New Schools Improve Student Performance

At the beginning of the school year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) opened 20 new schools, bringing the total new facilities built and opened over the past 10 years to 150. The $19.5 billion undertaking ranks as the second largest public works project in U.S. history — the largest being the Federal Interstate Highway System.

Inspired by a lawsuit brought years ago to reduce overcrowding in L.A. schools, the massive building project gave researchers the opportunity to study the effect of new schools on student performance.

In late August, a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, filed a final report on the research, “New Schools, Overcrowding Relief and Achievement Gains in Los Angeles — Strong Returns from a $19.5 Billion Investment.” The study examined test scores for nearly 20,000 elementary and high school students from 2002 through 2008, the first phase of the new school construction project. The study did not look at the performance of middle school students.

The report concluded that the building program succeeded in reducing severe overcrowding in L.A. schools while boosting the performance of elementary school students dramatically. High school students, on the other hand, performed only a little better.

“We know that new schools returned to a longer school year, after overcrowded schools were forced to serve kids on multiple tracks and cut the school year by over a dozen days,” says William Welsh, the UC Berkeley Ph.D. student who carried out the statistical analysis and served as the lead author. “But the gains we see in new elementary schools far surpass the benefits linked to recovering these instructional days.”

Prior to this study, little evidence supported the contention that the quality of school facilities influenced learning. According to the new report, earlier studies looked at small samples or failed to find conclusive correlations in larger samples.

The Results: Elementary Students Soar
Elementary school students that moved into one of the new schools “on average” performed as if they had had 35 additional days of instruction each year, compared to average LAUSD students, says the study.

Elementary students that moved from severely overcrowded schools to new facilities experienced the greatest performance gains. The study reports their achievement gains as equivalent to about 65 days of additional instruction per year.

A contributing factor could have been the quality of teachers. “The new facilities helped to attract younger teachers with masters degrees, and this, in part, explains the dramatic gains experienced by elementary students who switched from old to fresh, shiny schools,” says Bruce Fuller, professor of Education and Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who directed the project.

Elementary pupils that remained behind in the older schools — which were relieved of over crowding — also experienced achievement gains. Although the gains were more modest, they offer evidence of the ill effects of over crowding on student achievement. In addition, these students did not benefit from enthusiastic new teachers with higher qualifications.

The Mystery: High School Students Show Weak Improvement
One of the study’s findings seems mysterious. While elementary pupils improved their performance substantially, high school students did not. Why?

“We have learned over the past half century that education interventions that involve younger children tend to pack a bigger punch than efforts trying to lift older students,” says Fuller.

“Neuroscience shows a jump in brain developmental patterns occurring around age 17,” says Barbara Schneider, professor of Educational Psychology and Special Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “But that jump is not as great as the ones in our early years. So it takes a whole lot more effort in high school to make even small changes.

“Not only is our ability to acquire new information harder, we have learning patterns, and if the learning experience is not consistent with our prior experiences, it can reduce performance.”

 Perhaps larger performance gains for high schoolers will have to await the arrival of the elementary school students who have been tearing things up.

Finally, Money Doesn’t Matter so Much
An interesting collateral finding to emerge from the study involves money spent on the elementary schools. In this landmark project, some schools cost significantly more than others, yet the research turned up no relationship between per-pupil construction costs and the performance improvements of elementary students.

The study puts it this way: “That is, pupils migrating to less-costly new schools saw achievement gains that were no different, on average, from those moving to more expensive new facilities.”

To sum up: School districts can improve student performance by reducing overcrowding, building new facilities and bringing in higher qualified teachers. Any one of the three techniques will work. Used together, the results can be spectacular in elementary schools and a little better in high schools.

What’s next? “Much more research is required to understand how bright, inventive-built environments interact with what teachers are recruited and the more effective social relations that unfold,” says Fuller.

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