- Students don’t learn as well when classrooms get too hot, according to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research that examined how students performed on the PSAT following a year with extreme heat.
- The research examined test scores of 10 million high school students from the classes of 2001 through 2014 who took the PSAT exam multiple times, finding that, compared to school days in which temperatures are in the 60s, each day with temperatures in the 90-degree range reduces math and reading achievement by one-sixth of a percent of a year’s worth of learning. The effect of a day with temperatures in the 100s is 50% larger.
- High temperatures also have a more negative impact on low-income and black and Hispanic students, perhaps because white students in more affluent homes have the resources to make up for learning loss, the analysis shows. The authors also found that only high temperatures on school days impact learning — not weekends or during the summer — and they conclude that heat most likely “reduces academic achievement by decreasing the productivity of instructional time,” both in class and doing homework.
Not surprisingly, when schools are air-conditioned, high temperatures have hardly any negative effect on learning. In calculating where schools are more likely to have air-conditioning nationally, the authors found that regions of the U.S. that are generally cooler are less likely to be air-conditioned, and that “heat is particularly damaging to the achievement of students in these regions.” These areas included New England, Michigan and the upper Midwest.
The researchers link the loss of learning to the skills needed for the workforce and write that, “even in highly industrialized economies, heat exposure can reduce the rate of learning and skill formation, thus potentially reducing the rate of economic growth.”
With increased attention to how school design affects learning, the study suggests that attending to a basic infrastructure issue such as air-conditioning in older school buildings — especially those serving low-income and minority students — is an important first step.