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K-12 Workflow Management Blog

How School Facilities Impact Student Performance: Real Examples to Emulate

Graphic illustrating students studying and achieving success.

For decades, research has shown that the quality, design, and upkeep of school facilities have a direct effect on student performance. In many cases, the impact is felt more deeply by minority populations and disadvantaged students, which worsens existing disparities in academic achievements and outcomes. As a result, it’s critical for school administrators and policymakers to recognize the need for more thoughtful designs and consistent maintenance of public school buildings.

In response to this issue, some school districts have placed the design of their educational facilities at the top of their priority lists. For example, North Kansas City High School underwent a major renovation that, among other things, ensured classrooms had natural light and increased accessibility in every learning environment. In 2021, South High Community School in Worcester, Massachusetts welcomed students to a newly designed facility with reduced classroom noise and improved lighting.

The U.S. Department of Education is also taking action by forming the National Clearinghouse on School Infrastructure. The clearinghouse offers technical assistance and training materials to states aiming to improve the design, construction, and maintenance of their public schools.

So how does this all relate to you? Keep reading to get a clearer picture of why school officials and government leaders have taken such an interest in school infrastructure—and how you can do the same for your own school.

How Does Building Design Impact Students’ Ability to Learn?

If you’re planning for a school renovation, or even if you’re currently in the midst of the remodeling process, it’s essential to understand how building design affects student learning. Multiple educational research studies have delved into the connection between school-building conditions and the academic performance of students.

A study by Glen Earthman of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University revealed that the quality of the physical environment within a school can have a positive or negative impact. According to the study, poor facility quality can result in:

  • Decreased student attendance
  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Overcrowding
  • Lower test scores

School facility conditions also affect teacher performance. Poor acoustic quality and overcrowded classrooms make it difficult for teachers to communicate clearly. Some teachers working in subpar school environments become frustrated and experience burnout. Building design thus has a domino effect in which the condition of school buildings hampers teachers’ ability to educate, which, in turn, results in lower overall student performance.

6 Facility Design Elements That Influence Student Performance

Although every aspect of a building’s design can affect student performance, certain elements have proven most important. School administrators that directly address these factors through repairs, maintenance, and renovations are taking a crucial step toward creating an environment that fosters improved academic outcomes and empowers students to reach their full potential.

Classroom Size

Classroom size is a seemingly basic aspect of educational facility design, yet it’s also among the most challenging issues to address. And while there are strictly held regulations on the number of students per class, there’s significantly less thought given to the size of the classroom that will contain all of these learners.

Although research has repeatedly shown that overcrowding has a negative impact on student academic achievement, providing classrooms with adequate space can become a logistical and financial nightmare. Class sizes of fewer students require more physical space than larger classes with many students. In addition, those smaller class sizes require increased staffing, which is especially difficult for schools struggling with limited budgets.

But the benefits of small class sizes and ample classroom space are well worth the effort. As a study from Texas A&M University describes, larger classroom sizes are beneficial to teachers’ pedagogical practices. They allow teachers to broaden the scope of their educational activities and incorporate strategies related to hands-on learning. Project-based assignments are much easier when teachers have the space to separate students into groups. These types of activities increase student engagement and serve a wider variety of learning styles.

Classroom size is also directly tied to concerns about equity. A report from Hanover Research explains that small class sizes are especially important for low-income and minority students. When placed in uncrowded classrooms, these students have multiple positive outcomes, including

  • Increased standardized test scores
  • Higher likelihood of taking college entrance exams
  • Improved college attendance rates
  • Better employment earnings

The takeaway: Providing students with appropriately sized classrooms has immediate and long-term effects. To better the chances of student success, school administrators should ensure that all classrooms have adequate space for the number of students in the class. This means that there should be open areas between desks or tables, which allows students and teachers to move freely about the room and change the furniture layout to accommodate different kinds of learning activities. Furthermore, to prevent overcrowding and allow teachers to give one-on-one attention to each individual student, administrators should limit the number of students in each classroom, particularly when using small spaces.

Lighting

Lighting is another crucial component of the physical environment in schools. Students obviously can’t do their best work in the dark, but the mere presence of light isn’t enough. It’s equally important to consider the type and amount of light in the room.

Classrooms receive light from a number of sources, including:

  • Windows
  • Doors
  • Overhead fixtures
  • Table and floor lamps

While a room might have multiple fluorescent lights on the ceiling, this doesn’t necessarily translate to the best student learning. Research shows that the presence of natural light is especially essential. One such study was conducted by researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of California in Berkeley. They found that students with greater exposure to natural light performed better academically than those with less daylight. In particular, students had higher math and reading test scores when more natural light was present.

The takeaway: Studies show that a combination of natural and electrical light is ideal, with the caveat that excessive direct daylight can create problematic environmental conditions for students, including glares and increased temperatures. When implementing upgrades or designing new school buildings, it’s best for each classroom to have multiple outdoor windows with blinds or shades that teachers can use to block direct sunlight when necessary.

Air Quality

Indoor air quality is a major contributor to student success, largely because it correlates directly with student attendance. Schools without proper ventilation have more frequent student illnesses, which lead to excessive absences. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students who frequently miss school have negative outcomes like:

  • Lower achievement in math, reading, and general knowledge
  • Increased likelihood of dropping out of high school
  • Detentions and suspensions
  • Exclusion from extracurricular activities

Although air quality has always been a consideration for school environments, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the poor quality and disrepair of ventilation systems within many American public schools. It also provided an opportunity to demonstrate with hard numbers how severely ventilation can affect student well-being. A study of elementary schools in Georgia found that improved ventilation strategies contributed to a 48% lower rate of COVID infection.

Information on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website, EPA.gov, identifies air quality as essential not only to student health but also to positive academic outcomes. Specifically, the EPA reports that children placed in classrooms with effective outdoor ventilation often have higher test scores in math and reading.

The takeaway: To provide students with the best possible indoor air quality, administrators and maintenance teams must take several important steps:

  • Regularly inspect heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to ensure they’re functioning correctly
  • Clean air filters and exchanges to prevent the buildup of dust
  • Check vents and ductwork for mold and mildew
  • Quickly repair damaged or failing parts and equipment

While upgrading HVAC and ventilation systems may require a substantial financial investment, particularly for older buildings, the benefits for learners far outweigh the financial costs.

Room Temperature

Room temperature might seem like a minor concern, but it has a very real effect on student learning. When rooms are too cold or too hot, they distract students from their educational tasks. Rather than thinking about the work in front of them or the information being presented by a teacher, students are instead focused on their physical discomfort.

The effects of room temperature on academic achievement are potentially severe. Room temperatures have a demonstrable effect on student achievement and test scores, with both short- and long-term effects. In addition to distracting from everyday tasks, classroom temperatures can lead to decreased learning over the entire school year.

The authors of a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that students had lower standardized test scores when they experienced a hot school year as opposed to a cool one. Depending on the student population, these results can occur with as little as a one-degree difference in temperature. As with so many other environmental factors, room temperature has an exacerbated effect on minority students and those from low-income households.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence that room temperature is a vital consideration for school environments, many school buildings throughout the United States still don’t have air conditioning. These concerning statistics underscore the reality of the room temperature problem:

  • A 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office stated that around 36,000 schools in the country needed to update or replace their HVAC systems.
  • Following a 2017 pledge by Mayor Bill de Blasio, air conditioning in New York City schools has largely been improved, but some schools report that their systems still need to be repaired or updated.
  • As of June 2022, only 35% of the buildings in the Detroit Public Schools Community District had air conditioning.

The takeaway: School administrators and policymakers have the power to address inequity and provide more comfortable learning environments for all students with air conditioning, which eliminates negative impacts on learners. According to research, the ideal temperature for a classroom is between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Investing in HVAC system repairs, upgrades, and installations make this temperature goal attainable even in the most sweltering conditions.

Acoustics

Classrooms are often noisy spaces filled with the competing sounds of social chatter and teacher instructions. However, excessive sound can diminish student outcomes, and external sources are often the most problematic. They may include:

  • Road traffic
  • Airplanes
  • Heating and ventilation units
  • Repairs and maintenance
  • Lawnmowers

Unlike internal sounds that teachers can try to control, these background noises are unwelcome and unavoidable distractions. Research shows that students’ reading comprehension scores are significantly lower when they are in an environment with noises of this kind.

Poor acoustics also impact teachers’ ability to do their jobs. A 2021 literature review explores the relationship between classroom acoustics and teacher performance. It reveals that teachers dealing with loud environments have to raise their voices, which leads to vocal fatigue and makes it difficult for them to communicate effectively. In most cases, verbal instruction is the primary link between teachers and students, so a strained voice can lead to diminished learning outcomes.

The takeaway: Reducing noise levels is often a matter of community surroundings and building placement. When adding a new building, avoid areas nearby busy roads and loud, permanent outdoor equipment. For existing buildings, facilities managers can achieve better classroom acoustics with items like:

  • Sound-reducing windows with thicker panes
  • Door seals and gaskets
  • Sound-absorbing ceiling tiles
  • Rugs, carpets, and curtains on floors and windows

While it’s not realistic or desirable to try to achieve total silence in a classroom, these measures will help reduce background noise and allow students and teachers to focus fully on the tasks at hand.

Building Design

Overall building and classroom design also contributes to student outcomes and performance. Studies have shown that aesthetically pleasing educational spaces may improve learning outcomes because of the psychological effects on students. In other words, students feel more engaged, recognized, and valued in buildings with appealing visual designs, and this can translate to improved attendance and reduced dropout rates.

In many cases, building age is directly tied to condition and appearance, particularly when school leaders have not implemented a regular system of maintenance. However, the age of the physical environment is irrelevant when there is proper upkeep. Capitalizing on facilities management trends and developing a regular maintenance plan that includes equipment repairs, repainting, and furniture replacements makes it possible to accomplish a dynamic and interesting building design even without major renovations.

The takeaway: Whether you are preparing a new academic space or making plans for your current building, it’s crucial to use informed strategies that are proven to improve student achievements. Potential ideas include:

  • Creating areas for student collaboration
  • Using calming paint colors for walls
  • Incorporating outdoor spaces
  • Reducing visible clutter

These steps have proven effective at improving student pride, excitement, and interest in learning.

How Other Elements Play a Part in Students’ Learning

In addition to the physical features of school facilities, access to technology also has a direct impact on the academic performance of students, regardless of the school level. Exposure to 21st-century technology, such as computers and smart boards, is especially important for middle school and high school students who will need technical skills to succeed. Using outdated or substandard technology may result in students feeling unprepared for college or the workplace.

Similarly, extracurricular activities have a direct impact on academic outcomes and student engagement. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students who participate in extracurriculars have higher test scores, fewer absences, and higher GPAs, especially in secondary school. They’re also more likely to attend college.

Making a Case for Maintaining Facilities

Maintaining a healthy and engaging learning environment, with adequate lighting, air quality, space, design, acoustics, and temperatures, is central to student performance. Unfortunately, these standards sometimes feel out of reach because of financial limitations. However, with strategic management of your facilities budget and access to resources, school administrators can find ways to stretch their funds and improve school facilities. As an example, policymakers have empowered the U.S. Department of Education to provide school improvement grants to state education agencies for renovations and upgrades—this is the perfect opportunity for padding your facilities budget and upgrading your buildings on limited funds.

To ensure that all public schools provide the best possible academic environment, leadership must employ school building maintenance best practices and have a clear vision of how to move forward. Incident IQ’s facilities management platform provides a comprehensive system for facilities managers and maintenance planners to prioritize repair and upkeep tasks, assign them to available staff, and confirm they’ve been completed.

Reach out to the team at Incident IQ to learn more about how a facilities management solution can streamline work orders and optimize maintenance processes within your school system. Request a free demo to get an up-close look at how Incident IQ can help you provide a healthy and productive environment for students in your school district.