Hot schools make it harder for kids to learn

Riverview school
CC BY 2.0 Wikipedia/ Paul Rudolph's Riverview school

A new working paper makes the case that "heat exposure inhibits cognitive skill development".

It's getting hot and stuffy in a lot of schools that often don't have air conditioning. According to a new working paper, Heat and Learning, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, this is a serious problem, finding a link between temperature and academic achievement. The paper's authors, Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz, Jisung Park, and Jonathan Smith looked at the results of ten million PSAT tests and found that "hotter school days in the year prior to the test reduce learning, with extreme heat being particularly damaging and larger effects for low income and minority students."

New data providing the first measures of school-level air conditioning penetration across the US suggest such infrastructure almost entirely offsets these effects. Without air conditioning, each 1° F increase in school year temperature reduces the amount learned that year by one percent. Our estimates imply that the benefits of school air conditioning likely outweigh the costs in most of the US, particularly given future predicted climate change.

Schools with ACHeat and Learning/ Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz, Jisung Park, and Jonathan Smith/via

They find real racial disparities too, and that climate change will have a big effect on grades, on equality and on income.

We argue that heat effects account for up to 13 percent of the U.S. racial achievement gap, both because black and Hispanic students live in hotter places than white students and because heat damages minority students’ achievement of minority students more than white students’ achievement. We show that predicted temperature increases due to global climate change could lower U.S. achievement by 0.1 standard deviations by 2050, assuming no further investment in school air conditioning, but less than 0.05 standard deviations in a world where school air conditioning penetration increases in line with historical trends. Finally, we estimate that school air conditioning would offset over $25,000 per classroom per year in future lost earnings due to temperature increases predicted by climate change models. The magnitude of such benefits appear substantially larger than the costs of installing and operating such infrastructure.

The study found that air conditioning offsets "nearly all of the damaging impacts of cumulative heat exposure on academic achievement" but is not without its own issues; air conditioning uses a lot of energy and has a significant carbon footprint, so cooling the classroom feeds back into making the world warmer.

Study author Joshua Goodman tells Annabelle Timsit of Fast Company: “the fact that we found school air conditioning to be an effective potential intervention does not mean it’s the only potential intervention we could take here.” Timsit suggests "planting more trees around schools and designing eco-friendly school buildings."

Except you are not allowed to do that anymore; shooters can hide in the trees and bushes. According to the National School Shield task force, covered in TreeHugger here, landscaping is a menace, "Tall features of landscaping, such as trees, should be kept at sufficient distance from buildings so as to prevent roof and upper-level window access to school property."

Schools also used to be designed to promote natural ventilation and cooling, as in Paul Rudolph's now-demolished Riverview school.

Open Air School Suresne Wikipedia/ Open Air School Suresne/ Beaudouin and Lods/CC BY 2.0

Even earlier, there was actually an Open Air School movement, "built on the concept that fresh air, good ventilation and exposure to the outside contributed to improved health." Katherine has written so often about how important it is for kids to get outside and have some fresh air.

But you can't do this anymore either; now, architects have to “design windows, framing, and anchoring systems to minimize the effects of explosive blasts, gunfire, and forced entry."

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick even blamed a recent school shooting on the fact that the school had too many doors, which also could be opened for natural ventilation. Fortunately, Fox News provides a solution- a giant water cannon that can blow holes through a concrete block wall to let students out.

Imagine students barricaded in classrooms with no way to escape. The shooter is roaming the hallways. The only exit is the door to the hallway. If students tried to escape via the hallway, they could be greatly at risk. Outside the school building, police could roll up these water cannons and quickly punch holes in the walls of every classroom providing large escape holes.

The water cannons could also be useful if they could be set on stun or even lower, to spray cooling water over the students.

But seriously, we have a problem here that cannot be solved just by throwing air conditioning at it. We can upgrade our building designs to, say, PassiveHouse standards so that they don't need much energy to keep cool, or we could design like Paul Rudolph did for natural ventilation and shading, and do something about the problems outside the schools instead of getting rid of all the windows and doors. Those open-air schools look awfully nice.

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