Crumbling infrastructure in American K-12 classrooms isn’t just a political football. It also presents physical and psychological dangers for students and teachers alike.
Poor school conditions have an impact on student performance and learning. In the United States, the average school building is more than 40 years old. And in some states, like Michigan, decaying school conditions like those in Detroit Public Schools have now resulted in litigation.
Both the district and former state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley are named in a lawsuit filed by the Detroit Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, blaming them for unsafe learning conditions.
The suit came on the heels of a January visit by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to four DPS buildings, which ultimately triggered a district-wide investigation of 97 different buildings. One or more violations were found at every single school building.
Some schools had broken classroom windows, mold, and other safety hazards — conditions that Duggan told the Detroit Free Press "break your heart."
Last month, a report co-authored by the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council found that the United States would need to spend an additional $46 billion annually on school building construction and maintenance in order to ensure safe and healthy facilities for students. Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Oregon and Nevada were identified as being especially in need of school building repairs.
Research links children’s ability to learn to the condition of their school environment. That means that the deteriorating condition of school buildings should be more relevant in ongoing discussions about closing achievement gaps.
According to studies compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, a child's ability to learn can be negatively affected by things like wobbly broken desks or black mold in classroom ceilings.
One study from 1993, “Building Conditions, Parental Involvement and Student Achievement in the D.C. Public School System,” undertaken by Maureen M. Edwards at Georgetown University, found standardized achievement scores ranked 6% lower in District of Columbia schools with poor building conditions than in schools that had “fair” conditions. The gap between poor building conditions and excellent ones was even greater, at 11%.
A similar study, “A Study of the Relationship Between School Building Condition and Student Achievement and Behavior,” was executed by researcher Eric Wayne Hines in larger urban high schools in Virginia. It found student achievement was 11% lower in substandard buildings as compared to above-standard buildings.
New research shows that the overall problem is worsening.
A 2011 U.S. Department of Education survey found that an estimated 14 million American students attended schools in need of repairs. Two-thirds of schools were found to harbor unhealthy environmental conditions like peeling paint, crumbling plaster, nonfunctioning toilets, poor lighting, inadequate ventilation, and decrepit heating and cooling systems.
Air quality also plays a role. Research has shown that poor air quality affects students' ability to concentrate. Airborne contaminants like asbestos, radon, and formaldehyde can be found in old schools, and have a disproportionate effect on younger children.
Building decay also impacts the quality of teachers' instruction, playing a role in their confidence and general wellbeing in the workplace. And the discovery around the effects isn't anything new. Even in 1988, studies were being done.
One survey by researcher Jerry Lowe interviewed State Teachers of the Year to see if aspects of the physical environment affected their teaching. Respondents noted that the availability and quality of classroom equipment, furnishings, and the ability to regulate classroom temperature and acoustics were most important.
And another study, "Working in Urban Schools" by Thomas Corcoran, examined urban schools specifically and found that environmental factors impacted teacher morale and feelings of effectiveness.
It found that “where the problems with working conditions are serious enough to impinge on the work of teachers, they result in higher absenteeism, reduced levels of effort, lower effectiveness in the classroom, low morale, and reduced job satisfaction.”
But when working conditions were reported to be good, “they result in enthusiasm, high morale, cooperation, and acceptance of responsibility,” Corcoran noted.
For districts seeking to keep both educators and students happy and healthy, attention must be paid to the physical condition of schools — and that means boosting state or federal funding for much-needed repairs. The stakes are high: Student and teacher performance and well-being depend on it.