Professional educators and administrators know that teaching and learning are highly complex activities and that a number of factors interact to contribute to an optimum learning environment.
The stability of home life, student motivation, teachers’ educational levels and skills, the availability of appropriate teaching resources, supportive school administrators, the intentionality of the curriculum and supportive parental engagement with the school, all play essential roles in successfully retaining and educating children.
In addition to these factors, the physical condition of schools can be extremely important to student learning. In fact, there is a growing body of research and evidence to support the conviction that facilities do shape a child’s learning experience and can impact the success and retention of teachers.
Research disseminated by the U.S. Department of Education and separate studies in many of the 50 states, including Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, North Dakota and Texas, found that facilities can, for good or ill, impact student learning.
One issue associated with older public school facilities is that of an aging and inappropriate infrastructure. Schools that are more than 30 years old were not designed for today’s demands, and education is not delivered today the way it was a generation ago.
New teaching methods, techniques and tools allow teachers to reach a broader, more diverse student population; while a deeper understanding of how the appropriate lighting, air quality and cleanliness of a facility impact optimum learning environments has revolutionized the design of schools. Older facilities simply cannot meet the demands and requirements of modern-day teaching.
Studies published since 2000 on the impact of school facilities on students and teachers reveal that the preponderance of research conducted support claims that the physical environment impacts learning. This includes an interesting study of schools in the District of Columbia system which found – after controlling for other variables such as a student’s socioeconomic status – that students’ standardized achievement scores were lowest in schools with the worst building conditions.
Another large study in urban Virginia also found a relationship between building condition and student achievement. Indeed, the researcher found that student achievement was as much as 11 percentile points lower in substandard buildings as compared to above-standard buildings.
Similarly, in a study conducted in rural Virginia high schools, the students in the lower quality buildings lagged as much as 5 percent points behind on achievement tests.
Closer to Aiken, a study of 24 elementary schools in Georgia attributed the quality of school design to a 14.2 percent difference in third grade achievement scores and a 9.7 percent difference in fifth grade achievement scores on the Test of Basic Skills.
Taking a different direction, researchers James Andrews and Richard Neuroth found that schools may significantly affect a student’s ability to concentrate if the facilities possess contaminants like asbestos, radon and formaldehyde. Of course, the presence of these contaminants is most likely in older school buildings. The evidence from these researchers suggests that students, especially those under age 10, are more vulnerable than most adults to those contaminants and the allergic reactions are more pronounced.
Another sector of educational research focuses on the impact of facilities on the other major population that spends considerable time in the school – the teachers. Once again, the findings are interesting, if not completely unexpected. Much of this research, which focuses on teacher morale and teacher retention, concluded that the physical environment, when substandard, negatively affected teachers and impinged on their work.
In one such study of working conditions in urban schools, researchers concluded that “physical conditions have direct positive and negative effects on teacher morale, sense of personal safety, feelings of effectiveness in the classroom, and on the general learning environment.” Conversely, an earlier study found that where facilities and working conditions were good, teachers were more enthusiastic about their work, morale and cooperation were high, and absenteeism was lower.
Recent research continues to point to a steadily positive correlation between good school facilities and positive academic outcomes.
Without a doubt, good facilities are not the only factor in the dynamic formula that produces quality public schools. However, it would be disingenuous and misleading to deny that they do play a role in creating a positive learning environment and a place where students and teachers can commit their best to such an important endeavor.
While I have no children in the local schools, I am supportive of a one-cent tax to help our public schools address their physical plant needs. Aiken needs good schools and positive educational outcomes to remain a great place to live and work.
Dr. Sandra J. Jordan is chancellor of the University of South Carolina Aiken.