Does the school building itself play a role in student achievement?

Does a student's physical environment impact achievement? A British study suggests it does, making me wonder about the impact of attending school in trailers, as many metro Atlanta students do. (AJC Photo.)

Does a student's physical environment impact achievement? A British study suggests it does, making me wonder about the impact of attending school in trailers, as many metro Atlanta students do. (AJC Photo.)

The current debate in American education is how much a teacher influences a child’s success in school. We are about to see whether that impact can be quantified in a grand national experiment with value-added measures.

But yet to be understood or even much considered is the role, if any, that the school building itself plays in student success. A new study out of Britain suggests that the classroom environment — defined as classroom orientation, natural light and noise, temperature and air quality,  color usage, organization flexibility of space and storage facilities  — can affect a child’s academic growth by as much as 25 percent in a year.

Schools in fast-growing metro Atlanta have spent a lot of time reassuring parents that their children don’t suffer from attending classes in trailers. One of my children spent a year in a trailer. He never had much of a reaction to the tight space, but I found it oppressive. Outside trailers seem disconnected from the schools in both real and intangible ways.

Many adults maintain that environment is critical to their productivity. I know writers who have to work in bright rooms awash in light. But I know others who prefer to labor in cave-like settings. In my own office, it’s always interesting to witness the individual attempts to personalize work stations. We work in a large open room with contiguous desks. (My only individualization is the stack of Diet Coke cans that I have yet to bring home to recycle.)

According to the release from Britain’s University of Salford:

In a pilot study by the University of Salford and architects, Nightingale Associates, it was found that the classroom environment can affect a child’s academic progress over a year by as much as 25 percent.  The year-long pilot study was carried out in seven Blackpool LEA primary schools. 34 classrooms with differing learning environments and age groups took part.

The study took two lines of enquiry. The first was to collect data from 751 pupils, such as their age, gender and performance level in maths, reading and writing at the start and end of an academic year.

The second evaluated the holistic classroom environment, taking into account different design parameters such as classroom orientation, natural light and noise, temperature and air quality. Other issues such as flexibility of space, storage facilities and organization, as well as use of color were evaluated. This holistic assessment includes both classroom design and use factors to identify what constitutes an effective learning environment.

Notably, 73 percent of the variation in pupil performance driven at the class level can be explained by the building environment factors measured in this study. Current findings suggest that placing an average pupil in the least effective, rather than the most effective classroom environment could affect their learning progress by as much as the average improvement across one year.

Professor Peter Barrett, School of the Built Environment, University of Salford said: “It has long been known that various aspects of the built environment impact on people in buildings, but this is the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools. The impact identified is in fact greater than we imagined and the Salford team is looking forward to building on these clear results.”

Design Research Lead, Caroline Paradise from Nightingale Associates, said: “We are excited by these early findings which suggest that the classroom plays an important role in pupil performance. This will support designers and educators in targeting investment in school buildings to where it will have the most impact, whether new build or refurbishment.”

Through these promising findings, the study will continue for another 18 months and cover another 20 schools in different areas of the UK.

The British study earned a write-up in Huffington Post, which includes a wonderful slide show on innovative and dreamy schools designs from around the world.

Huffington Post notes:

The Salford-Nightingale findings come as an estimated 14 million children in the United States attend crumbling public schools with leaking roofs, moldy walls and dangling ceiling tiles, among other deteriorations. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, says the situation has gotten so bad that at least one-third of the United States’ 80,000 public schools need ‘extensive’ repair.

A 2007 Department of Education survey found that 43 percent of schools in the U.S. see the condition of their buildings as ‘interfering with the ability of the school to deliver instruction.’  The effects of such conditions were reported to range from lower student achievement to reduced teacher productivity. Just refurbishing those schools into ‘good overall condition,’ however, would require $127-322 billion in spending, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

33 comments Add your comment

Attentive Parent/Invisible Serfs Collar

January 16th, 2013
6:04 am

The British study is premised on the idea that school is not about the transmission of knowledge. People are viewed as products of their physical reactions with each other and their physical environment. No pre-existing identity and who we are is derived from the community and environment we are embedded in.

This is a political theory and a metaphor that is becoming all the rage globally as Bronfenbrenner Ecological Systems Theory. I first encountered it in New Zealand but it is playing a major role in the actual Common Core implementation in the US.

If who we are is a product of our environment, then levelling via education and refusing to have different coursework available by ability is easier to justify. Not fair to augment via education what was merely a matter of undue luck anyway. The physical, financial and social circumstances you were born into.

When I tracked all this back to its origins there was no pretense that all these embedded systems metaphors reflected an empirical view of world. It’s aspirational for the future though as it justifies already desired education policies.

Those British buildings are being redesigned around the theme of social interaction and collaboration using ICT.

Likewise, I noticed that when Davidson recently took the $45 million from the Duke Endowment to remake the nature of liberal arts education for the 21st century a big part of the plan was to remake the physical plant around that new vision. I guess lecture halls are going. But the actual architectural dreams on that now beautiful campus will be interesting to watch.

drew (former teacher)

January 16th, 2013
6:34 am

“A 2007 Department of Education survey found that 43 percent of schools in the U.S. see the condition of their buildings as ‘interfering with the ability of the school to deliver instruction.’ ”

So, schools can “see” the condition of their buildings? And what they “see” is that the buildings intefere with the delivery of instruction? Really? Seriously??

So it’s not the teachers, parents, students, etc. after all…it’s the buildings! I’ve taught in everything from state of the art classrooms, to trailers, and I can honestly say the “building” was the least important aspect of “delivering instruction”.

“Notably, 73 percent of the variation in pupil performance driven at the class level can be explained by the building environment factors measured in this study.” Really? I’d really like to see the methodology that produced this percentage. I admit I don’t know the details of this study, but it certainly sounds like gibberish to me. But I guess researchers have to research something, eh?

We have enough real, serious, issues to confront in education before we start wringing our hands over the brick and mortar. Like Maureen said, some people flourish in an open environment, and some prefer the cave. Once again, one size does NOT fit all.

bootney farnsworth

January 16th, 2013
7:08 am

of course it does: a clean, safe, warm environment is as conductive to learning as a filthy, nasty one is disruptive to it


January 16th, 2013
7:21 am

Stores can arrange merchandise a certain way, and sales increase. Restaurants know that interior design is critical, just ask the Restaurant Impossible guy. Corporations know that personnel costs can be mitigated with more functional interior space. Even the lowly monkey is a better person inside an ergonomic cage. Lets be better monkeys, and stop pelting the science of architectural behavior modification with our opinions. Can millions of chameleons be wrong when they adapt to their environment just to survive? Life only evolved on earth, not saturn or venus or jupiter. The design of space is super-critical.


January 16th, 2013
7:44 am

UGA has been studying this for years.

Take a look at the The School Design & Planning Laboratory


January 16th, 2013
8:06 am

I don’t believe it. I have seen pictures of kids in 3rd world countries sitting on the dirt holding books in their laps while the teacher teaches via a blackboard painted on a crumbling wall. The kids want to learn and the teacher wants to teach, so the kids learn.

Growing up, the biggest piece of technology my school had was a projector. One for the entire school so it wasn’t used much. The teachers taught with a blackboard, books, and a piece of chalk. And we learned..sometimes I feel we learned WAY more than my kids are learning now. Teachers didn’t seem to NEED smartboards and computers and “manipulatives” and special software and ..and,,and…and…

My mother was a teacher. When she went to school she had to take a class on free drawing MAPS because they thought a teacher should be able to draw a map on a wall in case she was teaching in a school with few resources. I think teachers that graduate now are simply LOST and have no idea how to simply teach unless they have a state of the art classroom with all the latest gizmos and gadgets.

It is about students with the right attitude and teachers willing to teach, not about the space.


January 16th, 2013
8:12 am

when the goal is “get more tax money to spend”, then the answer is always “yes, it has a huge impact”….no matter what the question. In general, it seems that the impact that the physical school environment has would be miniscule compared to 1) the teacher’s ability to teach and inspire, and 2) the discipline/peer environment – in particular, eliminating distractions, bullying and ridiculing of those who want to learn.

mystery poster

January 16th, 2013
8:14 am

“Stores can arrange merchandise a certain way, and sales increase. ”

True. I read in TIME magazine that grocery stores even experiment with the size of the floor tiles to see how that affects how much people buy.

That being said, cram 40 kids in a classroom designed for 25 and tell me that doesn’t make any difference.

V for Vendetta

January 16th, 2013
8:16 am

Sure, the environment makes a slight difference.


What makes the biggest difference is whether or not a child was taught to value education from birth and behave in a manner befitting such a belief. Then he or she would be ready and willing to learn in a wide variety of environments.


January 16th, 2013
8:36 am


Take a look at this link. I bet these kids are beating the pants off ours and they don’t have any buildings, desks, computers, ipads, school supplies, shoes, etc.! Look at their faces. Look how engaged they are. We spend $8K-$12K or more per pupil and get lackluster results. All of these kids will probably be doctors or engineers.

Greg Kaiser

January 16th, 2013
8:51 am

I have no evidence beyond anecdotal, but after many years as a classroom teacher and school administrator, I would agree wholeheartedly that the environment a child is placed in can have a significant effect on his or her ability to learn. This includes not only the physical envrionment, but the social, emotional and cognitive environments as well. Give a student a relatvely quiet, well-lit, secure, supportive environment in which to go to school, and he or she will usually do well in comparison to the child who does not feel safe, does not feel supported, and is attending school in a run-down, uncared for school facility. It’s the same reason some of the most successful companies in America, such as Google, Apple and Dreamworks create dynamic, comfortable working environments for their employees- it spurs creative thinking and a positive attitude.


January 16th, 2013
8:59 am

Just another magic bullet in a bandolier.How many factors have we changed or pretended to improve:

1) School lunches (followed in short order by “free” school lunches,the number of which is used to demonstrate how a) good the school is or b) how bad the school is)

2) A “computer in every classroom”. (presumably attached to a 10 year old that taught the teacher how to use it)

3) “The INTERNET in every classroom” . So teachers can communicate how put upon they are.

4) High stakes testing. (Which showed just how clever and creative educrats can be in perverting the system)

5) No Child Left Behind (unless they are poor,or hard to teach)

These magic bullet solutions have a,um, poor track record.


January 16th, 2013
9:01 am

This “story” misses the point completely. The real story is that the Conservative government in Britain is trying to get control of costs by standardizing and simplifying school design. The architects, for obvious reasons, paid for a study that predictably concluded learning is better when an expensive one-off design by an architect is used for each school building. This is not a study, it is a public relations piece for architecture.

You should do a little background research before you cut and paste these things to make a column.


January 16th, 2013
9:05 am

When I was in school, the buildings were old, poorly lit and classrooms were dirty.

NOW I KNOW why I just couldn’t be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist!!!


January 16th, 2013
9:27 am

Speaking of studies, when are you going to do a column on the far more important story of the HHS study on the Head Start program?


January 16th, 2013
9:36 am

The issue is not whether it’s possible to affect the learning curve with spacial feng shui…..ahh….no, actually that is the issue. Never mind. I vote yes, it is possible. Some teachers take their classes outside and sit under a tree and teach, and nothing gets learned that day, my friends, because there’s insects, birds, traffic noise, and it’s uncomfortable sitting on the ground. It was usually done on the days when the cafeteria served shephard’s pie so everyone was half asleep anyway. Those outdoor sessions were welcomed by me because I usually had gas from the lunch. Aww, I don’t wanna talk about it.


January 16th, 2013
9:38 am

@ Bob. Awesome article. Thank you. I did notice that almost all the kids were boys. Wonder what’s up with that? Still….awesome!


January 16th, 2013
9:57 am

@ HomeSchooler….I believe there are some girls in the background but it’s kind of hard to tell.


January 16th, 2013
9:59 am

Justice. Attention. Fun. Children respond to those. If there is justice, attention, and fun in a crumbling old building with ceiling tiles hanging down, there will be achievement. If there is injustice, neglect, and boredom in a lovely new building with soft carpet and optimum lighting, there will not be achievement.

V for Vendetta

January 16th, 2013
10:01 am

Do you value education? Then you already know the answer to the question this blog poses.

Proud Teacher

January 16th, 2013
10:14 am

It depends on the atmosphere the school provides. I”ve taught in very old schools and brand new schools. Actually, the students did better and the atmosphere was better in the very old schools. I think it had more to do with the administration’s attitude toward the students and the teachers’ attitudes towards the students. We seemed to be a more cohesive faculty and staff. Our scores were better, morale overall was better, and more learning seemed to take place. Our new school is greatly lacking in all three areas now.

Teacher, Too

January 16th, 2013
10:21 am

I, too, sometimes think we rely too much on technology. While it’s great and students can benefit from the use of technology, we as a society have become over-reliant on it. Many kids can’t do simple math without a calculator. Nor can they write a complete sentence without spellcheck and grammar check to assist them. I am old-school…I can teach with a piece of chalk (if I have to) or a white board and an overhead projector. Everything else is really just dessert.

I agree with ABC who said that she thinks sometimes kids haven’t learned as much as she did. Too much technology can be isolating and interferes with inter-personal skills. Didn’t anyone watch the Dateline two weeks ago that showed the four girls having to learn to converse with each other, without checking their email or text messages. They had to LEARN how to carry on a conversation with the people they were with! And having to learn to use a map instead of GPS…

I do think a school environment can have a limited impact on a child’s education…but I do mean limited. When the desire to learn is there, then a child will learn.


January 16th, 2013
11:39 am

Good grief. I bet if you did a study on home environments, you’d come up with the same results. As bad as some of these schools seem to be, it’s an improvement from where some of the students came from that morning.

HS Math Teacher

January 16th, 2013
12:53 pm

This “study” seems like a bunch of Feng Shui, pyramid dwelling, granola, holistic, earth shoe-wearin’, hippie crap.

One thing is for sure: The arrangement of STUDENTS in a classroom is more critical than the arrangement of furniture.

living in an outdated ed system

January 16th, 2013
1:01 pm

The physical learning environment does play a role, but we don’t need to be spending billions of dollars creating albatrosses like they did in Los Angeles. Many public schools look like prisons, with very little light, few windows, and depressing colors. There is plenty of research done by psychologists on school design. While digital technology makes the learning environment more than just “physical,” look at some of the more modern school designs such as what they’ve done in Detroit with the Henry Ford Academy for Creative Studies, or Carpe Diem Schools. Or even the futuristic school designs in Finland.

While we can’t ignore the importance of the learning process, the environment the students are in will impact the pace and outcome of learning.


January 16th, 2013
1:52 pm

IT’S MY JOB as the teacher to make the classroom an inviting place that is special to our time together. The kids remember the posters on the wall as much as anything else! I take this as a serious responsibility, and I put in extra time and money to make sure my classroom is the best I can design. The students do respond positively to the environment, and I can make this happen no matter what the rest of the school looks like. I’d rather my tax dollars go toward a lower student/teacher ratio than a fancy new building. Creating an effective classroom is part of a teacher’s responsibility.

Private Citizen

January 16th, 2013
2:38 pm

Macro topic: Benefits of architecture and aesthetics.

Private Citizen

January 16th, 2013
2:45 pm

beteachin’, I’ve got about 50 of those posters if you want to burn them and keep warm for the winter. In my own schooling, I’d much prefer a quite room and blank walls and good cognitive content. A friend I had who went to school in Spain said there was no gack on the walls of the classroom. Sounds good to me. Hey. let’s look at a classroom in Japan and see what it looks like. Very little wall gack / visual clutter.

Private Citizen

January 16th, 2013
2:49 pm

PS U.S. classrooms: cheap plastic clocks on the wall and lots of commercially produced gacky posters. OH MY GAWD. I worked in a government school where they had framed corporate motivational posters lining the halls. It was just like Wtf?!


January 16th, 2013
2:49 pm

Geeze people, crack open a psych book. I do — I teach it every day. The environment does in fact impact human behavior as well as learning. Temperature, lighting, the feeling of being safe – all of this impacts a student’s ability to learn, regardless of achievement level.

It may not be the be all and end all of outside variables impacting a student’s achievement, but if you’re a kid who wants to learn and are sitting in a room with peeling walls, a leaky roof, and no windows, what message is the school sending about a) how it feels about students and b) how it feels about the importance of education? You might want to learn, but the implication that the school doesn’t care will damper that over time.

Here, have a ton of academic articles on the impact of the environment on emotion:

And learning:

Knock yourselves out, conspiracy theorists.

Private Citizen

January 16th, 2013
3:04 pm

My attention to classroom aesthetics has included removing desks after the sharp edges from broken metal pieces under the desks had cut students on two occasions, after which they request a band-aid. Finally, I just said “screw it” and went to Sam’s Club and spent $300. on some chairs and dragged that tilted broken garbage out of the classroom. Let em think now… I have bought at least three dehumidifiers for work in one building that had moisture/mildew problem.

Seriously, they need to take that building down to the ground with a wrecking ball and replace it with a building with a proper foundation that doesn’t seep water. But the way the economy is, it will be a long time coming.

Private Citizen

January 16th, 2013
3:28 pm

Private Citizen

January 17th, 2013
8:34 am

School environment is transitory an should be purposed based. What good to have a fancy school and then the when the student is one they’re back out in the world. This is also an issue with university.

In K12 schools in Georgia, I find it awkward that just by looking at school buildings, you have wealthy districts and other places, bad conditions. There is film documentary called “Corridor of Shame” about this type thing in South Carolina, “corridor” meaning towns around the I-95 interstate highway “corridor.”

Corridor of Shame: Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools