Staff in these schools struggle to educate students in conditions that few corporations, much less building inspectors, would tolerate. Mold, leaking ceilings, extreme temperatures, raw sewage seeping into hallways, mice droppings, severely overcrowded classrooms - these unhealthy and/or unsafe conditions plague tens of thousand of old and new school buildings where millions of Americans age 5 and older must study and work. For the most part, officials have been unwilling to adequately confront this serious situation, which is affecting teaching and learning.
That is the second paragraph of an important new report. Please keep reading so that you will understand. You WILL be moved to take action. Today a major report on the health of our school buildings is being released by the American Federation of Teachers. Entitled Building Minds, Minding Buildings it is available as a 28 page PDF file and I urge anyone with an interest in either health or education to take the time to read it. It includes many illustrations to demonstrate the nature of the problem, which is severe.
I was asked if I would be willing to preview the report and consider writing about it. Although I have a lot on my plate, I agreed to look at it and was given an embargoed copy several days ago. As soon as I glanced at it I decided to take the time to make it more widely visible. I will in this diary offer some selections from the report. I will also as a teacher and as one concerned with educational policy offer a few observations and comments of my own.
The report begins by noting that nearly 20 years ago the AFT had called for a Marshall Plan to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of inner city schools.
Existing school buildings were crumbling and new schools were not being built. This problem has now spread far beyond the boundaries of urban school districts and touches nearly every school system in our nation.
Our public infrastructure in general is deteriorating. School buildings might be the canary in the mine. We have bridges, dams, highways, and the like, all of which need major maintenance and/or replacement. I worry that our solution in recent years has been to privatize what could be privatized - including highways - and to ignore the rest. This country will not survive economically or as a democracy if we do not address all of our public infrastructure.
The key issue for the AFT can be stated in one sentence:
We continue to believe that the school environment cannot be separated from the academic agenda.In other words, if we are going to have high standards and accountability, it must be in a physical environment that is not counterproductive to achieving those standards.
The US Dept. of Education commissioned a study required under NCLB on the impact of environmentally unhealthy buildings upon health and learning but when
The study found “the overall evidence strongly suggests that poor environments in schools due primarily to the effects of indoor pollutants, adversely influence the health performance and attendance of students”the report was shelved.
The AFT report is incredibly well documented. The research department pulled reports from the government and other sources and compiled a devastating picture of the status of our buildings, and the impact it has on health and learning. There is far too much for me to go over all of it. But let me offer a few examples from the report.
- in 1995 the GAO reported 25,000 school buildings needed extensive repairs and replacements then costing $112 billion to bring the buildings into conformity with MINIMUM building standards.
- a 1999 federal report indicated that 3/4 of schools needed funds for repairs, etc., to upgrade their overall condition to good
- a 2004 Department of Education report said that 8.5% of our schools have exceeded capacity
- almost one in three schools has had to resort to the use of temporary buildings as the primary learning environment for 160 students (NOTE: I teach in a school with 21 temporary buildings serving as classrooms).
- in 1995, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D to school infrastructure
- minority children from low income communities are disproportionally affected by these conditions
- poor air quality in school buildings contributes to student asthma, which leads to absences, difficulties concentrating, and lower achievement.
- the American Lung Association found that in 2000 there were more than 12 million days of absence caused by asthma aggravated by poor indoor air quality.
- nearly one in 13 school age children has asthma, the percentage rapidly rising among preschool children.
- among children 5-17 asthma is the leading cause of absence due to a chronic illness, averaging about 8 days for each child with asthma.
- the death rate for asthma among children 5-14 doubled from 1980 to 1988, with African-American children 4 to 6 times more likely to die from asthma related problems.
I could continue to list problems - with lighting, with noise levels, with the inability to move around the room (I note that in another school I once had 36 students in an 18 by 36 foot temporary. But I was lucky - the temporary next door had up to 46! We would consider such crowding cruelty were it done to farm animals).
Statistics can tell part of the picture. Anecdotal information can flesh out the image. Here are a few examples of quotes from people in schools, representative of the examples in the report. A teacher in Greenburgh NY reports
The mold is so bad that in one of the teachers bathrooms, mushrooms are growing.. Another in Guam says
I believe learning is affected when it rains in the room.. And finally, very appropriate given some of our ongoing debates over education, the words of a 2nd grade teacher in the Twin Cities area:
Amazingly, we continue to have learning happen, even under these conditions. What better job could we do if we had good lighting, adequate space, good air flow and constant temperatures? Maybe that should be considered in the No Child Left Behind recommendations.
The AFT report makes a series of recommendations. They argue for better design in all aspects of school construction and rehabilitation. They reference
-the EPA’s Tools for Schools program, ”which helps to improve indoor air quality and reduce the risk of student and staff exposure to asthma triggers.”
-standards and recommendations from the U. S. Department of Energy
- standards from the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council
- recommendations from the Council of Educational Facility Planners International,
and so on. It is not that we don’t know what needs to be done. We have governmental and professional agencies and organizations that have told us. We need the commitment, the will, the funding.
The AFT also wants a learning environment index to be used under NCLB. Let me quote in part:
Although NCLB establishes high-stakes consequences for staff and students, many of the schools not making adequate yearly progress (AYP) do not have adequate facilities, safe conditions, teacher retention incentives, and the financial and professional supports necessary to succeed. A learning environmental index would identify and measure teaching and learning conditions that are known to contribute to the increased student achievement. Schools that fail to make AYP would be required to show improvement on their learning environment index, and states and districts would be required to provide the resources to ensure that schools address the teaching and learning conditions identified for improvement. This would be the first step to shared responsibility for student learning.
I am not a fan of the kinds of accountability measures imposed by NCLB. And without appropriate funding for remediation of the school learning environment an index by itself might not solve the problems the AFT attempts to address in this recommendation. In fairness, AFT also advocates a number of programs for additional federal funding for school infrastructure, although the amounts of money of all such programs together seem miniscule when compared to the massive amounts, in excess of $100 billion, previously identified as necessary to bring buildings and facilities up to minimum standards. But it would be a start.
Others also see the need of addressing this issue. Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, is now head of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. A recent (August 24) Business Week Online article misleading entitled From Ice Cream to Nuclear Freeze discusses how Cohen and his group would like to shift federal spending from defense to education and health. Seeking to divert $60 billion a year from Defense to social spending and deficit reduction, the group was advocating what they entitled The Common Sense Budget Act of 2006. One example of the difference this could make can be seen in this paragraph:
Cohen says he'd like to see some of what the U.S. spends on its nuclear arsenal directed toward rebuilding schools. "The weapons we have now are 150,000 times more powerful than what we dropped on Hiroshima," he says. "With $10 billion a year you could rebuild every school in the country that needs fixing over the next 12 years."
I am in my 12th year of public school teaching. I have taught in 3 buildings, student taught in two more, and during my training and teaching had occasion to be inside several dozen additional school buildings in multiple cities and districts. I have encountered, either personally or by observation, situations of exposed wires, puddles on floors, buckets in hallways to catch the leaks from the roof when it rains, mouse droppings, room temperatures not under the control of teachers ranging from 45 degrees in winter to 90 degrees on other occasions. I have been in rooms with no natural light when the power went out and the only thing preventing total darkness was a screen saver on a computer. I have seen student bathrooms with no doors on the stalls and hence no privacy. I know of school buildings in which a series of teachers on the same corridor all became seriously ill. I have encountered science labs that lacked proper ventilation. There have been classrooms with more students than desks (fortunately I have avoided this in my own career), and desks and chairs that were too small, or broken. There would be water fountains that didn’t work, and worse.
Students are often far more perceptive than adults realize. They see the conditions in which they attend school and quickly draw the conclusion that their learning is really not important, otherwise they would not be subjected to such indignities. As adults we would be quite upset to be confined by force of law to such an environment and then be expected to perform to a set of standards that were already in many cases unreasonable. Were we describing such conditions in a manufacturing environment we might rightly attached the pejorative label of sweatshop, and we would expect that the authorities would intervene on the grounds of public health and safety. And yet for far too long we have tolerated such conditions in our public schools.
If we are truly going to insist on educational equity, as is the underlying principle of NCLB, then such equity must include the conditions under which we attempt to have our children learn. Some in Congress recognize the importance of this. As the report notes, Reps. George Miller, Lynn Woolsey and Ben Chandler have introduced the 21st Century High-Performing School Facilities Act of 2006, which would authorize grants and loans to school districts for modernization and construction, with priority given to those district more heavily impacted by low-income children. This is a start, but absent massive increases in the funds available for such programs, it is unlikely that they can address the serious issue of our school infrastructure.
I would like us to totally rethink how we do education in this country. That includes rethinking the kinds of structures we build for schooling. I don’t want to move forward with building a lot of new schools, because I would hope we could come up with better models. And yet in fairness we cannot wait until we can answer questions such as those with which I wrestle to address the current decrepitude and unhealthiness of our schools today. It is unfair to those who attempt to learn therein, and those of us who are trying to help them with that learning. We may need to build additional wings, or even some additional buildings, to alleviate overcrowding and the extensive use of “temporary” buildings that seem to become permanent parts of the infrastructure.
We cannot merely take over warehouses and storefronts and the like and expect that we can convert these into satisfactory environments for learning. I want to set that idea aside immediately. We must take some actions now, and we need to be far more sensible about those new buildings and wings on current buildings that we must construct. The cost of taking remedial action is extensive. But the human and educational and health costs of doing nothing is far higher.
I commend the AFT for producing this report, and hope that readers will call it to the attention of as many policy makers as possible. That includes district level administrators and school boards as well as state and federal educational and elected officials. While schooling is primarily a state and local function, the country has recognized that it is an issue of national importance and priority. If it is going to continue to be a national issue, then we must be willing to address all aspects of that issue. Having a functionally safe and healthy learning environment is an important prerequisite to high quality learning for all of our students. I am not a member of the American Federation of Teachers (I have been a building rep for the National Education Association), but I commend the AFT for this report, for helping reopen an important discussion on a critical issue. I urge you all to read the report, and to pass it on to others.