Georgia State University economist Jonathan Smith expected that his study on the costs and social benefits of air conditioning in schools would reveal students suffered repercussions from overheated classrooms. The extent of those repercussions surprised him.
“We had really good evidence from earlier research that heat impacted students on the day of a test,” said Smith. “But our study is quite a bit different. We are suggesting that over the course of the school year heat really affects the ability to perform. It is not just how a student performs on that day of the test. It really impacts overall learning.”
Co-authored by three other economists including R. Jisung Park of UCLA, the “Heat and Learning” study concludes sweltering classrooms contribute to the education achievement gap between white and minority students. In fact, the researchers estimate up to 7% of the gaps are being caused by more hot days and hotter classrooms for African-American and Hispanic students.
Minority and poor kids are more likely to attend schools where classrooms get overly hot, said Smith. The study suggests that installing reliable air conditioning in all classrooms can help solve the problem.
Smith and his colleagues created an air conditioning map of schools. In surveying students across the country and in Georgia, researchers asked: “On hot days, does it get too hot in your classrooms?” Researchers also surveyed school counselors about cooling in classrooms and amassed data on how many U.S. classrooms were air conditioned. The study draws on data from more than 12,000 schools and 10 million students.
The study found nearly 40% of PSAT takers are in schools that may not be fully air conditioned. That does not mean a school has no air conditioning, but that the systems may be faulty or ineffective, said Smith.
Among the findings of the study:
•Roughly 7% of the racial achievement gap (between black and Hispanic students on one hand and white students on the other) can be explained by the combined influence of unequal school facilities and where students live. Although black and Hispanic students overwhelmingly reside in hotter locations than white students, they are 9% less likely than white students to have school air conditioning. That means for them, a 90-degree school day has a negative effect on learning nearly 2 1/2 times what it is for white students.
•Lower-income students are 6 percentage points more likely to report having inadequate school air conditioning.
•A cumulative increase in school-year temperature appears to have an 80% larger impact on black and Hispanic students than on white students.
•Without further investments in school infrastructure, climate change will likely result in a further widening of current racial achievement gaps.
•For the average student, school air-conditioning appears to offset 73 percent of the learning impact of hot school days,
While the study identifies a link between hot classrooms and impeded learning, Smith said, “We don’t know whether this impact is because the heat is negatively impacting the student or the teachers or both.”
The state Legislature held hearings last fall on whether to mandate that Georgia schools, many of which resume classes the first week of August, wait until after Labor Day to reopen. Among the reasons cited by proponents of later starting dates was the withering heat of August. “But the flip-side of starting in September is that students would be going to school in June, which isn’t exactly cool in Georgia,” said Smith. “It is hard to have it both ways. Having good working air conditioning seems like a realistic solution, although a more expensive one.”
Air conditioning pays for itself in the higher future earnings of the students who benefit from attending classes under more congenial and healthful conditions, said Smith. “From a social welfare perspective, the improvement in students’ lives is pretty important.”
Smith has heard the retort from adults that they sat in hot classrooms as kids and it didn’t damage their learning. “I respond by pointing out that there are people who do perfectly fine and are not impacted. But our data show what is happening across the country on average, and we certainly see a negative impact of overly warm days on learning.”
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