Learning Environment

How the Physical Learning Environment Affects Academic Achievement

The physical learning environment in our school buildings has a measurable impact on the academic achievement of our students. Factors such as controlling moisture and mold, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and pest management are important considerations in each of our school districts. For additional resources on these topics, please check out Student Health Resources from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

The Environmental Protection Agency also has a toolkit for schools and community members to help address healthy learning environments for our students. 

A 2017 literature review found that school ventilation rates regularly fall below the ASHRAE (formerly, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards deemed necessary for a healthy indoor environment. Proper installation, operation and maintenance of HVAC systems are key to proper ventilation in classrooms, but existing systems often fall short. In addition, many schools do not have HVAC systems. A study by the University of California, Davis, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for example, found that nearly 85 percent of newly installed HVAC systems in California schools failed to provide sufficient ventilation. A 2020 analysis of U.S. schools by the United States Governmental Accountability Office found that 41 percent of school districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools.

Locally, in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, a survey of 42 public school entities found that nearly all respondents reported health-related complaints due to poorly functioning or nonexistent air-conditioning, as well as mold issues in buildings. All respondents agree that fully-functioning air-conditioning is optimal for learning, and nearly half of the survey respondents said that lack of air-conditioning in some spaces has negatively impacted students. One of the biggest hurdles to addressing environmental needs in schools? A school district’s budget challenges.

The Impact of Class Size on a Positive Learning Environment

CAPS supports well-planned and gradually implemented class-size reduction initiatives for several reasons. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a growing consensus among academic researchers that, under certain conditions, smaller class sizes improve academic achievement and other important outcomes.

Class Size Studies on Academic Achievement

Twenty years ago, the Tennessee Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) program was the first large-scale look at the impact of class size. STAR showed that K-3 students in smaller classes experienced substantial academic gains. Overall, kindergarten classes of 13-17 students performed one month ahead of their peers in classes with 22-25 students. By the end of second grade, the smaller class size students were about two months ahead. For African American students, students in the smaller classes outperformed their larger class size peers at a rate two to three times higher than Caucasian students.

Follow-up studies of the smaller class-size students in 7th grade showed high levels of achievement in reading, language, math, science and social studies. Students who had been in smaller class sizes for at least three years were significantly more likely to graduate from high school – especially low-income students. The gap between African American and Caucasian students taking college entrance tests was lowered by 60 percent in the group of students in smaller classes.

The Cost Benefits of Smaller Class Sizes

The study also conducted a cost-benefit analysis. Reducing class sizes from 22 to 15 in grades K-3 resulted in a $2 return for every $1 spent – based on the assumption that an increase in school achievement equates to higher earnings later in life. Smaller class sizes were also shown to provide additional benefits, such as better health, reduced crime rates and fewer Welfare recipients.

The Bottom Line on Class Sizes

Smaller class sizes are often cited as a primary reason why families move to different public school districts or choose to send their children to private or charter schools. Teachers value the greater opportunity for individualized attention and instruction of students that results from the reduction in time required for managing large classes. Students, parents, teachers, staff, and the public believe that smaller classes are beneficial for all students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Don’t let your school entity lower student learning outcomes by increasing class sizes. Contact your legislators and district administrators to let them know your thoughts on this topic.

Let your opinion be heard in Washington and Harrisburg by contacting your legislators.

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