School Infrastructure Is in Big Trouble. Building New Schools Isn't the Answer
The majority of America's schools need infrastructure upgrades or replacements. According to a 2014 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 53 percent of public schools need to spend money on repairs, renovations, and modernizations to be in "good overall condition." It's easy to feel paralyzed by the enormity of this task, but communities really want to see that their school districts are being proactive about the problem.
School building conditions are clear indicators of investment—or underinvestment—and opportunity. A concentration of old or dilapidated schools in low-socioeconomic areas, for instance, stands in the way of giving students an equitable distribution of education. Doing nothing is not an option, but neither is knocking down every building and starting anew.
Rather than building new schools from the ground up, one of the most visible ways to quickly begin to address learning spaces is to focus on a refresh of the microenvironments–the furniture, technology, and interactions–inside the four walls.
It's clear that the gap between what needs to be done and the funding to do it is pretty large. According to the 2016 report, "State of Our Schools: America's K–12 Facilities," by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities, and the U.S. Green Building Council, current school funding levels leave districts "unprepared to provide adequate and equitable school facilities." Comparing historic spending against the building industry and best-practice standards for responsible facilities stewardship, the study estimates that annual national spending falls short by about $8 billion for maintenance and operations and $38 billion for capital construction and new facilities. While the current funding levels vary by district and state, only three states are on track to meet the necessary investments, the study concluded.
These challenges are converging in a world where students can increasingly carry vital funding dollars with them to whatever institution they attend—be it a traditional public school, a shiny new charter school that opens up down the street, or a private school that utilizes vouchers. In many states, public school districts go head-to-head with the new competitive alternatives that are opening down the street. If every student who departs for that new option pulls operating funds from the district, it can become a vicious circle that cripples a school district’s ability to make the needed innovations and changes to become an education provider of choice.
That's where the microenvironment comes into play. Even relatively small investments in physical facilities can offer a significant advantage for teachers, district administrators, and for the students themselves when it comes to pushing for innovation. These new teaching and learning environments must directly align with the changing activities and roles of modern pedagogy. For example, today's students are more active in group work, project-based learning, and contributing to conversations in the classroom instead of sitting in rows, listening to teachers standing at a lectern. Teachers no longer want to be the sole purveyor of information, but instead be in a position to offer guidance, transition between different modes of instruction, and team kids up in pairs or small groups. Their classroom environments have to be able to adapt quickly to accommodate these learning modes without rebuilding entire facilities to make that happen.
In my own career working with districts on these projects, I have seen how focusing on the microenvironment can help districts make a visible change without the major expense of building new facilities. These investments are also more noticeable than expenditures made in devices, wireless infrastructure, curriculum shifts, and even basic management and operating needs. Microenvironments are the low-hanging fruit that allow districts to say, "Hey, we can at least align these facilities with the type of teaching and learning that we’re trying to do here, while we go through the lengthier cycle of full-on building replacement."
Of course, this isn't an either/or strategy. Yes, districts should continue to build new schools, make investments in technology and technology infrastructure, and the latest in digital instructional support as feasible, but they don't have to lose an entire generation of learners while they're re-building. By designing and deploying with intention a supportive microenvironment that ties into their instructional strategies—and by avoiding the rush to purchase and implement new gadgets and gimmicks—districts can come up with affordable ways to effect change now.
As our nation's public school infrastructure continues to age, and as our students continue to compete with the education programs of the world, we're already seeing some districts getting proactive about upgrading their learning environments in a way that positions students for success. And because this step requires just a fraction of the funding needed to put up new buildings, it makes sense to the community of stakeholders as a valid strategy and good use of funds. It also helps build social capital in the community by demonstrating that the district is being proactive about aligning their learning spaces to their methods of future instruction. Moreover, it allows districts to take action more quickly and on a larger scale while putting together the larger capital bond needs they will eventually be asking their communities to approve.