Link Between School Building Conditions and the Achievement Gap

By Angel Ford

School facility conditions are tied to student attitudes, behaviors, and success, therefore little argument can be raised that school facility upkeep and construction should be a consideration in educational planning and funding decisions. Students in buildings in poor condition perform lower than students in buildings in adequate or exceptional condition. Fortunate or privileged students often attend beautiful, clean, well resourced schools and unfortunate or underprivileged students often attend unattractive, dirty, and even unsafe schools.

In the book Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Carter and Welner (2013) discuss how closing the opportunity gap would lead to closing the achievement gap. The achievement gap appears in standardized testing, dropout rates, college readiness, and general academic achievement.

Carter and Welner (2013) compile essays from a number of authors tackling the issues of inequity in educational opportunities and link these inequities directly to the achievement gap. The authors of the essays discuss concerns about housing disparities, preschool enrollment disparities, teacher quality disparities, resource disparities, and others. Along this vein, I would like to suggest that the condition of educational facilities be considered as part of the resource disparities and, thus, a part of the opportunity gap.

Over half of the schools in our nation are in need of repairs to be considered in satisfactory condition (NCES, 2014). The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE, 2013) grade American educational facilities with a “D”. This means that a high percentage of students are attending classes in buildings that are subpar and even, in some cases, considered unsafe. Twenty-nine percent of school buildings have safety features in need of repair (NCES, 2014).

Unfortunately, school buildings that are in need of repair are often in the poorest districts, where students already contend with variables predicting lower academic success. Students in poor districts are often those that are lower on the socioeconomic scale, students who are English language learners, students with disabilities, students who are minorities, students who are homeless, or students in foster care (NEA, 2015). The condition of the school buildings they attend appear to be one more challenge against their achievement.

Could improving the places where these less fortunate students learn and equalizing the opportunities that each student has, improve their academic success? I am not saying that improving school buildings would automatically solve the academic achievement gap. Of course, this is an over-simplified solution and many variables need to be considered, but this is one aspect of education in our nation that we know is not equitable and that we know has an impact. We know this from both qualitative and quantitative research, from both a breakdown of isolated variables and a holistic picture. The condition of school facilities should not be ignored when looking at the achievement gap.

Angel Ford is a research associate with Education Facilities Clearinghouse.  Dr. Ford actively participates in research and content management of the EFC website.  

References
American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). (2013). 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers. Retrieved from http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/a/#p/schools/overview

Carter, P. L., & Welner, K. G. (2013). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance. Oxford University Press.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2014). Condition of America’s public schools facilities. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014022.pdf