Our Kids' Future Depends on Us

This is the start of a new year — a year that will likely show increases in school construction, a greater acceptance of "green" applications in general, and a rise in debates about the money spent to upgrade our schools. Education is the one industry where everyone considers himself an expert. We all went to school, so we all have experience and we all know what is best. Too many people believe that if it was good enough for them, it is good enough for the kids of today. But times have changed, building methods and materials have changed, technology has changed, how students learn and how teachers teach has changed, and so have expectations.

We now live in a world where knowledge is the most valuable skill you can acquire. The jobs of the future will require an education beyond high school. With the Internet and other forms of electronic communication making virtual employment a reality, those competing for the same job can live in Phoenix, Dayton (OH), or Beijing. With global competition on the rise, providing our kids with a quality education is more important than ever. Coursework must be challenging, motivating, and relevant; opportunities and access must be improved; quality teachers are essential; and adequate facilities must be provided to support these efforts.

In this coming year, one of our goals here at SP&M will be to share information about the role facilities play in the education process. Our basic premise is that kids deserve schools that are more than warehouses; they deserve environments that are healthy, safe, and inspiring places to learn; and good design cost no more than poor design. Considering the age and condition of many of our schools, providing students with inspiring places to learn will require a sizable investment. While politicians and the general public may realize the importance of a good education, few realize the important role that facilities play in student success. Until they do, the debate about investing in our school facilities will continue.

Common sense tells us that students need light to see, heat to stay warm, and clean air to breathe. Common sense tells us that that overcrowded classrooms or temporary trailers are not conducive to learning. Common sense tells us that we would not be happy in our job if we felt a lack of support and were forced to work in substandard conditions. But common sense has never passed a bond issue.

We believe that facilities DO matter and a growing body of research backs it up.

• Student achievement was as much as 11 percentile points lower in substandard buildings as compared to above-standard buildings. (Edwards)

• High levels of background noise, much of it from heating and cooling systems, adversely affect learning environments (U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board)

• Poor ventilation can cause headaches, drowsiness and the inability to concentrate. Asthma accounted for 14.6 million lost school days in 2002. It is the leading cause of school absenteeism attributed to chronic conditions. (National Center for Health Statistics)

• Physical environmental attributes of school facilities play an important role in students’ academic performance, attitudes, and behavior. (Maxwell) • Students with the most daylighting in their classrooms performed better on math and reading tests than those with the least daylighting. (Hershong Mahone Group)

• Functional color schemes were shown to significantly reduce incidents of destructive behavior, aggressiveness, and disruptiveness (Wohlfarth ) • Crime sprouts from a disorderly environment plagued by broken windows, graffiti, and similar disruptions because criminals get the message that no one cares what happens here. (Wilson)

• Poor facilities contribute to the high turnover rates endemic to central urban school districts; in turn, high teacher turnover leads to increased recruitment and training efforts that drain schools of financial and human capital, both of which are essential to educational success. (21st Century School Fund and Ford Foundation Report)

• Physical conditions have direct positive and negative effects on teacher morale, sense of personal safety, feelings of effectiveness in the classroom, and on the general learning environment. (Corcoran)

My hope for the new year is that short-sightedness, misguided nostalgia, or a lack of information does not get in the way of providing our children with the facilities they need and deserve. Adequate school facilities are not a luxury. They are an integral part of education — an education necessary if our children are to have a bright future.