School Climate & Safety

Bricks and Mortarboards

By Mark Stricherz — December 06, 2000 13 min read
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Decent schools boost achievement, studies show, but fancy facilities don’t.

In an offhand, casual sort of way, Americans believe that more spending on school buildings means better student achievement. When classrooms, gymnasiums, and auditoriums are improved, the thinking goes, students learn more.

But to most scholars who have studied the subject, that idea is like saying that the president is elected by the people or that the U.S. Constitution mentions a “separation of church and state"—it has a basis in fact, but isn’t literally true.

Research does show that student achievement lags in shabby school buildings—those with no science labs, inadequate ventilation, and faulty heating systems. But it does not show that student performance rises when facilities go from the equivalent of a Ford to a Ferrari—from decent buildings to those equipped with fancy classrooms, swimming pools, television-production studios, and the like.

Still, the idea that the quality of school buildings raises student performance holds popular sway. Five years ago, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, published an influential report estimating that $112 billion was needed to repair and improve school facilities. “A number of state courts, as well as the Congress, have recognized,” the 1995 report said, “that a high-quality learning environment is essential to educating the nation’s children.”

In the past few years, the idea has gained further currency with the economic boom and the policy emphasis on reducing class sizes and wiring schools to the Internet. Concern about the educational effects of school facilities no doubt contributed to the near- record $16 billion that districts spent last year on school construction, renovations, and repairs, according to figures compiled by American School and University magazine, an Overland Park, Kan.-based publication.

President Clinton, many members of Congress, and education organizations have also gotten into the act, pressing to make improving school facilities a federal issue. The spending plan for education now pending in Congress would allot $1.3 billion for school renovation and repair projects, mostly to subsidize no-interest loans.

But to many scholars, the link between school facilities and student learning simply isn’t that neat. Some hold differing views on the question, and nearly all say more research is needed. Still, recent research suggests they have arrived at a rough consensus on the issue.

Skip ‘Gold Plating’

“I think having reasonable schools is important. What I object to is putting money into gold-plated school facilities. There’s not strong evidence that it’s going to improve school performance,” says Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the conservative- leaning Hoover Institution, a research organization based at Stanford University.

‘I think having reasonable schools is important. What I object to is putting money into gold-plated school facilities.’

Eric A. Hanushek,
Senior Fellow,
Hoover Institution
Stanford University

Lorraine E. Maxwell, a professor of human-environment relations at Cornell University, who has conducted research for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, agrees. “Merely building new buildings and throwing in new technology will not improve student achievement,” she cautions.

For years, scholars who examined the link between school spending and student performance more or less divided themselves in relation to the seminal study in the field: the federally sponsored 1966 report by the sociologist James S. Coleman, which concluded that schools had remarkably little effect on students when social class was considered.

Unlike his conclusions on other types of school spending, Coleman viewed school facilities more positively. He noted that the presence of laboratories, textbooks, and libraries seemed to be related to academic achievement. Still, Coleman was not won over, attaching far more importance to the influence of parents.

Today, researchers appear to have reached considerable agreement on the question of whether the quality of school facilities boosts student achievement. Most scholars who have studied the question concur, for example, that achievement suffers in rotten school environments.

Maxwell is among those. She teamed up with her Cornell colleague Gary W. Evans on a 1997 paper, “Chronic Noise Exposure and Reading Deficits.” In it, they examined 100 1st and 2nd graders at two New York City schools, one of which was in the flight path of an airport.

The students subjected to the airplanes’ noise scored as much as 20 percent lower on a reading test, they found, than the children in the other school. Unlike most studies in the field, Maxwell and Evans’ research showed a causal relationship between poor school facilities (the noisy conditions) and student achievement (lower test scores). Such a linkage is considered more significant than a correlational or associational relationship because it shows why the difference occurs.

“They weren’t picking up language cues and words. They weren’t hearing syllables in class or at home,” Maxwell says of the students in the noisy school.

Other studies, despite showing less direct relationships, are strongly suggestive.

Consider the 1998 survey “Where Our Children Learn Matters,” by Daniel L. Duke, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Education Design at the University of Virginia.

Surveying the state of Virginia, Duke’s study found that many schools had lost class time over two years because of poor building conditions. Of the state’s 128 school districts, 36 had been forced to close one or more schools during the preceding two years. In the process, at least 96 days of teaching were lost. More than 38 days of instruction were lost because of a lack of air conditioning alone.

Summarizing his findings, Duke wrote: “If research has established any relationship in education, it is that which exists between time and learning. The more students are exposed to instruction, the more likely they are to learn.”

Duke grants that students can learn despite poor school facilities. But that doesn’t mean, he says, that students learn as well in such places.

“There’s this image in our society of Abraham Lincoln reading by the fireplace,” he says, “but the point is that the odds are longer for disadvantaged kids.”

‘No Association’

But while scholars say rundown school buildings hurt student performance, most are deeply skeptical about studies linking improved achievement with top-notch buildings. The evidence, they say, isn’t there. It’s either flawed, inconclusive, or insufficient.

While scholars say rundown school buildings hurt student performance, most are deeply skeptical about studies linking improved achievement with top-notch buildings.

In addition, many observers point to Kansas City, Mo., where the district and the state spent about $700 million on facilities in an effort both to desegregate the schools and improve achievement. The results fell far short, however, and the district now faces a possible loss of state accreditation. (“A Hard Lesson for Kansas City’s Troubled Schools,” April 26, 2000.)

In what he says is the first such national study since Coleman’s 1966 analysis, Harold H. Wenglinsky, a research scientist at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, concluded that there was no link between spending on school facilities and student achievement in his 1997 study “When Money Matters.”

Using a national sample of 14,000 4th and 8th graders, Wenglinsky compared their scores on the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress mathematics test against the amount spent on “capital outlays"—facility construction and maintenance—by their school districts in the 1991-92 school year. His conclusion: There was no association between the two.

Wenglinsky does not deny the importance of some school features, such as air conditioning in warm climates. It’s just that “the larger point is if you increase your capital outlays, it will not increase student performance,” he says.

A host of more narrowly focused studies aren’t much more encouraging, researchers say. Those studies, they say, purport to link improved student performance with the quality of school buildings, but in fact, come up with findings that are either temporary or inconclusive.

Morgan V. Lewis, a researcher at Ohio State University, examined 149 K-12 schools in Milwaukee in a three-year study beginning in 1996. Schools were scored on such attributes as the condition of their lighting, general upkeep, and water systems.

According to Lewis, students in the first two years of the study scored 1 to 1.5 points higher on state tests for every 10-point gain in the condition of their school building.

“In some cases ... there were significant relationships between school buildings and student performance,” he says about his study, “Facility Conditions and Student Test Performance in Milwaukee Public Schools.”

The trouble is, Lewis did not find any such relationship in the last year. He concedes that “it is very difficult to explain” why no linkage occurred in the last year of the study if the results for the first two years were accurate.

The latter problem—inconclusive results—also marks a 1999 study by Cornell’s Maxwell, “School Building Renovation and Student Performance: One District’s Experience.”

The study looked at three elementary schools in the Syracuse, N.Y., district that were renovated in 1987-88. It compared their student test scores for the five years before they were refurbished with those during the renovation and the following five years. The results, as Maxwell put it, were “curious": Math scores rose after the renovation among the 3rd and 6th graders tested, while reading scores did not.

Trying to figure out the reasons for those findings, Maxwell wondered whether an influx of foreign students may have lowered the schools’ overall reading scores, or whether math scores are more sensitive to school renovation.

Whatever the case, Maxwell is now circumspect about the academic impact of school facilities.

“If we renovated all our school buildings,” she says, “it would not necessarily mean that it would improve reading and math scores.”

Other studies have drawn fire from other researchers, sometimes because they didn’t control for potentially critical factors.

An example is “Effects of School Lighting on Physical Development and School Performance,” a 1995 study by Warren E. Hathaway, a retired educational consultant. The report looked at five elementary schools in Alberta, Canada, over two years, using a control group of 300 students who were exposed to four different types of artificial lighting.

It found that students exposed to full-spectrum fluorescent lamps with ultraviolet supplements fared well in a number of ways. They attended class more frequently, scored 10 percent higher on the Canada Test of Basic Skills, and even had 75 percent fewer cavities.

Hathaway concluded that the lamps led to the development of Vitamin D in the skin, which in turn “goes hand in glove with the growth of calcium, which leads to strong teeth and skin.” He did not give specific reasons that test scores would rise with such lighting.

But another researcher who has probed the effects of lighting questions Hathaway’s study.

Lisa Heschong, a partner in the Fair Oaks, Calif.-based Heschong Mahone architectural firm, says flatly that Hathaway’s study is “not reputable. ... He didn’t control for the amount of daylight.”

Hathaway, although cautioning that his findings apply only for 5th and 6th graders, disagrees with that view. While conceding “it would have been nice to control for the daylight,” he says the amount of daylight in the five classes he studied was roughly similar. And anyway, Hathaway says, window panes cut out ultraviolet light, which was the key factor in his study.

Meanwhile, Heschong herself, an architect by training and experience, has drawn wide attention for a 1999 study on daylight in classrooms.

In “Daylighting in Schools: An Investigation Into the Relationship Between Daylighting and Human Performance,” Heschong looked at the impact of skylights on 21,000 students in three districts: Fort Collins, Colo.; Orange County, Calif.; and Seattle.

The study graded classrooms’ lighting on a scale of 0 to 5. A high score of 5, for example, was assigned to those rooms where teaching could occur for 80 percent of the school year without turning the lights on.

One study found that students exposed to maximum daylight learn faster—but it didn’t to control for teacher quality.

Based on the initial results, students exposed to maximum daylight were found to have learned much faster—so much so that Heschong deemed daylight to be the third-most-important ingredient in a school’s success, higher than having a good overall facility and a first-rate principal. Results like those explain why the study garnered wide attention, including news stories on CNN and in The Washington Post.

But what those media outlets didn’t mention is that Heschong’s study has not yet controlled for teacher quality, which is generally regarded as a main determinant in a student’s academic success.

“This is the one outstanding issue that’s delayed my report for 12 months,” Heschong says, explaining why the study has yet to be published in a scholarly journal. She adds that she is examining teacher quality now.

At the same time, some studies appear to have shown firm links between the quality of schools’ physical environments and student achievement.

Glen I. Earthman, a professor emeritus of educational administration at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and two colleagues found higher student test scores in better buildings. They surveyed high schools in the District of Columbia, North Dakota, and Virginia, asking them to describe their facilities. Student achievement was measured by scores on 11th grade tests given in each state.

Specifically, test scores were higher in schools with windows in the majority of classrooms, less graffiti, better locker conditions, and acoustical ceilings.

In the Virginia study, researchers found higher scores in air-conditioned schools and those with recently painted exterior walls.

More Studies Needed?

Given what they regard as a lack of solid evidence, most researchers are wary of drawing firm conclusions about a link between improved student learning and good school facilities.

Earthman says a lack of follow-up is a common problem with such studies.

While he is unusual in believing that scholars have amassed sufficient research to claim such a link, he also says many such studies are done by graduate students who don’t conduct further research after earning their doctorates.

Hanushek of the Hoover Institution, who has done major scholarly reviews of the research literature, says more studies haven’t been done because school construction is a comparatively small part of districts’ budgets.

“There’s not much research on this because ... capital costs are only about 10 percent of their overall spending,” he says. Hanushek adds that scholars have done far more research on teacher quality, school leadership, and class size.

Clearly, researchers say, the issue merits attention.

Lack of follow-up is a common problem with facilities studies, scholars say.

According to the 1995 General Accounting Office study, a “sizable minority” of the nation’s 42 million public school students were attending “poorly equipped schools.” The GAO defined such schools as structurally unsafe and lacking fire-safety equipment, sufficient exits and restrooms, and adequate water supplies and sewage-disposal systems.

The five senators who requested that the report be done—all Democrats—did not ask the GAO to examine whether the quality of school buildings affects student achievement. Instead, the report documented the state of the nation’s schools, finding that many of them were in sorry shape.

Some observers caution that the agency’s $112 billion estimate of the cost to “repair or upgrade” schools to good overall condition may have overstated the problem, since it mixes fixing substandard schools with upgrading those that may be in essentially good shape.

This year, the National Educational Association upped the ante, projecting a price tag of $322 billion for “school modernization,” based on reports from the states.

But scholars like Duke of the University of Virginia, who recently attended a White House event promoting school construction, are skeptical of the potential academic payoff.

In fact, he advises those arguing for more facilities money in the hope of improving student achievement to do so on moral, rather than empirical, grounds.

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Bricks and Mortarboards


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