As warmer temperatures roll in with the spring testing season, attention is returning to recent research on heat's impact on learning — especially given the number of schools nationwide with no air conditioning. Largely located in areas that traditionally didn't see high temperatures during the school year, the last few years have increasingly seen record high heat sometimes lead to school closures.
Education Week reports that — according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper discussed in a panel at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness' Spring 2019 conference — more than a decade of PSAT scores from over 10 million high school students show scores fell 1% for every degree higher the school's temperature rose over the previous year's average. The paper's authors are researchers from the College Board, Georgia State University, Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles.
The higher temperature effect was also three to four times greater for black and Hispanic students than for white students, and also greater for low-income students than for their more affluent peers, largely due to these students being more likely to attend a school with little or no air-conditioning. Researchers noted these differences could account for 13% of the PSAT achievement gap between these groups.
According to Ed Week, study co-author Jonathan Smith, an assistant economics professor at Georgia State University, noted this month at the conference that a five-degree rise in the average school temperature over time is associated with $1,000 less in adult income for each student.
While snow days can impact school attendance and schedules, heat waves can have the same impact on schools without air conditioning. At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, schools across the country — in areas like Philadelphia, Youngstown, Ohio, and others — had to shorten class days to deal with the heat. Some school districts have established set policies to curtail the length of school days when temperatures reach a certain point.
Impact on cognitive learning
Previous research has also acknowledged that heat has an impact on cognitive learning. It makes students uncomfortable, sluggish, more likely to sleep in class, and more irritable and fretful. And the “Heat and Learning” study highlights the disproportionate impact on students from various socioeconomic demographics.
The expenses to install and maintain HVAC and other air conditioning units have led many schools to do without them, especially in areas where class typically wasn't in session during warmer months. Though no records track the number of schools with air conditioning across the county, The 74 reported in 2017 that 11 of the nation’s largest school districts — including those in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Baltimore — have a large percentage of their schools without air conditioning. In Hawaii, which is the closest state to the equator, only 40% of classrooms have air conditioning.
Even those that do have air conditioning units may not have them in good condition. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2012-13 school year 30% of schools with air conditioning reported that their systems were in poor or fair condition.
States and school districts may need to prioritize air conditioning needs since heat impacts student learning and can impact teacher retention, considering poor working conditions are a major reason teachers leave. But in districts lacking the resources to upgrade or add air conditioning, administrators may need to update adverse weather policies, make changes to school calendars, or perhaps adopt remote learning days similar to those now used as snow day alternatives if they have adequate device programs in place.
The effects of climate change also mean the situation is likely to get worse, climate researchers say. Think Progress quoted a NASA report stating that the five hottest years on earth have occurred since 2010. While some school districts, especially in the northern United States, have managed to survive without air conditioning so far, that may now become more of a priority.