feeling the heat

Higher temperatures equal lower test scores — study confirms that students learn less in overheated classrooms

PHOTO: THE DENVER POST PHOTO BY HYOUNG CHANG
Darlene Cisneros , 10, left, and Manuela Ramirez , 10, of Harry M. Barrett Elementary School, Denver, Colo, is taking a note by the electric fan during the afternoon writing class on Tuesday afternoon in 2003.

A warm classroom is not conducive to learning, as any student trying to pay attention to a teacher’s lecture on a hot day can attest. That’s not lost on teachers.

“I really dread school based on the weather, especially in the spring and in the fall,” said one teacher in Baltimore in a school without air conditioning. “If it’s really hot … certainly [student] engagement goes down.”

Now, there’s research to back that up.

A new study, released through National Bureau of Economic Research on Monday, shows that after a particularly hot year of school, high schoolers performed worse on the PSAT, an exam taken to prepare for the SAT and determine winners of the National Merit Scholarship.

“Hotter school days in the year prior to the test reduce learning, with extreme heat being particularly damaging and larger effects for low income and minority students,” write the paper’s four researchers. “On average, a 1 degree Fahrenheit hotter school year prior to the exam lowers scores by … slightly less than 1 percent of a year’s worth of learning.”

The research highlights how external factors can impact students’ performance on high-stakes tests, while also suggesting that air conditioning, still missing in many schools, is a worthwhile investment.

The study, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, relies on extensive data: PSAT data of 10 million students from the high school classes of 2001 to 2014.

Paper authors Joshua Goodman of Harvard, Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, Jisung Park of UCLA, and Jonathan Smith of Georgia State focus on whether students learn less, as measured by the PSAT, in school years with more hot days. (The College Board administers the PSAT.) To get at that, they look at students who took the test multiple times, and then, accounting for the fact that students generally perform better after taking the test again, they see if students tended to do worse when the exam was preceded by a warmer year.

Indeed that’s exactly what they find, with every degree increase in average temperature above 60 degrees during the school year, leading to slightly lower PSAT scores. More days with extreme heat — over 90 or 100 degrees — also caused score drops. Impacts were significantly larger for black and Hispanic students and those in lower-income areas.

Why might that be?

“Wealthier students may be able to compensate for lost learning time by getting additional instruction from their parents or private tutors,” the authors say. “Such students may also be more likely to attend schools where teachers have better capacity to compensate for lost learning time by adjusting lesson plans or adding more instructional time.”

Heat during the summer, weekends, and holidays didn’t impact test scores, which is consistent with the idea that learning in school drove the findings.

The study then turns to the question of whether air conditioning prevented the negative effects of heat on learning. They find, that in fact, it generally did, with most of harmful consequences of heat disappearing in schools that appear to have air conditioning.

The paper doesn’t have perfect data on whether schools actually have and use air conditioning, but instead relies on surveys of counselors and students. A substantial number of students — about 42 percent — said that on hot days classrooms sometimes or frequently got too hot, though counselors were less likely to say this was an issue. Paradoxically, in hotter areas of the country, hot classrooms were less of a problem, likely because air conditioning was move prevalent.

Share of students by school district who said hot days led to hot classrooms. Source: “Heat and Learning”

Black and Hispanic students and those in low-income areas were a few percentage points less likely to have air-conditioned classroom than white or affluent students in similar climates. This may explain why those students saw steeper test score declines as the result of warm weather.

Because of this and the fact that black and Hispanic students tend to live in places with higher temperatures, the paper estimates that the impact of heat in schools explained somewhere from 1 percent to 13 percent of the racial test score gap on the PSAT.

The analysis is in line with other research on the topic, including a study of New York City showing that high school students do worse on end-of-year exams in years with higher temperature and on warmer testing days. (The latest paper doesn’t focus on the single testing-day effect because the PSAT was taken in October, when heat is less likely to be a concern.)

A recent analysis found that most of the country’s 50 largest school districts report having air conditioning in every classroom, but also that 11 districts have some or many classrooms without it.

Concerns about heat in school may have prompted some policymakers to promise action: New York City schools have vowed to install air conditioning in all classrooms by 2022.

It may well be a worthy investment, according to the latest study. “The benefits of school air conditioning likely outweigh the costs in most of the U.S., particularly given future predicted climate change,” the authors write.

chronically absent

One in four students are chronically absent in Tennessee’s state-run district. Here’s what educators are doing about it.

PHOTO: (Lance Murphey, Memphis Daily News File Photo)
About 25 percent of students at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School were chronically absent last year, a drop of 6 percent from 2017.

More than one in four children in Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district were chronically absent from school last year. Until recently, Armani Fleming, an eighth-grader in Memphis, risked being among them.

Armani struggled with attendance until a student support specialist with Communities in Schools, a Memphis nonprofit focused on wrap-around services for children, worked with him to identify and resolve barriers keeping him from class at Humes Middle School, apart of the Frayser Community Schools charter network.

“I realized Mr. B really cared about me, and he’s helped me make sure I come,” Armani said of the support specialist, Cadarius Buckingham. “He’s more of a counselor to me. I come and talk to him about everything, he’s the person I come to when I need help … and me coming to school has gotten a lot better.”

In the Achievement School District, getting kids to show up at school matters. Recent research has shown that when students have more “familiar faces” around them in class, they’re less likely to be chronically absent. Which is why nonprofits like Communities in Schools are sending staff members into local schools to connect with students like Armani.

Tennessee created the Achievement School District in 2012 to fix its lowest-performing schools by turning them over to charter organizations, but it has struggled to move the needle. Last year, 27.4 percent of the district’s students were chronically absent — representing a 2.4 percent drop from the previous year, but still alarmingly high. Now composed of 30 schools, the district faces higher rates of student mobility and poverty, contributing to its challenges with absenteeism.

Statewide, more than 13 percent of students are chronically absent, defined as having missed 10 percent of the school year, which is typically 18 or more days, for any reason (including excused absences and suspensions), but the average rate was significantly higher, 21 percent, for students who live in poverty.

The stakes are high for improving attendance numbers. Chronic absenteeism is now a major part of Tennessee schools are held accountable by the federal government. And research shows that children who are chronically absent from school are often academically below grade-level, more likely to drop out of school, and more frequently involved in the criminal justice system.

Communities in Schools is now in 19 Memphis schools, eight of them state-run. Those schools have seen, on average, a 5 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism, according to Michael Russom, the group’s director of operations and communications.

One school, Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary, saw even more dramatic results: an 18 percent drop in chronic absenteeism year-over-year. Last year, just 13.7 percent of the school’s students were chronically absent.

What made the difference? Capstone Education Group, the charter school operator that runs Cornerstone schools, has a staff member dedicated to improving attendance and a partnership with Communities in Schools, said Drew Sippel, executive director of Capstone, which runs two state-run schools in addition to Denver that also had low absenteeism numbers.

“Whenever a parent expresses some concern related to regular attendance, [Patricia] Burns works to resolve impediments to consistent attendance,” Sippel said of the school’s Manager of Student Information and Business Systems. “These impediments range from transportation, homelessness, and inability to purchase school uniforms.”

Untreated health issues is sometimes another factor.

Denver Elementary’s principal also worked with Capstone staff to increase the number of meetings with parents, and therefore, to pinpoint the root causes of students’ absences.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape’s staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

“There’s often an assumption or judgment with parents, ‘Why don’t you just make your kids go to school?’” said David Jordan, CEO of Agape, a Christian nonprofit that has also seen success in reducing chronic absences in Memphis schools. “We keep data on this, and it’s not that parents don’t care. There’s a lot of issues that can prevent students from making it to class.”

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout Memphis — and all students they work with are now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of the group’s goal for Agape students: to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For its part, Communities in Schools hopes to expand onto additional Memphis campuses, but for now, the focus is the schools they are already serving. And they have added additional staff to some of the highest-needs schools.

One such school is Fairley High School, an Achievement District school run by the charter operator Green Dot Public Schools. There, about 56 percent of students were chronically absent last year, a 19 percent increase from 2017. Russom said they placed two full-time support specialists within Fairley earlier this school year.

Last year, absences spiked at Fairley amid a change of leadership at the school, and it took time for the new principal to gain students’ trust, said Zachary Samson, Green Dot’s area superintendent.

“That’s one huge piece of chronic absenteeism that’s hard to quantify,” Samson said. “It makes such a difference when a student walks in the door, and I as a school leader am able to greet them by name. I know their mom. It’s students feeling seen and appreciated.”

To improve attendance, Samson said his staff is working with Communities in Schools to create an incentive program for students, in which students who meet their attendance goals can attend school parties. He added that they are also focusing on their communication with parents, as many parents may not be aware their children are chronically absent or of the consequences.

Samson said he’s confident attendance can improve at Fairley because he’s seen it happen at another Green Dot school – Wooddale Middle School. About 15 percent of students were chronically absent at Wooddale last year, a drop of 3 percent from the previous school year.

Communities in Schools has a full-time staff member at Wooddale, and that has made an enormous difference, Samson said, noting: “For schools where budgets are very, very tight, having another passionate educator in your school whose big focus is to address attendance and behavior with students – that’s a huge help.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the state defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of attended school days, which is typically 18 or more days for the school year.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that one in four students in the Achievement School District were chronically absent last school year, not one in three.

behind the budget

Surprise: Most funding for New York City’s ‘community schools’ going to academics, not social services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat
Principal Asya Johnson of Longwood Preparatory Academy, a community school, corrals a student between classes.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio promised a new “community schools” program during his 2013 campaign, it was in part a repudiation of his predecessor’s focus on improving academic results.

Rather than punishing schools when students struggle, the theory went, the city should flood schools with services to combat the problems that hold students back from succeeding. The city has included schools with a range of academic performance levels in the program, and officials have said their main goal is to increase equity, not test scores.

So it’s surprising that just a small fraction of this year’s extra spending at the city’s 239 official community schools is going toward physical and mental health services, while about 60 percent of the $198.6 million being spent on the program is going to academic services.

That’s according to a new analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office, which looked at school-level spending plans produced for the first time this year under a new state transparency law.

The city education department is disputing the budget office’s methodology but not the conclusion that community schools are spending heavily on academic services. Community schools choose which programs and services to offer, based on their students’ needs; the academic services category includes spending on anything beyond traditional classroom instruction, including gifted programs, extra tutoring, and services for students with disabilities.

The spending analysis offers important context for an external evaluation of New York City’s program by the Rand Corporation, which is expected in 2019. It could potentially add to an existing body of research suggesting that efforts to combat poverty by providing “wraparound services” in schools often — though not always — generate improved test scores. The research has so far not answered the question of what makes some programs more successful than others, so knowing that New York City’s results come after spending heavily on academic services will add an important data point.

Early in the program’s development, some advocates pressed the city to tackle academics in addition to social challenges. But how much the community schools model is boosting academic improvement remains an open question locally, and the spending analysis offers important context for an external evaluation of New York City’s program that is expected in 2019.

Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said the state’s fiscal reporting requirements don’t reflect the city’s “holistic” approach to supporting schools. He said the discrete spending categories obscure the reality inside schools, where various programs interact in complex ways.

After-school programs, for example, might offer emotional support for students, Cohen said, adding that the overlap is an important feature of the community schools model.

“If we were only doing mental health alone,” he said, “it wouldn’t really be a community schools strategy.”