“Compared to most of the interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g. emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs), placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.”
—Li & Sullivan, 2016
When Joe walks around his neighborhood, he is surrounded by sepia-toned brick buildings. When he goes to bed at night, he sleeps, fitfully, to the vehicular chorus of the Grand Concourse, a symphony of sirens, revving motors, car alarms, and bass blasting from souped up subwoofers. His access to nature is primarily derived from TV shows and a small city park a few blocks away, scattered with trash-strewn weeds. Joe (not any of my former students’ real name) is a 5th grader living in a dense urban area of the Bronx.
You might be forgiven for assuming this is all so normal for Joe that he has neither any conception nor desire for the vistas his peers raised in lusher landscapes have constant access to. Yet when Joe came to interview at the middle school where I worked (we interviewed our prospective 6th graders) and was asked, “What would you like to improve in your community?”, he replied that he would like to reduce trash and noise, and, furthermore, that he would like to live somewhere with more space and trees.
It wasn’t only Joe who responded in this way. Other students we interviewed voiced similar wishes, though they said it in different ways. For one it was a desire for more flowers, for another less violence, or a bigger bedroom, or a backyard, or no upstairs neighbor who made so much noise. I haven’t surveyed all the kids in the poorest areas of the city, but I’d wager they’d also appreciate a little more peace and quiet or nature, if given half the chance to express it.
Actually, many kids have been asked, and their answers were uncannily similar to Joe’s. In the early 1970s, urban designer Kevin Lynch organized a survey of teenagers in cities across four different countries. “When children were asked to imagine the best place to live in, they often mentioned trees, and as beautiful places, gardens, and parks” (Lynch, 1977, as summarized by Chawla, 2015, p. 436).
A craving for access to a beautiful natural expanse may be an intrinsic aspect of being human. There’s even a term for this, biophilia (introduced by Erich Fromm in 1973 and expanded on by E.O. Wilson in a 1986 book by the same name), which means that we have an innate urge to connect to nature and other living things. This doesn’t mean everyone wants to go camping nor be anywhere near a wilderness. But at the very least, we are all likely sustained by an occasional walk through a stand of whispering trees or an urban garden, just as we are by a visit with a friend.
In fact, even a mere view of living green things out of a window can be vicariously invigorating, as a wide array of studies have shown in a wide variety of settings, from our homes and neighborhoods to institutional settings such as hospitals, prisons, offices and—of course—our schools.
The Impact of A Green View on Student Learning
A Room With a View
The idea that greenery could be rejuvenating was kickstarted by an influential study in 1984 by Roger Ulrich, in which he found that surgical patients in a hospital whose windows looked out onto trees recovered more quickly—and with less pain medication—than patients in rooms facing a drab brick wall.
Prison inmates similarly benefit from glimpses of nature. A study found that prisoners in cells with outward facing views of farmland were sick less often than their counterparts with views of the inner yard (Moore, 1981). Of prison inmates, there are none more deprived than those placed in solitary confinement: they are enclosed in a cell for up to 23 hours a day for days, months—sometimes years—on end. Forget windows. Just showing videos of natural landscapes to prisoners in solitary confinement can help them to remain calm and reduce violent behavior (Nalini, et al., 2017).
Perhaps it is unsurprising people confined, whether to a hospital bed or a prison cell, would benefit from a small peek at something, anything, vibrant and alive. What may be more surprising is how subsequent studies have shown that “views of nature out of an office or factory are associated with increased employee productivity, enhanced feelings of job and life satisfaction, greater psychological and physical well-being, and reduced levels of frustration and stress” (Matsuoka, 2010, p. 274). This suggests that a green vista is not only a spark of life to a desperate inmate or sick patient, but a rejuvenative force for all of us who toil indoors for the majority of our day.
An accumulating stream of studies have shown that views and access to green space can improve the well-being and learning of students in K-12 schools. Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college, with a concomitant decrease in stress and criminal behavior (Matsuoka, 2010; Wu et al., 2014; Dadvend et al., 2015; Li & Sullivan, 2016; Hodsen & Sanders, 2017; Kweon et al., 2017). Furthermore, greenery in a student’s neighborhood can result in an increase in mental health and a decrease in aggression (Alcock et al., 2014; Younan et al., 2016).
Sounds too good to be true? Maybe you think this is fluffy sociological stuff written to assuage the confirmation bias of tree huggers. It certainly sounds fluffy to say greenery is calming. We could say the same sort of thing about aromatherapy, crystals, and listening to whale sounds. But the significant and positive impact of the presence of greenery has been confirmed through randomized controlled trials and longitudinal studies. Fluffy? Maybe not so much.
There’s two theories about why greenery is rejuvenative: one is Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and the other is Stress Reduction Theory (SRT). ART theorizes that green space restores focus and fights fatigue, whereas SRT hypothesizes that nature reduces stress. Both theories have evidence to back them up, so there may be some interplay between reducing stress and restoring focus.
The natural views that seem to wield the greatest restorative and calming effects are from a school’s cafeteria and hallways (Matsuoka, 2010; Li & Sullivan, 2016). Li and Sullivan’s study suggests that “a 10-min break [with a natural view] would suffice in restoring students’ attentional capacities and help them recover from stressful tasks” (p. 156). Another study found even only five minutes of exposure to nature could help to reduce stress (Barton & Pretty, 2010; as cited by Kweon et al., 2017, p. 36). Ensuring that cafeterias, hallways, and other spaces, such as gyms, have a sightline to nature could be an effective way to support students in reducing their stress and restoring their ability to focus when they return to class.
According to one randomized controlled experiment, views of green expanses from a classroom can also support the cognitive performance of students, leading to 13% greater attentiveness than students with views of a parking lot, other buildings, or without any windows (Li & Sullivan, 2016). Another study found that schools with higher levels of nearby tree canopy cover had higher scores on tests of reading comprehension (Hodsen & Sander, 2017). One study even suggests that a mere glance of 40 seconds out of a window onto a green roof rather than a concrete one can serve to sustain attention on a challenging task (Lee et al., 2015).
And we’re still just talking about the presence of greenery outside of a school building. What kind of greenery is most influential? What about greenery within a building? And what about getting kids out of a building to interact with the real thing?
It’s All In the Canopy
Greenery, or green space, could mean a wide variety of things. Are we talking grass? Shrubs? Trees? Astroturf? Let me give you a hint. It’s not lawns. It’s not athletic fields. In fact, those land features, along with parking lots, are associated with reduced academic goals and achievement, and even higher criminal activity (Kweon et al., 2017). Shrubs don’t really do much, either.
It’s those trees, man. It’s that breathing green canopy cover that is the most focusing, calming, and restorative.
This isn’t so strange, when you think about it. Dallying under the dappled shade of trees is the hallmark of the good life. That soothing sound of breeze moving through leaves. The way sunlight shimmers across a variegated green marquee. There’s just something about trees. Something magical and magisterial. They buffer us from wind and rain. They enrich and entrench the soil and bear us fruit. They even communicate to one another through their root systems (Wohlleben, 2015). Some live on a timespan so protracted it’s unfathomable to our puny human minds. Trees bestow us with a sense, however subconscious, of flourishing ethereality that we may only most appreciate in their absence.
More practically, trees also help to reduce air and noise pollution, and help get people to exercise more (Dadvand et al., 2015). Trees can do much to not only “soak up fine particle pollution from cars, power plants, and factories” but furthermore “cool down neighborhoods anywhere from 0.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius on the hottest summer days” (Plumer, 2016). Pleasing on the eyes? Check. Providing ecosystem services for the public health and well-being of mankind? Check.
It is possible that trees only have a restorative visual impact within a certain range of density. For example, one study suggests somewhere between 24-34% tree cover* is a sweet spot (Jiang et al., 2014). Intriguingly, this may reflect an evolutionary preference for savannah-like landscapes and acacia-like—or thin trunk, large canopy—tree forms (Falk & Balling, 2010). Another study suggests that it’s not simply about the quantity of trees, but the quality of those trees, such as how well maintained, varied, and orderly they are (De Vries, van Dillen, Groenewegen, & Spreeuwenberg, 2013). This makes more sense. You could meet any quantitative quota with a sickly or monotonous row of trees, but a healthy, diverse copse will do much more for both your health and your soul.
I suspect there’s something about the just-right visual complexity and dimensionality of a healthy tree canopy that is especially pleasing to our mind’s eye—there’s just enough subtle unpredictable movement, variation, and depth to stimulate, while just enough light and green shade to soothe. In fact, there is the possibility that it is the fractal nature of tree canopy that makes it so pleasing to the eye and the brain (Cepelewicz, 2017).
In barren environments, like the flat expanses of the interstate highway in Kansas or like most school playgrounds, our minds grow desperate for distraction. And indeed, one study found that if a school has a barren playground, children with ADHD have greater difficulty concentrating after recess (Taylor & Kuo, 2001).
Man-made visual complexity, such as urban landscapes, can certainly inspire their own form of awe and appreciation, but as of yet, our architecture can hardly replicate—in a cost effective manner—the gentle scintillations of leaves nor the myriad other environmental benefits, like air filtration, that trees provide.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think we need trees not only to feel most fully alive, but in order to truly live.
*Having trouble visualizing what 24-34% tree cover looks like? I was, too. Fortunately, MIT offers a nifty tool that provides percentages for the density of tree cover in cities across the world. Head to senseable.mit.edu/treepedia to take a peek. You can zoom in on a specific spot in a city that has a density within that range, then pull up Google Streetview to get a ground-level visual. Compare between spots with a large percentage of tree cover, such as 50%, to ones with barely any, such as 2%. That disparity will give you an idea why there may be a sweet spot for restorative effects, at least from a visual standpoint.
Trees and Green Spaces Combat Inequality
Here’s a riddle for you: how can you tell the difference between a poor and affluent urban neighborhood from outer space?
Yep. It’s that mass of green.
One longitudinal study found just moving to a greener urban area not only immediately improves mental health, but sustains positive psychological benefits for at least three years (Alcock et al., 2014). That’s all well and good, but there’s another compelling reason to get more trees into your ‘hood: they help raise the property value (Mullaney, Lucke, & Trueman, 2015). Even better yet, “planting 10 or more trees per city block is equivalent to increasing the income of every household in that city block by more than $10,000” by improving perceptions of health, while decreasing “cardio-metabolic” conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease (Kardan et al., 2015).
Not many can afford to move to a greener area, but even small injections of green into dense urban neighborhoods, like replacing vacant lots with gardens, can reduce symptoms of depression in local residents (South et al., 2018). A longitudinal study in 2016 by Diana Younan and her colleagues furthermore found that green space in urban neighborhoods in Southern California reduced aggressive behavior in teens. The researchers found no evidence that this effect was strongly influenced by either sociodemographics nor the quality of the neighborhood, which suggests “the universal benefits of neighborhood greenspace” (p. 9). This corresponds with research showing that “building areas with high levels of vegetation can have approximately 50% lower crime levels than areas with low levels of vegetation (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001), and a 10% increase in the amount of tree cover has been associated with a 12% decrease in crime (Troy, Grove, & O’Neil-Dunne, 2012)” (as cited by Mullaney, Lucke, and Trueman, 2015, p. 159).
Joe and many other children in our densest urban areas crave natural environments with green space and restorative shade. One of the most sustainable and cost-effective interventions we can take to support future generations of children is simply to plant more trees—most especially near homes and schools.
Bringing Greenery Into Schools
Here’s the reality, though. Most schools are already built, and whether or not they are so lucky as to have any windows, let alone views of trees, is entirely outside the realm of their direct and immediate control. We may not be able to plant trees in classrooms, but is there any way we could bring some of that green juju indoors?
Some research suggests that the presence of plants in a hospital room can increase tolerance for pain (Grinde & Patil, 2009), while indoor plants in an office may reduce fatigue and health complaints (Grinde & Patil, 2009; Ranaas et al., 2011). But most of the research on the impact of indoor plants on classroom well-being, performance, or stress reduction, while suggestive, remains mostly inconclusive (Doxey, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2009; Han, 2009, 2018; Berg et al., 2016).
I’ve been grappling with this, given the more robust effects for outdoor greenery. Is it because potted plants in most studies are not selected and situated primarily for visual complexity? If there were more plants or greenwalls with a diversity of size, form, and color placed around a classroom, could these have greater restorative effects?
There may be a sweet spot between quantity and quality which has not yet been discovered for indoor plants. Each study uses different variations and configurations of plants. As one reviewer put it, “although the evidence suggests indoor plants can provide psychological benefits, the heterogeneity amongst the methods and results may imply the benefits are contingent on the context of the encounter with indoor plants and the participants in the experiment” (Burnard & Kutnar, 2015, p. 972).
Furthermore, no study (to my knowledge) has yet examined the two areas where green views are most likely to have the greatest restorative impact: school cafeterias and hallways. Clearly, we need further research (while we’re waiting on the research, to add some dimensionality to your own indoor plant collection, try placing plants at different heights, such as on stools, boxes, or crates, as “garden stylist” Satoshi Kawamoto suggests (Gordon, 2015)). But here’s a short quiz that may help you to determine whether or not you want to bring plants into your classroom or school:
Do you prefer a few plants near where you work or relax? Do you liven up your workspace or living room with a flower or succulent?
If so, why, and if not, why not?
Let your answer to this be your guide.
Indoor Plants for Air Filtration?
Even if they may not have the fully restorative or stress reducing impacts that views of outside tree canopy can provide, could they filter and reduce indoor air pollution? If they could, this would be huge because poor indoor air quality impacts learning. Effects reported by various studies have been a reduction in cognitive performance and the ability to make complex decisions, and an increase in sleepiness (Carrer, 2018). In other words, everything you don’t want in a classroom.
A widely cited NASA study in 1989 (Wolverton, Johnson, & Bounds) found that a wide variety of plants filtered volatile organic compounds (VOCs) often present in indoor environments, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and ammonia. Some later studies support this initial finding (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), but unfortunately, it seems that outside of a lab setting and in the much larger, real-world spaces of offices and schools, plants do very little to filter indoor air (Meyer, 2019). Well, OK, maybe they don’t filter pollution much, but another side benefit of indoor plants is that through the process of transpiration, they can add moisture to the air, which is good for dry skin (Horton, 2015).
Overall, unfortunately, it appears that indoor plants do not provide the same benefits that outside greenery does.
Keeping plants in a school requires careful consideration, such as how much daylight, if any, is available in a given space, as well as who will be responsible for watering and upkeep, not to mention the issue of safety. Ideally, the plants you select should require little sunlight and watering, provide air filtration benefits, be visually appealing, and highly durable.
Through a survey of friends and online sources, I drew up a shortlist of promising plants for school use, most of which are within the $15-30 range if you buy them pre-potted:
Variegated Snake Plant
Cast Iron Plant
If you are fortunate enough to have access to some sunlight in your school or classroom, then look also into the following:
Succulents, such as aloe
Spider Plant (hang these from the ceiling and they can also help absorb noise!)
If you are even more fortunate and can secure funds, you could also consider the installation of greenwalls. While further research is required, there is potential in the biofiltration potential of a greenwall (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), as well as possible restorative effects (Berg et al., 2017).
Bringing Schools Into Greenery
So far we’ve focused primarily on the mere presence of trees and greenery, which even passively can be powerful for learning and health by reducing stress and increasing attention, in addition to reducing pollution. But given our focus on education, the logical next question is: does interacting with nature amplify and deepen these effects?
The answer thus far, at least according to research on playgrounds and gardens, is “Yes.” School gardens help to increase physical activity (Wells, Myers, & Henderson, 2014), while playgrounds that are surrounded by greenery promote better cognitive functioning (Kuo, 2010), “concentration and relief from stress,” in addition to more imaginative, explorative, and socially cooperative play (Chalwa, 2015, p. 445). It should also be recognized that just spending time in nature can support the development of stronger immune systems. One study found that walking in a forest boosted anti-cancer cells by 50% or more, which remained elevated even a month after returning to everyday urban existence, while also decreasing inflammation (Li, 2010, Mao et al., 2012, as cited by Kuo, 2015, p. 4).
But there is much more to interacting with nature than the solely utilitarian benefits to health and well-being. Access to nature provides opportunities to build greater self and world knowledge. How can you truly understand how food grows, or how plants utilize photosynthesis, or what it means to cultivate microbial soil life, unless you get your hands dirty? How can you truly develop resilience, fortitude, and patience without having experienced the alternating awe and weariness of spending a day walking through the woods or up a mountain? Some studies have suggested that simply playing in nature increases the likelihood of environmental stewardship later in life (Wells & Lekies, 2006; Thompson et al. 2008). Imagine having a curriculum that includes not only reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but moreover a scientific and aesthetic engagement with real plots of land?
Hosting school outside may sound radical at first, but ‘forest kindergartens’ are a thing in Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and . . . Vermont (Gregory, 2017; Schoolsoutfilm.com, 2012; Walker, 2016; Hanford, 2015). Given the research we’ve just reviewed, such seemingly hippie-dippy programs now seem eminently sensible. The key hurdle is whether you happen to have a forest handy nearby. But what about schools in local parks? Actually, I wrote that sentence, then poked around on the web for a minute, and lo and behold, there’s classes called Tinkergarten at a park near me that promotes learning through play in local outdoor spaces (and maybe one near you; check it out at tinkergarten.com).
Humanity now faces repercussions from the incredible stress we have placed on the natural world. The great diversity of microbes, habitats, plants, and animals our earth once carried is swiftly ebbing. Traditional ways of living and knowing are preserved primarily for entertainment, rather than as respected sources of wisdom. If developing an appreciation of nature, both scientific and aesthetic, means getting children outside into whatever local park, water feature, grassy knoll, garden, flower box, or forest you may be fortunate enough to have near to your home or school, then let’s do it. If it means bringing plants into a school via hydroponics, as teacher Stephen Ritz does at CS 55 in the Bronx (Check out Ritz’ website greenbronxmachine.org or read his book, The Power of a Plant, to learn more about his work), or via potted plants or greenwalls, or lining playgrounds, starting rooftop gardens, or even just gazing out at a natural landscape from windows or in videos . . . then, hey. We’ve got to start somewhere.
What We Can Do
Trees take a long time to grow. Unfortunately, leaders in education tend to focus on shallower, shorter-term initiatives, like tablets or teacher evaluations.
There has been a growing recognition of the general importance of greenery in our communities, and many trees have been planted in areas that were once urban deserts. Here in NYC, organizations like GrowNYC, Bronx Green-Up, Learning Gardens, and many others are available to help get kids get their hands dirty in a garden. And city-wide initiatives like Greenstreets and MillionTreesNYC have brought street trees to nearly every block.
For students like Joe living in dense urban neighborhoods, this means a lot. But having a row of street trees is not enough. We need more vacant lots converted to green space, more green roofs, more parks, and far, far greater access and opportunities to interact with nature on a frequent basis.
It may be that growing a green thumb may be one of the most beneficial things you could do to support the learning of future generations.
Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college
Greenery in a neighborhood decreases stress, aggression, and criminal behavior
Views of trees can both soothe (reduce stress) and stimulate (refocus attention)
Views of trees from school cafeterias and hallways seem to have the greatest restorative and calming effects
Views of greenery from a classroom can also lead to 13% greater attentiveness
Trees help to reduce air and noise pollution, and support an increase in exercise and property value
It’s less about quantity and more about the quality of the trees and tree canopy
Indoor plants don’t seem to provide the same benefits as external greenery
Moving school playgrounds and classrooms outdoors can provide a range of benefits to health and learning, in addition to building a greater sense of environmental stewardship
Extra Credit: The Ecology of Greenery
Clearly, it’s not within any individual school’s purview alone to increase the greenery within a neighborhood, and nor is one dedicated community organization that receives some grant funding enough. It takes a coordinated effort between local businesses, governmental agencies at different levels, nonprofits, and civically engaged citizens to make it happen. It truly takes a community to plant, sustain, and scale the kind of quality tree canopy our children need.
Caring for plants—and for animals—can not only strengthen a community, but also provide therapeutic benefits for individuals.
Bill Thomas, a NY professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, has come up with a model of elderly care he calls the “Eden Alternative” (Bahrampour, 2016). Instead of cold, clinical institutions, he creates environments that are more akin to gardens. He stocks nursing homes with cats, dogs, rabbits, and birds in addition to an array of plants. The effect is reduced need for medication, lower death rates, raised spirits, and greater autonomy.
In Baltimore, one volunteer, Gene DeSantis, has planted over 15,000 trees, overcoming a childhood of trauma while contributing to the long-term health and well-being of his community (Zaleski, 2019).
In D.C., a former drug dealer’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves (Daniel, 2016).
In schools across our nation, our children are struggling to cope with chronic and acute stress, trauma, and poverty while attempting to learn in environments that offer little rejuvenation nor tranquility.
It’s not only the immediate adults around them who need to build lattices and networks of love, resilience, and calm, but furthermore the sustaining canopies and anchored roots of trees in the land that surrounds them, planted and nurtured by the many diverse people, groups, and organizations of their community.
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With a classroom having good acoustical characteristics, learning is easier, deeper, more sustained, and less fatiguing.
—The Acoustical Society of America, in its introduction to Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, Part 1: Permanent Schools
When I first moved to NYC from California, I was taken aback by the unceasing din. In our first apartment, my wife and I were treated to an all-night alleyway party each weekend by our downstairs neighbors. In desperation, we bought a white noise machine, but this proved to be a mostly futile gesture.
Our second apartment was perched above a popular nightspot, which considerately recycled its beer bottles outside our bedroom window at three AM every morning. We got an additional white noise machine and put up layers of cardboard against the windows. But outside of professional acoustical treatment, there’s no hiding the intense, high decibel sound of twenty-five gallons of beer sodden glass bottles slamming repeatedly into their brethren as they are dumped into a bin.
So I well know how noise can impact a person’s well-being. But maybe I’m just overly sensitive. I see people everyday move along unphased as truck horns blast in their face. Humans are a highly adaptive species, after all, and we go on about our business with a cacophony of ambient noise hovering about us like smog.
While many of us may consider noise to be a minor nuisance (except, perhaps, when we are trying to sleep), it can have a profound impact on our health. Studies have shown that constant exposure to noise, such as living near a highway or airport, can lead not only to loss of sleep, but hypertension, higher blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and lower birth weight, just to name a few long-term consequences (Casey, James, & Morello-Frosch, 2017).
There’s a lot more we could say about the impact of sound on health, whether physical or psychological. But most pertinent to our focus are the findings on how harmful noise can be for learning, most especially in the places where learning should be what is held most sacred: our schools.
Given that children are far more vulnerable to noise than adults (Klatte, Lachmann, & Meis, 2010), ensuring that children have a learning environment unthreatened by noise should be a commonsense goal. Yet how frequently have you heard an education reformer discuss acoustical treatment as a school or district improvement initiative? […silence… crickets… beeping horns…]
Never? Exactly. So let’s start talking about it. In this post, we’ll examine the impact of noise on students and on teachers, then consider what we can do about it.
The Impact of Noise on Student Learning
Chronic Noise: What You Hear Is How You Learn
The natural sensitivity that the human ear has to auditory vibration is not a primary design consideration for most schools. Surfaces are hard. Corners are sharp. Floors are tiled. Every squeak of a sneaker, shout of a hormonally charged teen, recurring bell at the end of a period, each slam of a heavy door can be amplified, reverberating throughout the building and, especially during fire drills, deep into the marrow of one’s bones.
In 1975, a seminal study by Arline Bronzaft and Dennis McCarthy at a school in NYC illuminated the impact of noise on learning. At Public School 98 in uptown Manhattan, the elevated 1 train roared by a mere two hundred feet from the southeast side of the building every few minutes, disrupting learning in nearby classrooms.
One can imagine a teacher hovering exasperated in mid-sentence for the 6th time that period, awaiting the rumbling clatter of the train to recede into the distance, her students’ flighty attention ebbing away just as rapidly.
Four year’s worth of data show that students located in classrooms nearest the train had far lower reading scores than those on the quieter side, lagging behind by three months to as much as a year.
Imagine if your child were placed in a classroom where they might lose anentire year’s worth of reading ability simply due to where the classroom happened to be located in the building.
To their credit, these results were significant enough to spur the NYC Board of Education and MTA into immediate action (a verb phrase not commonly associated with either entity). The school installed special tiling in the classrooms facing the train, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority insulated the tracks adjacent to the school. In a follow-up study, students across all classrooms were found to have comparable reading levels as a result of these simple interventions (Bronzaft, 1981). This demonstrates that the delay in student reading ability was not due to the quality of the staff nor curriculum, but solely to the location of the classrooms in the building.
Later studies have further revealed the impact of noise and school acoustics. Chronic exposure to noise, such as residing near a highway or airport, impairs a child’s ability to learn. In 1973, researchers measured the reading and auditory processing abilities of children living on different floors of the Bridge Apartments, a quartet of 32 story high rises bestride one of the busiest highways in uptown Manhattan (Cohen, Glass, & Singer). They found that children living on lower floors, in greater proximity to the unrelenting noise of the highway, had lower reading scores compared to those on higher floors. The longer a child lived on a lower floor, the greater the gap.
This is a vivid visualization of how where a child lives can either expand or inhibit their opportunities to learn—down to the floor they may happen to live on within the very same building. Noise pollution, as with pollution of other sorts, is worse in neighborhoods segregated by race or class (Casey et al., 2017). Schools serving primarily poor, Black, or Latinx communities thus tend to have greater amounts of ambient noise, which most likely means their classrooms will also be noisier—unless those spaces are constructed with materials that absorb external noise, or are belatedly given acoustical treatment (we’ll look more at how to fight noise in a minute).
In a series of studies of schools located near airports in New York, Munich, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK, cognitive tasks requiring memory and language processing, such as learning a word list, were impaired by aircraft noise, as were reading comprehension scores and auditory tests of speech perception (Evan & Maxwell, 1997; Hygge, Evans, & Bullinger, 2000; Stansfeld et al., 2005).
In sum, noise makes it harder for all children to hear, to read, and to remember.
Now is probably a good time to highlight the strong connection between reading comprehension and auditory learning. While our visual system is clearly an important component of reading, comprehension of the written word is founded on the ability to discern the sounds that letters and words are composed of. For children that struggle with reading, especially those classified as dyslexic, their difficulty is closely related to trouble with auditory processing (Hornickel & Kraus, 2013).
All children should learn in environments in which speech can be clearly heard, but it is especially critical for young children, children with hearing impairments, learning challenges, or learners of a new language (Kristiansen et al., 2011).
The Importance of the Intelligibility of Speech
The connection between noise and learning makes a lot of sense when you consider that speech and language are central to most classroom instruction. The more difficult it is to discern individual words, the more cognitive energy a brain must exert to fill in the gaps, drawing from prior knowledge and context (Pichora-Fuller, 2007). This is similar to the challenge a struggling reader faces when they expend more cognitive energy decoding words rather than deciphering meaning. And while you may be able to hold a conversation in the middle of a dance club and understand what your inebriated friend is saying, don’t expect that children can so easily fill in the blanks. Even those adults who are deaf—and are therefore experienced lip readers—do not recognize a large majority of words spoken to them without signing (Altieri, Pisoni, & Townsend, 2011).
A 2000 report, “Classroom Acoustics: A Resource for Creating Environments with Desirable Listening Conditions,” framed the difficulty children face in understanding classroom speech thus:
In many classrooms in the United States, the speech intelligibility rating is 75 percent or less. That means that, in speech intelligibility tests, listeners with normal hearing can understand only 75 percent of the words read from a list. Imagine reading a textbook with every fourth word missing, and being expected to understand the material and be tested on it. Sounds ridiculous? Well, that is exactly the situation facing students every day in schools all across the country. (Seep et al., 2000)
Let me repeat that claim above again in a different way to stress this point: in many classrooms, due to poor acoustics, children may not understand 25% or more of the words their teacher speaks. It’s hard to verify a statistic like that, but there have been some surveys of acoustics across many schools in the world, and what is clear is that the acoustical quality of schools and classrooms can vary quite dramatically (Mealings, 2016).
Given that the majority of learning in most classrooms is based upon speech, you might conclude that acoustics would be one of the primary concerns of classroom design. You may also think that it would be one of the first things a school leader considers when evaluating the learning conditions of their classrooms. The reality is that acoustical design is rarely considered due to cost and complexity, and noise continues to be dismissed as a minor nuisance. Meanwhile, children are sitting in classrooms where they miss a substantial portion of what their teacher says each day, due to no fault nor inattention of their own.
Noise Begets Noise
But it is not only chronic, deafening noise from cars, airplanes, and trains that can impair learning. The background noise within a classroom can also be harmful. In a 2006 study, 158 eight-year-olds were randomly assigned to classrooms with three different noise conditions and administered tests: normal sound levels during testing (no talking), a constant stream of children babbling (around 65 decibels), and classroom babble with intermittent external noise events, like sirens (Dockrell & Shield). One of their findings was that classroom chatter can have a detrimental effect on student performance on both verbal and nonverbal tasks. Which should surprise exactly no one who has ever tried to concentrate while others around them were gabbing.
In a survey of secondary schools in London, researchers measured the unoccupied levels of ambient noise and reverberation in classrooms and compared it against sound levels during lessons across multiple subjects and activities (Shield et al., 2015). They found that sound levels during instruction were related to the acoustical quality of the rooms themselves, and that disruptions to learning, such as students talking or shouting, were correlated to rooms of poorer acoustical quality. Thus, the poorer the acoustical quality of room—as measured before anyone occupies it—the noisier the room is likely to be once kids are in there. And the more likely, as a result, learning will be thrown off track.
This gives us a general principle: when a space is of poor acoustical quality, it is more likely to become noisier once in use. In other words, noise begets noise. And noise tends to lead to less self-regulated behavior. In a bar or a club, maybe that’s a desirable thing. But not in a school.
We can see this everyday in school cafeterias. Cafeterias can be some of the worst acoustical offenders, becoming deafeningly loud, which is hardly surprising given they are chock full of hungry students with pent up energy socializing in giant rectangular spaces rife with reflective surfaces. Rather than a respite after a long morning of thinking and learning, lunch breaks instead become a time of sensory overload due to poor acoustics. If it’s an option, students sensitive to noise seek to escape to the calm, restorative environment of the classroom of their favorite teacher instead.
All teachers dread the class that must be taught after lunch. That’s the period when kids come in buzzing with the latest scuttlebutt. In my first years of teaching in a self-contained 5th grade classroom, I learned that transitioning my students into academic learning too swiftly after lunch would result in no academic learning. It was as if they needed a break from their lunch break. Looking back, I wonder how much the frayed nerves of my students can be attributed to a lunch period spent in a noisy basement with terrible acoustics?
Because noise doesn’t only hinder learning. It also causes fatigue. Earlier, we discussed how when it is harder to hear, our brains must work harder to fill in the blanks. This can not only be taxing, but furthermore cause us to miss subtle cues and thus have distorted perceptions in social situations (Anderson, 2001). When you consider the trouble that adolescents already have with self-image and complex social situations, now consider the fisheye effect of cafeteria noise. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Another overlooked area of poor acoustics are school stairwells. Again, these tend to be filled with hard, reverberant surfaces that echo with the scuffle of sneakers and shouts. Some stairwells, like the one at a Bronx middle school in the picture below, carry sound across multiple floors. As groups of students traverse the stairs, noise magnifies. Students grow louder as they enter the stairwell in an effort to be heard, demonstrating the power of the signal-to-noise ratio in real-time.
Signal-to-noise ratio is the audibility of what you want to hear (such as someone’s voice) against background noise. In order for speech to be intelligible, a positive signal-to-noise ratio must be maintained, which is why we tend to raise our voices when there is more noise around us.
The Impact of Noise on Teachers
Unwittingly, teachers themselves may exacerbate the noise in their classrooms. It is natural to speak more loudly when there is noise around us. Given the prevalence of reverberating sounds in classrooms, compounded by frequent group work and the natural propensity of children to speak loudly and excitedly, teachers invariably end up talking at higher volumes in the battle to make themselves heard. Some teachers operate nearest to a level of hoarse hollering as a matter of normalcy. They may proudly term this their “teacher voice.”
But speaking constantly at higher volumes has consequences: teachers are more susceptible to voice-related issues. Across two studies, one in Sweden and one in the U.S., teachers were “the commonest ‘at risk’ occupation” and “four times more commonly represented clinically than in the population at large” (Williams, 2003). Another study found that poor acoustics and related voice problems reduced teacher well-being, as well as increased absences due to illness (Kristiansen et al., 2011). Teacher voice problems also may have an impact on the economy: one study estimated a cost of $2.5 billion per year to the U.S. economy due to effects such as absences, clinical visits, and medication (Verdolini & Ramig, 2001), while another study of Colombian teachers estimated the cost as potentially up to 37% of a teacher’s monthly wage (Cantor Cutiva & Burdorf, 2015). Even more importantly, a teacher’s vocal impairment can make it difficult for students to understand what a teacher is saying (Rogerson & Dodd, 2005).
Another way of saying all of this is that while it may be obvious that loud, constant, chronic noise hinders learning, the poor acoustical quality of schools and classrooms can also have a cumulatively detrimental impact, both for teachers and for students.
This doesn’t mean that classrooms and schools should all be expected to be hushed rectories where you can hear a pin drop. A certain degree of ambient sound may even support focus, at least for tasks involving creativity (Mehta, Zhu, & Cheema, 2012). I find that I can sometimes be more focused and productive when writing, for example, when I am somewhere with an ambient buzz of social activity and conversation, like at a cafe.
But it does mean that too much noise, whether chronic or acute, external or internal, will make learning significantly more difficult for the students who can least afford to fall behind.
Add to all of this the unceasing calls over a loudspeaker that can interrupt instruction throughout a school day. Well-organized schools ensure such calls are only made when absolutely necessary. At some schools, however, unscheduled announcements cause needless additional noise and constantly impede classroom learning.
Can we quantify the impact of interruptions from loudspeakers? This should be an area for further research. But having been interrupted in the middle of a lesson countless times myself, I can state pretty confidently such interruptions devalue learning. It’s hard enough as it is to maintain the attention of children without additional distractions.
School Design for Acoustics
What is it about a classroom or school that determines the quality of its acoustics?
One key factor is reverberation, which refers to the amount of time that it takes a sound within a room to fade. Too much reverberation intensifies and complicates spoken language, making it harder to understand. Imagine giving a speech in an unfurnished apartment with hardwood floors, as an example. Rather than hearing your words directly, listeners would also hear it reflecting off multiple surfaces, muddying your delivery. But some reverberation time (RT) can also be desirable, especially in a larger space, as sound needs to carry to listeners seated furthest from the speaker (ANSI/ASA, 2010). The more that reflective surfaces are covered over, RT is reduced, such as in a room with a carpet or with tapestries or pictures hanging off the walls.
There are recommended guidelines for how much reverberation is acceptable in a classroom environment. RT is generally measured in unoccupied classrooms through the creation of a sharp, sudden sound, such as by clapping two boards together or popping a balloon (there’s videos on the internet demonstrating measurement of different RTs in classrooms before and after acoustical treatments: search for something like ‘classroom reverberation time’). For hearing impaired children, less than 0.3 seconds of RT is recommended, while 0.4 to 0.6 seconds is recommended for general education classrooms (Mealings, 2016). In a 2001 survey by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of U.S. children were estimated to have hearing loss due to noise exposure (Chepesiuk, 2005). It therefore seems to me that we would want all our children, regardless of disability, to learn in classrooms with a RT closer to 0.3.
In surveys of school spaces across different countries, actual reverberation times varied dramatically from 0.2 to 1.9 seconds. To put this in context, a RT of 0.2 – 0.5 seconds is akin to what you would get in a recording studio, while a RT of 1.0 – 1.9 seconds would be akin to the amplified echoes of a concert hall. Reverberation time in large spaces is great for performances. But in a classroom, where both individual and group work is the norm, fluttering echoes make concentration and learning all the more difficult.
Fighting Noise in Schools
For schools that are already built and suffer from poor acoustics—the majority of our schools—there’s investments that can be made in acoustical treatment targeting floors, ceilings, or walls. As you consider which kind of treatment you or your school may want to invest in, bear in mind that absorptive materials work best when spread throughout a room, not concentrated in any one area (Seep et al., 2000).
Carpets and Floors
Carpets are one of the most direct methods to control sound levels. They also provide an area for class gatherings. However, carpets collect dirt and dust and need to be well-maintained, requiring more intensive upkeep than a laminated floor. And as anyone who has worked in a school knows, carpets don’t get replaced often, and rarely steam cleaned, if ever.
If you can’t get a carpet, reduce noise from the daily clatter of moving chairs and desks. While some teachers cut tennis balls and place them under chair and table legs, you may be inadvertently increasing indoor air pollutants. Instead, get “floor savers” (little felt disks) that adhere to chair and table bottoms. For a classroom with 32 chairs, this would cost around $75 at the time of this writing (packs of 24 for $15).
A better target for absorbing reverberation in classrooms is the ceiling, as absorptive ceilings can be more effective at absorbing sound than carpets (Shield et al., 2010). Some schools may already have some form of suspended acoustic ceiling tile, but those tiles may not be high performing enough to reduce reverberation times to adequate levels.
Swapping existing ceiling tiles with higher-performing ceiling panels can go a long way towards reducing reverberation time. Seep et al. recommend tiles of noise reduction coefficient (NRC) values 0.75 or higher (2000), while another source recommends NRC 0.9 or higher (Betz, 2015).
Not all spaces have suspended ceilings, however, and some ceilings are very high. Another method to absorb sound can be to hang acoustical treatments from the ceiling. These can come in various forms and colors, such as cubes, tetrahedrons, or waveforms, and are referred to by nifty names like baffles, clouds, and canopies. These decorative treatments could be well-suited for school hallways or entryways.
For a less expensive DYI approach, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends “suspending banners, flags, student work, and plants from the ceiling to contribute to the reduction of noise and reverberation” (ASHA, 2015). Your ability to do this will depend on the nature of your ceiling, of course.
Most classrooms have parallel walls, which means that sound reverberates between them. Even if ceilings are acoustically tiled and floors carpeted, walls can still reflect a lot of sound.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends “placing mobile bulletin boards and bookcases at angles to the walls to decrease reverberation” (ASHA, 2015). Another expert also recommends hanging “portable corkboards” at an angle on the walls (Betz, 2015).
Portable corkboards and mobile bulletin boards can be pricey for an individual teacher to purchase, but the basic idea here is that any furniture, like bookcases, with a large surface area can be angled to help diffuse sound and keep it from reverberating back and forth between the walls.
It’s not clear how absorbent cork in general is for sound, but it seems to be a material that could work well as a DIY panel. Collect enough wine corks, and you can make your own corkboard! I don’t know how well these would work as sound absorbers (more research, please!), but might be worth a shot if you can’t afford professional paneling. Other low cost options may be furniture stuffing or denim.
Classroom furnishings in general can help to dull sound, but for larger spaces like science labs, cafeterias, or auditoriums, strategic placement of acoustical wall panels may be necessary. Acoustical panels are made of a foam or fabric that can absorb and diffuse sound.
Teacher and Student Actions
The simplest and most direct approach is to seat students who have the most trouble hearing the closest to the teacher (Klatte, M., Lachmann, T., & Meis, 2010). Generally speaking, students that have an identified problem with hearing will have this recommendation mandated as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), but it’s a good rule of thumb to bring students who seem to struggle with retention or following directions closer. It may be an auditory or visual issue that can be supported with proximity.
Think also about how much your instruction relies on auditory learning. Supplement and reinforce auditory learning with tasks and texts (edu jargon: plan for multiple modalities). Use visuals and gestures when speaking, and ensure that directions for tasks are provided on a chart visible from the back of the room or as a handout.
Be aware of the signal-to-noise ratio in your room. When the background noise increases, resist the urge to speak louder. Teach your students to recognize sound levels that are most appropriate for different tasks (i.e. whispers during reading time, “4 inch voices” during partner/group talk, across-the-room projection during class discussions).
As I was drafting this, I facilitated a professional learning session for teachers in a classroom on the historic DeWitt Clinton campus in the Bronx, and because all of this research was fresh on my mind, I was hyper-aware of the terrible acoustics of the room. The ceilings were high and did not have any acoustical tile. All it took was one pair of teachers having a side conversation to raise the overall background noise of the classroom.
When I found myself raising my voice, I spoke to my participants about the acoustical quality of the room to make us all aware of it, and I noticed that framing my request for one voice at a time in this way was also more effective. It depersonalized the refocusing needed during discussions or work time. Building a similar awareness with students in our classrooms can support collective ownership of sound levels in the learning environment, rather than making it incumbent on the teacher to constantly monitor and shush students.
In fact, why not teach students directly about the importance of the impact of noise in the places they learn and live? The NYC Department of Environmental Protection has free resources to teach students about sound and noise available on its website: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/sound_noise.shtml. There is a guide on sound mapping, and this could be done as part of an interdisciplinary project using tools for sound measurement. Student experiments measuring the sound levels in their own school and community can be an enlightening exercise for both students and the adults. For example, a group of 5th grade students in Alexandria, Virginia, discovered that “the decibel level in the cafeteria could reach an average of 101 decibels, equivalent to the noise in a subway station” (NIDCD, 2016).
If we want our students to become civically engaged citizens, advocating for their own needs and the needs of others, then the acoustics in their own classrooms would be a wonderful place to start.
Amplification systems could be of some benefit to both teachers and students, but if an amplified voice just reverberates around the classroom walls, it may lend itself to the creation of more noise. Amplification systems also tend to amplify only the teacher, not students, and asking students to pass around a microphone to speak is not an ideal workaround for every group discussion (Seep et al., 2000). Designing classroom walls and surfaces to dampen noise may be the wiser investment.
The best way to solve problems with acoustics is to prevent them beforehand, not correct them after the fact (Seep et al., 2000).And there is evidence that regulations of new school construction can have a positive impact on the acoustical quality of classrooms. In England and Wales, legislation introduced in 2003 required new school buildings to meet specifications for noise, reverberation time, and acoustical treatments. A study in 2015 that measured 185 schools across a range of representative secondary UK schools found that the amount of spaces that met the requirements doubled in those built after the regulations, compared to those built before (Shield et al.).
So regulations matter. Unfortunately, many schools are constructed with cost as the most important factor, and acoustics can be all too easily overlooked, despite their centrality to learning. Regulations that provide clear specifications for acoustical design would help to ensure that built spaces provide an environment where speech can be heard.
The good news is that the U.S. has a set of rigorous acoustical standards that could guide school design. In 2002, the Acoustical Society of America and American National Standards Institute published the American National Standard Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, which were further revised and updated in 2010 (ANSI/ASA). For classrooms and other school spaces, they provide design specifications to address background noise, reverberation times, and more.
The bad news is twofold. First, these standards are not compulsory. Since the federal government does not collect and publish information on school construction, it is unclear how many schools built after 2002 comply, and furthermore, how many schools built prior to 2002 may be anywhere close to these standards.
Second, construction authorities already must adhere to a biblical amount of code, and they are not necessarily receptive to adding more costly and complex ones on top of it.
At the time of this writing, a clearer and narrower technical standard associated with reverberation time was proposed for inclusion in the International Building Code, a well-respected code created by the International Code Council and adopted by many states and municipalities (NRMCA, 2017). For reference, this proposal would establish a scope for technical criteria in Section 808 of the ICC/A117.1 – 2017 Section 1207, “Enhanced Classroom Acoustics” (ICC, 2018). This update will apply for new school construction when and where the code is adopted in 2021. But this highlights a key caveat: a state or municipality still needs to adopt that updated building code in order for it to apply and become enforceable — so we’re still kicking the can down the road.
What can citizens who care about this do? Instead of waiting for the updated International Building Code to be adopted, we can advocate for more rigorous acoustical guidelines to be applied now by our school construction authorities for all new school buildings.
And we’re still only talking about new school building construction. Noise abatement and quality acoustical treatment in older buildings becomes even more costly and complex.
Grant funding for schools is frequently targeted for items of more immediate concerns, like technology or musical instruments. But why not seek to gain capital funding for acoustical treatments for classrooms and cafeterias? The impact could not only be significant, but furthermore sustained over the course of life for the school building, impacting countless students and teachers.
It’s also important to remember from an advocacy perspective that acoustics are an accessibility issue. If a child is hearing impaired, their Individualized Education Program (IEP) should address the acoustical environment—this is especially important the younger the child is. But a child’s IEP is only an avenue for advocacy on a case-by-case basis. Advocacy to a public office of disability and to our public representatives is a broader way to tackle the issue, in conjunction with advocacy for individual students within the school.
Noise makes it harder for all children to hear, to read, and to remember.
Children in many classrooms miss 25% or more of what their teacher says each day due to poor acoustics.
When a space is of poor acoustical quality, it is more likely to become noisier once in use.
Poor acoustical quality not only impedes student learning, but furthermore creates costly teacher voice problems.
Reverberation times in classrooms should ideally be 0.4 seconds or less.
To combat noise in schools, we can:
Stick “floor savers” (little felt disks) on the bottoms of chair and table legs
Install or replace acoustical ceiling tiles with noise reduction coefficient (NRC) values 0.75 or higher
Install acoustical panels in cafeterias and auditoriums
Hang stuff from the ceiling, such as:
Acoustical baffles, clouds, or canopies
Banners, flags, student work, or plants
Place furniture and other large surfaces at different angles to the walls and ceiling to help diffuse sound
Support students in understanding and taking ownership of sound levels in their living and learning environment
Advocate for new school construction to adhere to ANSI or updated International Building Code guidelines for classroom acoustics
Seek funding for older school buildings to obtain professional acoustical treatment
Extra Credit: The Ecology of Acoustics
Schools leaders constantly scan the acoustical environment of their building. They can tell when an escalating voice may mean a fight is about to break out, versus when a class performance is about to occur. The subtle yet critical distinction between the emotional valence of kids having fun or experiencing crisis is something that becomes instinctual.
What about the cumulative types of sounds that kids make over time? What is the positive-to-negative ratio of words used? Can we identify the frequency and patterns of positive or problematic speech?
Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause has recorded the sounds of natural ecosystems for nearly half a century. From his experience listening intensely, over time, to the sounds associated with specific places, he has developed a hypothesis that the health of an ecosystem can be gauged by the layered diversity of its sounds (Keim, 2014). According to this “niche hypothesis”—which he calls biophony—in a complex, diverse, and well-balanced ecosystem, each animal’s call finds its place within a tapestry of sounds, in the manner that the leaves of a thriving tree stagger themselves three dimensionally to best catch the light.
Conversely, in a damaged ecosystem, animal sounds thin out, devolving into extremes of either noise or silence. Due to the increasing noise of human traffic and industrial activity, animals sensitive to noise may have difficulty finding a niche in which they can be heard, thus reducing their ability to procreate and thrive.
In the ecosystem of a school, one hopes that every child’s voice will find its niche. Yet all too often, there may be more noise than signal.
Can we gauge the health of a school ecosystem through the tapestry of its sounds?
Is there a threshold that could be identified in the trends and types of school sounds, where we could intervene before problems occur? Could issues with school climate be identified more swiftly?
In many cities in the U.S., scanners are programmed to automatically detect gunshots, using a technology called ShotSpotter. Once gunfire has been detected, it is submitted to police dispatchers with a GPS location in order to be investigated (Smith, 2016). Similarly, scanners are now being embedded in natural areas that are in danger of illegal logging or poaching that can alert rangers (Hausheer, 2017).
Maybe one day automated scanners will monitor the sounds within school hallways, stairwells, and cafeterias, supplementing the instinctual sense of school leaders with acoustical data over time.
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5 years ago, after the latest round of NY state test scores were released and Success Academy took 7 out of the top 15 spots in NY state, Robert Pondiscio wrote:
“What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.”
Pondiscio has put his time and effort where his mouth was, and spent a year in a Success Academy elementary school in the Bronx. The outcome is a gobsmackingly incisive and nuanced book in which he attempts to document how those extraordinary results are achieved. This is Pondiscio at his best.
I’ve always been skeptical of Success Academy (SA), but unlike some of my district school colleagues, I don’t have a sustained interest in political nor ideological turf wars against charters. I am interested in learning from what any school or network may be doing that is effective. When I saw those phenomenal results 5 years ago, just like Pondiscio, I wanted to know what the heck SA was doing. And I wanted to know whether what SA is doing is truly successful from a long-term perspective. I came up with a list of questions:
What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
Is the leadership distributed?
What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?
What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
How are students engaged in their community through units?
What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?
What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?
In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio ends up answering a fair number of those questions. Read it to learn more.
What this review is and isn’t
I would love to write a more lengthy expository on nearly everything in the book—there’s certainly plenty to dig into—but realized I would never end up finishing, so I’m going to focus on a few things that struck me.
I’m also not going to spend much time on the school choice argument that Pondiscio mounts throughout the book, as interesting as it is, because most other reviews—and there are many—dig into those kind of things more in full. I’m more interested in practice than in politics.
And finally, this really isn’t a proper “review.” So here’s a proper review in short: The book is well-written and thought provoking at every turn. Do yourself a favor and read it.
That said, let’s get to my takeaways:
So what’s the secret sauce?
Let’s get something straight: SA posts amazing results, pretty much any way you slice it. But Pondiscio doesn’t shy away from reporting that a key ingredient in their secret sauce is the careful vetting and grooming of a parent population that is involved and committed enough to SA’s approach to make it sing. In fact, Pondiscio leverages that fact to underpin his key argument for school choice: “Well-intended efforts to leverage schools as a means of ending generational poverty are perversely doomed to perpetuate it—unless we allow like-minded parents to self-select into schools in the greatest numbers possible.”
They end up typically being two parent families, faith oriented, and appreciative of firm discipline, according to Pondiscio’s reckoning, drawing parallels to Catholic schools, which historically have served similarly and effectively in the poorest zipcodes.
But aside from hand selecting the parents who are most committed to SAs vision, what exactly is SA doing?
This is the key theme that emerged for me while reading this book: when all adult oars pull in the same direction—in synchronicity—around children, then amazing results can be achieved. Even if the oars or the hands pulling them are far from perfect.
“When you are surrounded by adults who are demonstrably invested in your success, who do not assume your inevitable failure or condescend because they perceive you as less than or other, who do not dwell on your deficits or perceive you as oppressed or a victim, you are pointed in a specific direction in life.”
Let me give you two examples of this from Pondiscio’s reporting of SA, one an example of great literacy practice, and the other one of questionable value.
Exemplary Literacy Practice
SA provides a rigorous balance of close reading of shared grade-level texts that are worth reading, while ensuring that each and every student reads a steady volume of texts that are more accessible. The manner in which they do this rendered clear to me something I’d been sensing but hadn’t yet been able to fully express—students need this balance to become fully literate. Yet in many schools, there is no balance whatsoever—it’s tipped completely one way or another. Either students read a bunch of mostly random books of choice at their “level,” and little else, so they build little background knowledge. Or they read a few books (or excerpts) from their curriculum that are at grade-level, but struggle to understand it and teachers receive little support on how to scaffold those texts beyond injunctions to differentiate, and their school doesn’t have the necessary expertise and resources to provide appropriate intervention.
A key lever at an SA school is that they push the preponderance of volume of independent reading onto parents, and hold parents and students accountable to it. Here’s Pondiscio:
“The guidance is specific, granular, and deliverable. Parents are expected to read six books aloud to their children every week through the end of second grade; they must monitor and log their children’s independent reading and homework through high school, emulating the habits and structures associated with affluent families.“
In the schools I work with, the common complaint is that many students don’t read on their own and they lack the proper environment or resources to do so even when they are motivated to do so.
The other key lever, which is more scalable to other schools, is that SA’s close reading methods are structured and consistent from grade-to-grade, starting from the very beginning. They have a list of concise and clear “thinking jobs” by genre that students enlist to guide their discussion and annotations, and teachers and students have a clear structure that guides their process of textual analysis. This is what could be called “test prep” when executed poorly and haphazardly with little connection to any disciplinary or world knowledge, but it’s also more generally what we call “close reading.” They study shared complex texts and engage in intellectual discussions around the structure, purpose, and meaning of those texts. So long as the texts selected are worth reading, this is an exemplary practice.
So I found this description of their practices highly useful to my own work, because it clarified the importance in both increasing volume of reading, while also reading shared grade-level text. I came up with a wee graphic to depict this which I now use whenever presenting on close reading:
I’d like to write more on this another time, but while we’re on it, just want to note there are now curriculum offerings that provide more of this type of interweaving balance. For example, Bookworms (freely accessible) intriguingly scales not only between texts at student level and grade-level, but furthermore read alouds of texts at above grade-level, such that it provides a tri-pronged attack for building knowledge and vocabulary alongside increasing volume (listen to Karin Chenowith’s ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast on Seaford, DE, for more on this). STARI, a Tier 2 intervention (also freely accessible), similarly scales between accessible, relevant texts and grade-level work. More to explore here!
At SA, having an abundance of resources and in-classroom coaching all centered around a curriculum and set practices is a given. There is that “educational infrastructure” around the classroom that Elizabeth Green refers to in Building a Better Teacher fully present across the SA network.
As Pondiscio notes, SA is built to run on the backs of extremely young and inexperienced teachers, and it manages to so so effectively, but this also is one of the factors that shows it can’t be done at scale and sustainably.
I’ve spoken to a few folks who’ve worked at SA before, and from what I can glean, it would be a great place to learn the ropes, but not the kind of place you’d want to stay in for long, because if you want to have a family or life of your own, you won’t have any time for it. (As a side note, this is why I think it was extremely shortsighted of the NY Board of Regents to nix legislation allowing teachers to gain a license directly from charter schools, rather than through traditional routes.)
Not-so-exemplary literacy practice
SA isn’t a guiding light in all its literacy practices. One of the most intense, which is quite revealing of SA in all its glory and its shame, is that kindergarten students may be held over if they do not reach Level D on Fountas and Pinnell running records by the end of the school year.
Fountas and Pinnell (or F&P as it is widely referred to) and guided reading is starting to get put under the microscope because though its leveled method appears scientific, it’s not based on solid science. Yet F&P is pervasive in the field, and kids across our nation refer to themselves as “I’m a level __” —even though F&P themselves state that the intent of the leveling system is to pair kids with books, not to define the kids.
SA disregards all of this and goes all in on leveling:
“Classroom libraries have book bins sorted by levels; children’s nightly reading logs have a column to record each book’s level. Data walls in every classroom indicate each child’s current reading level.”
And yet . . . in one scene Pondiscio describes the joyous celebration that occurs when a boy, who has been struggling, moves up a level. As he proudly shares this information with other adults in the building, and it becomes an impromptu parade, this suspect practice still can result in motivating kids to improve their reading ability, when their parents are firmly in tow.
When all adults pull in the same direction—even when the practices might be of questionable value—gains can be made, as SA consistently shows every single year. F&P and running records might not be based on the most solid of science, but they provide clear goals and progress monitoring, and when a school commits to a specific approach and goes all in, you will see impact.
I should also note that when I raised questions about their literacy practices on Twitter, Michele Caracappa, a former CAO at SA who is quoted in the book, clarified the science-based reading practices they do engage in. More here:
What I Think the Book Oversells
Pondiscio was surprised to find that the SA curriculum was not as knowledge based, direct instruction based, and central to SA’s success as he suspected. But he also determines that there is enough knowledge building going on across contents at SA that it warrants a general stamp of approval. He spends a chapter on his greatest hits on the importance of knowledge (great if you aren’t up to speed on it; I have been on the knowledge tip long enough to know it by heart – the baseball study, background knowledge, vocabulary, etc), but I think he oversells the fact that SA aligns with a solidly knowledge-based approach.
They pick books worth reading and they ensure science and history are adequately taught, which unfortunately are all areas many schools are deficient in. But I would argue that their coherence lies primarily in their practices and coaching, not necessarily in an explicit and sequential curriculum that builds knowledge.
To be fair to Pondiscio, he acknowledges the weaknesses in the curriculum, and gives a kind of mea culpa at the conclusion, which I’ll get into in a moment.
What I Think the Book Undersells
I’ve written a lot here about the importance of physical environment, and SA ensures that its physical environment is in top form. I think the impact of this goes further than you may think.
I work with a few schools that are colocated with a Success Academy in the same building, and it’s been endlessly fascinating to me how you can walk from one hallway to another and enter a completely different headspace. They always replace the older school doors with more modern, window covered doors that block out sound well and close quietly. Even this one simple change goes a long way towards reducing the amount of reverberating noise that speeds along down those long echoing corridors.
Their colors, immaculate spotlessness, focused bulletin boards, signage, etc all creates a physical environment that enables learning to occur, both acoustically speaking and in what is communicated to students.
What’s especially interesting about SA is that they have a dedicated leader in each building, parallel to the principal, specifically assigned to building operations!
While Pondiscio notes the attention to physical environment, he doesn’t dwell on it. Here’s what he notes:
The level of detail is exhausting, from checking hallway bulletin boards for ripped papers and making sure classroom posters stay up to ensuring that the overnight custodians who vacuum classroom rugs remembered to replace the “baby plugs” that keep children’s fingers out of wall sockets.
Walk-throughs are done nearly hourly by Fuoco or one of three staff members. While every Success Academy has an ops team and a BOM, the checklists are unique to the layout and physical condition of the building where each school is co-located.
Something else that I think Pondiscio touches on but possibly undersells is the importance of all the various educational infrastructural pieces that together SA does so well, such as PD, strategically mixing classes each year, ensuring intellectual preparation by its teachers, leaders who know the content well, systems for assessing and monitoring student data, and so on.
If the teachers are going to be teaching this lesson on the central idea of this poem, then the leaders need to be getting together two weeks before, and doing the intellectual prep themselves,’ even practice-teaching everything themselves so that they can then go lead that effectively with teachers,’” recalled Toll.
The Tiffany Test
In district schools, we seem to have committed all of our resources and attention to ensuring that even the toughest students are rarely suspended and spend more time in the classroom. A worthy goal, to be sure, but Pondiscio posits a “Tiffany test” that should give all of us strong ethical pause, based on a former student he had who sat quietly and did all that was expected of her, receiving little of the intellectual challenge she deserved due to other students’ misbehavior:
The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.
A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.
….children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient and less engaged peers.
I have worked with some pretty tough students in my time, and my heart always, always goes out to them, like most other educators I know. They are the ones that keep me up at night and who come back to haunt me. If you ever corner me in a bar and get me talking about some of my former students, I will weep. I can’t help it. But I also think back to the quiet ones, the ones who sat with their hands folded as that one student cursed someone out, or threw a tantrum for the umpteenth time, the ones who quietly and dutifully filed out of my classroom and lined up along the wall when one student would go into crisis and became violent because I didn’t call on him when he raised his hand. I had to learn to handle such crises mostly on my own. I didn’t have a coach or a behavioral team who would swoop in and ensure I could continue to teach the lesson.
So his argument struck me to the core.
And yet, I also work with tough schools where they get students who are dumped on them from charter schools like SA, and they get them shipped over to them without even getting the associated funding for that student because of the strategic timing of when the charter school dumps them.*(See updated footnote on this based on feedback from James Merriman) How is that fair? And these are often the toughest students to teach, all concentrated in that local school because we have to take them, and we do, and we serve them the best that we can, with the limited support and resources we have, because schools like SA can’t or won’t.
This is the Tiffany test, and the Adama test, and it is a tough ethical dilemma worth pondering in depth, and Pondiscio forces us to grapple with it through this book in a meaningful and provocative manner.
On the one hand, there are the students who struggle who will simply not do well at SA:
“For those who try and try and can never get out of the ‘red,’ Success Academy is not for them”
But on the other hand, SA is serving the students and parents who have committed to it and can rise to its challenge, and are raising the bar so high the entire state cringes to look directly at its achievement.
There’s no clear answers here, but I think Pondiscio has some strong medicine here that needs to be more deeply considered on all sides.
It’s the Culture, Man
Pondiscio lands in an interesting place at the finale of the book. SPOILER ALERT: He concludes that what makes SA tick is not scalable, and its not scalable because what’s really happening at SA has more to do with an adaptive, squishy thing like culture, and less to do with technical things like curriculum. And this was a hard thing to come to terms with: “School culture is freighted, hard to define, harder to impose, and nearly impossible to shape through public policy.”
Here’s the money quote for me, and I think you’ll see why:
. . . a comprehensive and equitable system of public education does not require that every school be exactly the same; it requires an ecosystem of schools that collectively can serve the need of every child.
In addition to using the word that gives this blog its name, he acknowledges the key issue that this blog has been focused on conveying for some time: schools and school systems are complex. Imposing a prescription at scale is unlikely to improve the majority of our schools, and the real work is at the ground level. It’s adaptive work, in addition to highly technical work. We need to cultivate and sustain conditions that will enable that hard work to bear fruit and thrive more widely. And ultimately, this requires we think far more flexibly beyond static divides like school district boundaries, charter vs. district schools, and private vs. public funding and institutions.
If there’s one thing we can thank Success Academy for, it is that it shows what can be done when all the adults, from the parents, to the staff, to the leadership, pull in the same direction. It’s a machine that not everyone can hold onto, and it leaves a bloody trail in its wake, but it’s certainly a sight to behold.
*Update 1/1/20: James Merriman gave me some important corrective feedback on my comment on charter schools dumping kids on district schools and keeping the money. I’ll admit I threw out that comment based purely on anecdotal information, not on empirical data, and with little of my own direct experience with this. You can view his comments here in this thread:
“Initially, medical audiences I spoke to in the 1980s listened politely, though probably some were dubious and did not really accept the findings [that views of nature improved patient outcomes]. But today, after so much progress in mind-body medical research, few would seriously question the notion that if an environmental design intervention is shown to reduce patient stress, then it could also foster better clinical outcomes. The idea that stress-reducing interventions improve clinical outcomes has become mainstream knowledge that medical students learn.”
And yet, for those of us who work in public education, this understanding is not so widely embraced even still in 2018. Despite the clarity of research in our field around the impact of toxic stress on children’s learning, we pretend that the design of the physical environment of our classrooms and schools has little bearing.
We may be ignoring what may be one of the most direct and sustainable methods to improving outcomes for kids — designing our schools to foster and promote health and well-being.