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Another Reason to Care About School Design

Researchers at the University of Salford say well-designed schools improve the academic performance of elementary school students by 25 percent.

Last fall during a stop in Los Angeles promoting his latest book Fire in the Ashes, education activist Jonathan Kozol spent some time discussing the impact of school design and environment on children. Wealthy children, he noted, tend to go to attractively designed schools with plenty of natural light, while low-income kids tend to be shuttled into ugly, windowless, stench-filled buildings that "coarsen their mentalities and tell them how little value they have in our society." Now a year-long study by the UK's University of Salford Manchester and architecture firm Nightengale Associates reveals that a well-designed school doesn't just impact student's mental state. It affects academic achievement, too.

The researchers studied 751 students in 34 classrooms at seven schools between September 2011 and June 2012 and collected data on students' "age, gender, and performance level in maths, reading, and writing at the start and end of an academic year." They then "evaluated the holistic classroom environment, taking into account different design parameters such as classroom orientation, natural light and noise, temperature and air quality," and took into account "issues such as flexibility of space, storage facilities, and organisation, as well as use of colour."

They found that a full 73 percent "of the variation in pupil performance driven at the class level can be explained by the building environment factors measured." That means that "placing an average pupil in the least effective, rather than the most effective classroom environment could affect their learning progress by as much as the average improvement across one year."

The study is "the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools," says Salford professor Peter Barrett. "The impact identified is in fact greater than we imagined," Barrett added.

Essentially, the study's results confirm what many educators already know: If we really want to close the opportunity gap and ensure that all students excel, we have to provide excellent teachers, sufficient resources, and concentrate on creating and maintaining school buildings and classrooms that are beautifully designed and conducive to learning.

Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools photo via Wikimedia Commons

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