Too loud to learn: Do schools ignore the impact of noise pollution on kids?

Educational researcher C. Aiden Downey is a Decatur parent and an associated faculty at Emory University. (We are not related).

Dr. Downey writes today about noise levels in schools, something few of us ever think about it. But it sounds like we should. Here is a shortened bio:

Downey lectures in the Intercultural Conflict Management Program at Alice Solomon University in Berlin Germany and is associated faculty at Emory University.  He served as director of undergraduate studies at the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University. Trained as an educational anthropologist, Aiden collaborates with schools, businesses and other organizations to collaboratively create an institutional culture that sustains people, learning and change.  Aiden’s research and writing focus on community-engaged pedagogy, urban education and the narrative nature of experience, knowledge and identity.  Along with Jean Clandinin and Lee Schaefer, he is the author of Narrative Conceptions of Knowledge:  Towards Understanding Teacher Attrition.  A Marine veteran of the First Gulf War and a former teacher at an inner-city high school for dropouts, Aiden co-founded The Workshop School, an innovative project-based public high school in Philadelphia that teaches inner-city youth to change the world.

This piece raises good points about the noise some children deal with daily in their classrooms. I covered a contentious school board meeting in New Jersey early in my career where parents complained about the noise, debris and degraded air quality resulting from an addition being added to the school. Afterward, I talked to one of the parents, and he made a comment I've found over time to be on the money: "We expect schools and schoolchildren to accept conditions that would not be tolerated in any adult workplace."

By C. Aiden Downey

We moved to the City of Decatur eight years ago because of its reputation for good schools. We were surprised when our children complained about noisy classrooms.

We did not take their noise comments seriously at first, figuring it was the normal clamor made by 20 busy 9-year-olds. That is, until we visited their classrooms and listened for ourselves.

Even empty, the rooms are full of noise produced by HVAC systems. After measuring the noise levels and researching the corrosive impact of noise on learning, we realized our children attended a school that was too loud to learn.

Research has long shown that when noise levels in schools go up, learning goes down. Noise distracts and disrupts, making it harder to listen, focus, work, concentrate and yes, learn.  As sound expert Julian Treasure makes clear in his TED Talk Why Architects Need to Use Their Ears, most buildings are designed for our eyes and not for our ears. The result is buildings that significantly impair and interfere with the very thing we are trying to do in them ­– whether it be work in an office, healing in a hospital or learning in a school.

More sensitive to noise than adults, children in loud classrooms lag behind those in less noisy ones in terms of speech perception, expressive word learning, and learning how to read. Children experiencing learning, behavioral, socio-emotional or linguistic challenges are particularly susceptible to the negative impacts of noise. Not surprisingly, noise is negatively associated with achievement on standardized tests. Students are not the only victims of noise, as teachers in loud classrooms are more likely to suffer from vocal strain associated with trying to talk over the noise.

Relegating teachers and students to classrooms with noise levels shown to impair learning is like putting Richard Petty in a Ford Pinto for the Daytona 500. As good a driver as he is, driving a substandard vehicle puts him at a distinct disadvantage.

C. Aiden Downey

How loud is too loud for learning? Not as loud as you might think. According to the American National Standard on Classroom Acoustics, the noise level in empty classrooms should not exceed 35 decibels­, or about the level of a whisper. For context, normal human speech takes place at about 50-55 decibels, and experts recommend a 15 decibel difference between the sound of a teacher’s voice and background noise. Keep in mind that decibels are logarithmic, so 60 decibels sounds twice as loud to the human ear as 50. Given that normal conversations run around 55 decibels and permanent hearing damage begins at 80-85 decibels, one can see that small increases in decibel levels can have a major impact on children’s ability to hear, concentrate and learn.

School districts serious about the health and performance of students and teachers take the performance of their school buildings seriously. Good research and data drive school design and construction. They know that not paying attention to classroom acoustics can effectively saddle students with an environmental learning disability. They also know that learning-efficient and energy-efficient schools save not only learning but also money, costing taxpayers less in the long run.

Despite Decatur’s commitment to green and sustainable building practices, its education leaders have not committed to building schools that save energy and promote learning.  Our children are paying a steep price. My daughter spent a year in a classroom with an air conditioning unit so loud (60 decibels) that the teacher and students named it ‘the Beast’ and held their class discussions before it powered on and drowned out their voices.

Harder still is that children are expected to learn to read in a classroom that is loud enough to impede their learning. As my daughter put it, “When I am supposed to be reading I cannot picture the scene because all I can hear is the “BRRRRR” of the beast.” Another of my children’s teachers resorted to wearing a microphone and portable speaker to talk over the 67 decibels of noise generated by a massive HVAC tower not 15 yards away from her outdoor classroom.

During an exercise to promote mindfulness, my daughter told me when the teacher asked the children what natural sounds they heard around them, the kids complained that all they could hear was the HVAC unit.  And from my own sampling of sound levels at other schools in the district, my daughter’s school is by no means an exception. The failure to consider the impact of acoustics on learning has handicapped our children and teachers with low-performing learning environments.

The Decatur schools leadership has known for years about the noise levels in my daughter’s school as well as the deleterious effects of noise on learning. Rather than acknowledging the problem and working toward a solution, the district has instead put more effort into denying the noise is a problem. By hiding behind Occupational Safety and Health Administration acoustical standards created for adult workers in factories rather than the American National Standards Institute standards designed for children in schools, the school district has made the case that since the noise does not cause permanent hearing loss in adults, it is fine for our children in schools.

City Schools of Decatur recently secured an exemption from Decatur’s High Efficiency Building Standards for its massive expansion and renovation projects at the middle and high schools.  Concretely, this means that for the foreseeable future students will be expected to learn in the buildings least suited for it in the entire city.  The two buildings that have achieved LEED certification for energy efficiency and environmental quality -- central administration and facilities management -- are occupied by adults.

Concerned parents, teachers, administrators and students can combat noise pollution in schools by first getting the facts, getting organized, then getting loud.

Get the facts: The National Academies of Sciences 2006 report provides an excellent overview on the impact of noise on learning, and the Environmental Protection Agency has a wealth of information on constructing high performing schools.

Research the local noise ordinances that apply to your schools and neighborhood, as these often need to be updated to reflect what we now know about the negative impact of noise on humans. Collect hard data on the noise levels in your school by downloading an app that enables your smart phone to measure sound in decibels.

Get organized: Bring different stakeholders together and developing a long-term plan to bring about change.

Getting loud: Educate stakeholders -- parents, teachers, students, administrators -- about the negative impact of environmental factors like noise on learning as well as about feasible solutions.

Over the last 40 years we have come a long way in terms of getting most major pollutants -- lead, asbestos, cigarette smoke -- out of our schools. We have even declared war on soda and junk food in schools, and made school lunches more nutritious.

But for some reason we have not put the same effort or attention into combating a form of pollution that is a not so silent killer of learning – noise. I welcome the day when we treat a blaring HVAC unit with the same level of concern that we would a lit cigarette in schools. Until we do, our children will continue to learn far less than they should in schools.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.