How and Why is Academic Performance Related to School Building Condition?

When you take a look at your local elementary school, does it appear as if something truly amazing is happening inside it? Does it look like a place where young minds get inspired, where their future matters, and where knowledge is celebrated? Take  a look at Faculty of Business and Economics in Melbourne for example – seems like something really important and classy happens there. Compared to it, every elementary school I know looks like just another institution, predictively bland and uninspiring. Like somebody didn’t have fun making it. And others don’t have fun going to it. Like somebody wasn’t proud and excited to get a job of building it. And others aren’t proud to have the opportunity to learn in it. Or excited to have the privilege to teach in it.

Faculty of Business and Economics, The University of Melbourne; photo by Wojtek Gurak

Aside from not being  bold, futuristic and daring architectural statements that give you goosebumps while thinking “Ahh..the temple of knowledge..”, many schools are in really bad condition, too. Leeking roofs, damaged walls and broken windows all tell the story of neglectance and insensitivity. Students in those schools seem to receive the message of being a low priority loud and clear and tend to act upon it – through lower academic achievement.

MIT Stata Center – Computer Science & AI Labby Frank Gehry; photo by helixblue

Beside directly impeding the learning process (for example, leaking roof that distracts students during classes) and setting stage for more tense social interactions, poor condition of academic facilities might affect the performance of students through ‘‘environmental meaning’’ they set for them (Heft, 2001, according to Duran-Narucky), that is, a message about the level of concern and care they are worth, about their place in the world, and appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Since children are in a constant search for the answers to these questions throughout their development, they are particularly sensitive to cues around them. For example, students usually sit in less comfortable chairs than school principal which says something about their importance and the order of things. If a student’s chair is impaired and not replaced for longer period of time, it carries the message that something broken is good enough for a child. The consequences for a child repeatedly receiving that message and accepting it as valid are worth to be taken into consideration.

Design, Arts and Media School at Nanyang Technological University; photo by FreshCC

The role of physical environment can be so important in school setting that it is sometimes refered to as the third teacher (after parents and teachers). Literature on school building quality and children’s academic performance suggests that independent of  SES, children who attend schools lower in physical quality, perform worse on standard measures of performance. This has been shown in studies relying upon teachers’ evaluations of building quality, as well as on expert rater evaluations of building facilities (according to Evans, 2010).  I’ll focus on two recent studies that reaffirm that relationship and go one step further, trying to explain why and how school buildings affect academic achievement.

Metzo college, Doetinchem, Netherlands; by Hugo_Fstop

Duran-Narucki (2008) found that the conditions of public school buildings in New York City predicted both attendance and academic achievement after controlling for other possible predictors like SES, ethnicity, school size, and teacher quality. She then showed that one reason for school building – academic performance relationship was student absenteeism (school buildings in bad condition discouraged students from attending it and thus lowered the success of learning process). The mediation was complete in the case of English Language Arts and partial for Mathematics, leaving room for the exploration of other mechanisms underlying building condition – performance relationship.

Orestadt High School & Gymnasium, Copenhagen; photo by roryrory

Evans et al. (2010) found that children attending schools with lower building quality in New York had lower English and Math test scores independent of the income or ethnic composition of the school. He then found one factor that moderates that relationship – student mobility. Children attending school buildings of lower quality where there were also high levels of student stability (few students changed school during their education) showed little negative impact of poor building quality compared to those in schools with both high mobility and low quality buildings.

Djanogly Learning Centre, Jubilee Campus, University of Nottingham; photo by Wojtek Gurak

This can be explained through the children’s exposure to cumulative risk factors which is known to have a significantly greater adverse impact on their cognitive development than exposure to any one risk factor. Whereas exposure to one risk factor typically only slightly elevates adverse cognitive outcomes among children,  as exposure to multiple risk factors accumulates, adverse cognitive impacts rise dramatically (according to Evans, 2010). Therefore schools with poorer building quality in conjunction with any other risk factor (including high rates of student mobility)  should be particularly damaging to academic achievement.

Central L.A. High School #9; photo by davidagalvan

This rises the importance of school building quality for schools that are known to be exposed to other risk factors. In real life the condition of school buildings is not randomly assigned – poor, minority children are more likely to attend schools in disrepair (Evans et al., 2004, according to Evans et al. 2010). School facility condition adds up to other risk factors that lower the odds of  good academic performance for them, and, on the long run, keep them at the bottom social strata.

Toyota/Castle College Training Centre, Nottingham; photo by Wojtek Gurak

Taking into consideration that education is the most important tool for the advancement of poor children (Noguera, 2004, according to Duran-Narucki) and that success at the elementary school level is critical to success at the high school level (Nichols, 2003, according to Duran-Narucki), the question of the condition of school facilities in your neighbourhood from the beginning is not as trivial any more. It goes beyond a matter of aesthetic, comfort,  and  subjective liking or disliking, and becomes a social justice issue. It’s encouraging that research support the idea that building improvements or replacements elevate academic performance in the same cohort (before-after experimental design; Berry, 2002; Bowers & Burkett, 1988; Christopher, 1988, 1991; Phillips, 1997; according to Evans et al. 2010). I could hardly recommend any one psychological intervention (a on a one-time basis) that could influence lives of so many children as a school building renovation.


Evans, G.W., Yoo, M.J., Sipple, J. (2010) The ecological context of student achievement: School building quality effects are exacerbated by high levels of student mobility. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 239–244.

Duran-Narucki, V. (2008). School building condition, school attendance, and academic achievement in New York City public schools: a mediation model. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28, 278–286.

5 Responses to “How and Why is Academic Performance Related to School Building Condition?”

  1. Interesting post! I think you like this topic ‘article’ too;

    It’s a summary of the literature research of some child development psychologists.

  2. This is a noted fact that children react very differently to their environment when it is pleasing to the eyes and to all the other senses. American schools look like prisons, they are perpetuating a false sense of reality to our children. Schools portray our children as automatons, robots that spit out only the facts that are questioned about.

    We must change the dynamic, change the environment that we have now to one of creativity and questioning rather than a GIGO environment. Our children are not robots or vessels of our thinking, they must be allowed to question and think of themselves as people rather than slaves of the adults in their lives.

    • Thank you for joining the discussion Nelson! I completely get your point, even though I’m surprised by how grim my own view was six years ago! I’ve been working in educational system (in Europe) since that time and I must admit there are many positive examples of school design and maintenance in my own country. They are not, however, a refection of systematic approach towards school environments but are most often a result of lone staff enthusiasm. With many other aspects of education in need of an improvement, the environment is just not a priority as it should be.
      It is often said by school officials that they prefer to invest in people and not things. However, I believe that even with limited funds, the two are not mutually exclusive – great teachers show care in many ways including the way they personalize and even equip classrooms (for example via various EU projects here). A supporting school climate they build results in fewer acts of vandalism in turn. So investing in people is indirectly investing in environment and vice versa. But the main issue is the investment in education as a whole (time, money and care we put in it).


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