August 8, 2006

RALEIGH – The Wake County Public School System could scale back its billion-dollar school construction and renovation plans without harm to student learning. That’s the key finding in a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

“Wake County school officials believe that the quality and size of school buildings correlate strongly with student performance,” said Terry Stoops, JLF education policy analyst. “National and international research has found no such correlation.”

In this report, Stoops looks at three different aspects that are purported to affect student learning. Schools with more square feet per student (because of spaciousness or small enrollment) are believed to affect student learning positively. Looking at the county’s top five elementary, middle, and high schools each in square feet per student, however, Stoops found only five of those 15 schools (33 percent) with average test scores at or above the district median scores.

Also believed to have positive effects on student learning are schools with more acres per student, since they can devote more resources to academic, extracurricular, and athletic activities. Again, by looking at the top five elementary, middle, and high schools in terms of acreage per student, Stoops found only four of 15 schools (27 percent) with average test scores at or above the district median.

Meanwhile, mobile classrooms are held to affect student learning negatively. But of the top five elementary, middle, and high schools in terms of mobile classroom use, Stoops found that 11 of the 15 schools (73 percent) scored ABOVE the district median.

“The body of research literature on this subject is quite clear: school building environments have limited effects on student learning,” Stoops said.

Stoops said that basic physical variables — air quality, temperature, and noise — have been shown to affect student learning. Those effects become much less significant, however, once minimal standards for those variables are attained.

“The only consistent finding is that students perform better in school environments not disrupted by poor quality air, immoderate temperatures, and noise,” Stoops said. “What the research doesn’t support is that classroom or hallway size, aesthetic features such as color and architecture, and auxiliary features such as specialty classrooms and athletics facilities have significant effects on learning.”

Stoops said also that students do not seem to suffer academically when they are taught in small learning environments with few amenities – such as charter, private, or home schools. Stoops suggested there is another factor in play.

“There may be no correlation between school facilities and learning, but a large body of research continues to suggest that the most important factor for student success is teacher quality,” he said. “Instead of trying to teach kids through lavish facilities, school districts such as Wake County’s should focus on implementing merit pay, school choice, and other measures to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers.”

Click here to view Terry Stoops discussing his new Spotlight report.

Terry Stoop’s Spotlight Report, “Wake County’s Edifice Complex: Extravagant School Buildings Do Not Lead to Higher Student Achievement,” is available at the JLF web site. For more information, please contact Terry Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].