,” she said, “but we wanted to make sure it was in a safe environment.”

Said Mary Florentine, a professor of audiology at Northeastern University in Boston, “Part of the problem is that how to prevent hearing loss is not routinely included in any curriculum.”

“Just as we educate [students] to avoid too much sun exposure,” she said, “we should educate them to avoid too much noise exposure.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as It’s More Than Just an Annoyance, Experts Warn; It Can Hurt Learning


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