Impact of Aging American Schools on Students and Teachers

“Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends.” It seems reasonable to assume that the folks responsible for the maintenance and upgrades of our nation’s public school buildings are living the reality of this quote by Shakespeare in King Henry VI, part 1, act 2, scene 3. As time goes by, the Impact of Aging American Schools on Students and Teachers is only growing worse.

There are 56 million students and teachers in 14,000 K12 school districts across the United States. Many spend, on average, eight hours a day, Monday through Friday during the school year, in buildings that negatively impact their health, achievement, and well-being.

What’s the problem?

Depending on the reports you read, the average age of an American public school building ranges from 45 to 50 years. In older industrial cities, the districts are tasked with keeping 60 to 70 year old buildings up and running.

Once you factor in decades of deferred maintenance coupled with changing educational needs and classroom requirements, you’re left with school buildings that would require enormous sums of money to restore them to useful condition.

According to a 2017 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, one fourth of all American K12 schools are in fair to poor condition.

Some of the problems in these buildings that students and teachers face daily include:

  • broken toilets
  • broken sink faucets
  • mold on walls
  • leaky roofs
  • rodents
  • poor air quality
  • poor water quality
  • no air conditioning
  • broken or inconsistent heating

How Do Sub-Standard Schools Affect Students?

There are a number of studies which have correlated a child’s ability to learn and the condition of the school that child attends. those children attend. These reports point out conditions ranging from the merely irritating to the truly concerning. The list includes:

  • wobbly, broken desks
  • peeling paint
  • crumbling plaster
  • poor lighting
  • poor air quality
  • inadequate ventilation
  • nonfunctioning toilets
  • black mold in classroom ceilings

As you would expect, research shows attendance and test scores suffer from working in sub-standard conditions.

In a report by Education Dive, students in District of Columbia schools with poor building conditions had scores that ranked 6% lower than students at schools that had “fair” conditions. When compared with students at schools that were in excellent condition, the scores ranked 11% lower.

In the same paper, Education Dive reported on a second study of larger urban high schools in Virginia. They also found that students who attended schools with sub-standard buildings had achievement scores that were 11% lower than peers who attended above-standard schools.

In the 2016 State of Our Schools report, findings by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Labs found:

  • an increase of 50% to 370% in the incidence of respiratory illness in spaces with low ventilation rates.
  • breathing fresh air is critical for keeping students alert.
  • low ventilation rates in classrooms have been linked with lower average daily attendance and slower speed in completing tasks.
  • poor facilities are strongly associated with student truancy and higher rates of suspensions.

How Do Sub-Standard Schools Affect Teachers?

Several interesting facts have been revealed in a number of studies. Besides being plagued with all the conditions students are dealing with, teachers are fulfilling their contractual duties.

Let’s start with the discovery that one of the key factors teachers cite in reasons why they are leaving a job is quality of the facility.

Following up on that idea, it was noted in a Washington Post article, that “improving school facilities could boost teacher retention as much as, if not greater than, raising teacher salaries.”

When working conditions negatively impact a teacher’s ability to perform his or her job, the effectiveness of those teachers will drop, teacher absences will increase, and job satisfaction will become an administrative nightmare.

The reality in these sub-standard schools is that teachers and students can find themselves trying to work in classrooms that register 90 degrees in the summer, and wearing their coats and gloves in the winter.

These conditions are abject handicaps to teachers working to meet the needs of all students, while being charged to ensure that learning that will raise the school’s test scores is taking place.

Does anyone else see the irony of this situation?

Besides the fact that working in front of a group of students while sweat trickles down your back, and other unmentionable places, it can also be dangerous.

One report also notes that certain individuals should not work under extreme heat conditions. In school without air conditioning, classroom temperatures can rise to 90 degrees before the bell rings dismissing students to lunch. Both teachers and students could fall into one of the following categories:

  • overweight persons
  • persons with heart problems
  • persons on a low-sodium diet
  • persons taking diuretics
  • persons taking thyroid medicines
  • persons taking tricyclic antidepressants
  • persons taking certain forms of anti-psychotic medications

Like it or not, the physical working environment is important to teacher productivity and retention. In a study by Thomas Corcoran, the interviews with 400 school personnel, including teachers, paint a clear picture of the current state of affairs. Two points pertinent to the current condition of American schools are:

  • the working conditions of teachers (in sub-standard schools) are bleak and would not be tolerated in other professions.
  • physical conditions are sub-standard because of a lack of maintenance, repair, and space

How Did Things Get So Bad?

It’s important to note that this problem is not localized in one particular part of the country. It’s worse in the older industrial cities like Detroit and Baltimore, since they’re dealing with buildings that were constructed in the first half of the 20th century. However, the problem is nationwide.

Two of the numerous factors contributing to the situation are:

  • Educational expectations
  • The way schools are funded

Expectations

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, schools were required to make major modifications to their buildings and grounds.

    1. Along with the passage of the ADA, schools were also charged with educating all students “in the least-restrictive environment possible.” This also necessitated modifying facilities to support the needs of autistic and emotionally disturbed students.
  1. When most of the existing public school buildings were constructed, Kindergarten and other early childhood education programs were not run on a full-time basis. Once those programs were expanded, spaces need to be modified to handle full-day classes.
  2. When Apple offered their first computers to classrooms across America, they launched an instructional technology boom that hasn’t yet begun to slow down. To meet continuing needs schools must allocate funds to:
      1. pay for new technology
      2. pay for new equipment
      3. Upgrade electrical and other building infrastructure which includes:
        1. cooling and dehumidification

Funding

There is a strong emphasis on public control of the educational system in the United States. This leaves each local district responsible for the major share of the costs of running their schools.

These costs are divided into two major categories: operating cost and capital costs.

Operating Costs. Operating costs cover everything needed to operate and maintain the school’s property. These costs are shared by the district, state and federal government in the following percentages

  • Local district 45%
  • State government 45%
  • Federal government 10%

Capital costs. Capital costs cover the costs associated with construction. It breaks out as follows:

  • Local district 82%
  • State government 18%
  • Federal government 0.2%

Cost of Repairs and Who Foots the Bill?

There is an interesting formula used to figure how much money districts have available for operating costs and capital costs. After all the computing is done, it’s clear that there isn’t enough money available to do what needs to be done.

The current estimate notes that the country is under-spending by $46 billion annually. It varies by state, but the fact remains that no one has the money to bring deteriorating schools back to usable, satisfactory standards, let along build new structures. Not without more debt.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A former Baltimore school student who was concerned established a GoFundMe account and raised $75K for space heaters and winter coats for students. While this is a wonderful act on his part, GoFundMe projects aren’t the answer to this crisis.

It’s also been suggested that school be allowed to use up to 10% of their Title 1 funds for capital expenses. That idea has merit and would be a good start on some school’s needs.

U.S. Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia introduced a bill that will make $100 billion available to schools for building improvements.

Is This Your Workplace Reality?

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12 thoughts on “Impact of Aging American Schools on Students and Teachers”

  1. This is atrocious- how do people expect children to learn well and remain healthy in such poor conditions

    Here in New Zealand, we have a few older Universities but they are well maintained and the students do extremely well

    I am blown away that this is happening in The USA and this really needs to be addressed and sorted out

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention and good on you for sharing this information

    I hope things change

    Reply
    • It is an atrocious situation, and it does need to get solved.  

      There are so many factors that have contributed to the situation.  Individually, they are probably fairly easy to fix.  However, I think there are lots of pieces, and they create such a knotty problem that it seems unsolvable.  

      The over-arching problem is that there is just not enough money to do everything.  Yet, people want just that.  Everything.  

      I think it’s time for Americans to begin talking about what we expect education to look like, and explore new and unconventional ways to approach it.

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

      Reply
  2. Public schools are a wreck, and mine was no different (I graduated in 2009). Old building, that at the time was 70 years old in the rural part of the Ohio Valley (Richmond, Ohio, population ~470). AC was broken, lights were off at all times when a class wasn’t going on to conserve energy and keep energy costs down. A few years after I graduated, grades 7 through 12 were crammed into the place, as remains to this day. Extracurricular programs are routinely cut, and for a year, the school had to institute a pay to play they were in such dire financial straits. Horrific situation.

    For me, I loved the idea of GoFundMe, as I believe voluntary funding will definitely have a greater impact than simply public funding for public schools. However, I’m a fan of competition, and I’d love to see chartered schools make their way into the area as well as secular private schools, which I believe can definitely enhance student learning plus teacher retention. While I realize the above two come at a price, if more of these schools entered the viewing area, there would definitely be a way to keep costs at a reasonable price.

    Since such schools are providing a paid service, the quality of learning may also substantially increase and maybe kids will start enjoying school rather than dreading it, as was so common at my old school. 

    Reply
    • I think you’ve hit on an idea that needs to be explored more fully.  While many people in public education hate the idea of chartered schools, this option, along with more private schools, may help move us out of this awful situation.  

      Thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it.

      Reply
  3. This is so bad. While reading your post I couldn’t help but think about our schools in Africa, but our situation can’t be similar. Because, America is well organized and has the means to do better. 

    The impact of the school environment on the students and the teachers is very negative and can’t help or encourage them to do better in their work or studies. Studies have shown that the conditions we are living in can help improve or destroy our motivation. So, studying or working in such conditions can’t be good.

    It is a shame that schools are abandoned to such bad conditions, because there is no will to change things.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • You’ve pointed out a very important fact.  If people don’t have the will to do a thing, it just doesn’t get done.  There are so many things that schools are required to do, and they are all expensive.  Every year we see articles calling for an increase in school spending.  Perhaps we’ve come to a point where the American public say no more.  I think it’s past time to look at better ways to solve these problem.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

      Reply
  4. One fourth of all American K12 schools being in fair to poor condition is not ok. I appreciate you bringing awareness to this important issue. Schools are being condemned and consolidated by the day. The evidence is all around us. Your rodent picture paints a good picture here and really highlights all of the problems these buildings face. I imagine it’s difficult for a child to take school seriously given such conditions. At the same time parents need to be responsible. It’s a team effort if we want to change things for sure. Thanks for a great perspective here and I look forward to reading more.

    Reply
    • If we can believe the reports, poor working conditions take a real toll on student outcomes.  If we’re serious about the education of our children, we must find new ways to solve these problems.  I just don’t see how we can expect to continue doing things the same way and think we’re going to get different results.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it! 

      Reply
  5. It’s obvious that students in a better environment perform better. A test isn’t just about studying, it’s also about having a healthy and focused mind. Try making a test while suffocating.

    Me personally, I think the whole mainstream education system will need to be updated in the future. People like tradition and don’t like changes, which makes sense, since the current system to some extent at least does the job.  But if you think about it, what’s actually needed to provide a good educational experience?  

    Education that is provided in schools can be done at home in this day and age, with the internet being readily available. 

    It’s more about certain other aspects like the babysitting (them taking care of our kids for 1/3 of the day), creating a socializing environment, and having activities, that schools are still there, not due to the education. 

    Reply
    • You bring up an excellent point.  School doesn’t need to be conducted the way it has been for over 100 years.  The internet has been a game-changer for other aspects of life, and could be for education as well.  It’s a well documented fact that home school families accomplish lots more academically than the public schools do on considerably less money.  While it’s true our schools have miles of red tape to deal with, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the unorthodox methods of schooling.  

      Thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

      Reply
  6. For sure something as basic as the right heating capacity would drive students to perform differently based on how close general temperature could get to the ideal comfortable stages of 77 Fahrenheit or 25 Celsius degrees. Not forgetting general lighting minimum requirements.

    There’s no doubt of the direct correlation between facilities adequacy and general student’s performance.

    In regards to teaching, facilities become an added value to current personal teaching capabilities. Teaching will never be separate from other socialization activities (between teachers and allowing the teachers to observe the children socialization in multiple environments).

    Something remarkable observe from Thomas Corcoran’s report is that the reasons for the physical conditions being considered sub-standard are directly related to a lack of maintenance, repair, and space. Not too much to do about the last one (Lack of Space): Other than taking full advantage of all it by incorporating furniture that leverage from vertical spaces.

    In regards to maintenance and repairs, the root cause of the problem may get down to a managerial issue. The issue is not an easy one to address and very challenging. Bobby Scott…. It’s good to see someone it’s paying attention to this issues.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the kind words.  Managerial issues could be part of the problem.  When you consider that American schools are required to be all things to all people, it looks more like a situation of just not enough money to go around.  Because there are so many pieces to this puzzle, it will take time to sort it all out, if that every happens.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.  I appreciate it!

      Reply

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