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Why Do Run-Down Schools Trigger Lower Test Scores?

Dilapidated schools have higher rates of absenteeism and lower test scores.

Source: freesoulproduction/Shutterstock

In recent years, there’ve been a variety of studies reporting that children who attend run-down schools have lower test scores than students at well-maintained schools. Why would attending a dilapidated school result in subpar academic performance?

Earlier this year, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Kids and Classrooms: Why Environment Matters” based on a study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign which found that run-down schools—with no windows or green views—resulted in lower test scores. Conversely,  the researchers found that high school students performed better on tests if the classroom had a view of a green landscape, rather than a windowless room, or a room with a view of another building or a parking lot.

Social Climates Create a Chain Reaction of Absenteeism and Low Test Scores

This week, a new study by a Cornell University environmental psychologist, Lorraine Maxwell, pinpoints a specific chain reaction that causes children who attend dirty and decrepit schools to perform poorly on tests.

After surveying 236 New York City public middle schools, Maxwell found that poor building conditions, resulted in negative perception of the school's social climate, which led to absenteeism, which ultimately accounted for 70 percent of the poor academic performance.

Across the board, Maxwell found that stinky cafeterias, smelly bathrooms, broken furniture, and classrooms in a state of disrepair made students perceive a negative social climate—which led to high levels of absenteeism. More than anything, truancy had the strongest influence on low test scores and poor academic achievement. As Maxwell summed up in a statement, “Students cannot learn if they do not come to school."

Maxwell’s July 2016 study, "School Building Condition, Social Climate, Student Attendance and Academic Achievement: A Mediation Model," appears in the Journal of Environmental Psychology

This current study examines the social climate and student attendance as prime mediators of the relationship between the physical environment and academic achievement. The findings indicate that academic achievement is directly linked to a school's physical condition mediated by the social climate and student attendance. 

Maxwell, an associate professor of design and environmental analysis in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, said, "School buildings that are in good condition and attractive may signal to students that someone cares and there's a positive social climate, which in turn may encourage better attendance." 

For this study, Maxwell controlled for students' socioeconomic status and ethnic background. She explained that, "Those other factors are contributing to poor academic performance, but building condition is significantly contributing also. It's worth it for society to make sure that school buildings are up to par.”

In a previous study, Maxwell asked a handful of middle-school students what difference they thought a school building makes. In reflecting on that study, she explained, "I will never forget one boy. He said, 'Well, maybe if the school looked better, kids would want to come to school.' And that sparked me to think, 'OK, they notice.'"

The Design and Upkeep of Buildings and Schools Has Strong Symbolic Value

 Iconic Bestiary/Shutterstock
Source: Iconic Bestiary/Shutterstock

Maxwell's recent study analyzed data of 143,788 students from 236 New York City middle schools. The data included academic performance measures combined with assessments of physical environments that were conducted by independent professionals in architecture, as well as mechanical and electrical engineering.

Maxwell also analyzed surveys on how parents, teachers and students felt about the school's social climate; that dataset—which was developed by the NYC Department of Education—is the largest of its kind in the United States. Maxwell said, 

“Buildings also have symbolic value. For example, government buildings in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals are well maintained, with gold-leaf roofs, Greek columns and polished marble stairs meant to inspire awe.

Those buildings are kept well. Why? They give us a certain impression about what goes on inside and how much society values those activities. So you can understand why kids might think a school that doesn't look good inside or outside is giving them a message that perhaps what happens in their school doesn't matter."

As we segregate school districts into different communities based on income, schools in lower-income areas have fewer resources than ever before. In fact, the highest-spending districts in the U.S. are given about twice as much funding per student as are the lowest-spending districts, according to a federal advisory commission report. In some states, such as California, the spending-gap ratio is closer to three-to-one.

Conclusions: Policymakers Must Fund the Upkeep of All Public Schools Equally

The divide between the 'haves' and 'have nots' in our country continues to grow ever wider. In April 2016, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Why Are Some Neighborhoods Becoming Extremely Homogenized?” based on a study by Ann Owens when she was at Harvard University.

Owens found that although living in a good school districts—with well-maintained schools and clean facilities is a top priority for most families with school-age children—richer families are gobbling up the real estate in zip codes with better public school programs and maintenance.

Unfortunately, this means that, all too often, poorer families are getting shut out. For parents living in large cities, with multiple school districts, the zoning of public schools has become a prime driving force of where wealthier parents choose to buy real estate. This leads to less diversity and more homogenization in many neighborhoods.   

Hopefully, putting a spotlight on the importance of maintaining the infrastructure of schools, for both teachers and students, will motivate American policymakers to re-evaluate budget priorities and direct more resources to improving our nation's schools in every zip code.

Obviously, teachers are also deeply impacted by the quality of their working environment. As the recent Detroit Public School 'sickouts' illustrate, teachers won’t come to work, and often quit, when school maintenance is deplorable. The good news is that teacher attrition rates drop as soon as the infrastructure is repaired. Of course, fixing up and maintaining schools takes money. The lack of funding is the primary reason for the epidemic of run-down schools across the country.

In closing, Lorraine Maxwell concludes, “The study has serious implications for policymakers. They must understand that school conditions are especially important for kids in minority and low-income communities. Those students are already potentially facing more of an uphill battle, and sending more positive messages about how the larger society values them is critical.”

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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