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Does Moving to a Brand New School Building Improve Student Learning?

LAUSD-RFK-blog.jpg

When it comes to student learning, school facilities matter, according to the authors of an ambitious working paper from the California Policy Lab at UCLA and UC Berkley, recently presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy conference. 

Researchers Julien Lafortune and David Scönholzer tracked the individual test scores, classroom grades, and attendance rates of more than 5 million individual Los Angeles Unified School District students between 2002 and 2012, before and after those same students moved from overcrowded, dilapidated schools to new facilities. They concluded that a more-than $10 billion, multiyear school construction effort had a positive academic impact on students.

"School facility investments lead to modest, gradual improvements in student test scores, large immediate improvements in student attendance, and significant improvements in student effort," says a summary of the paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

The researchers found that four years after having moved to a newly constructed school, students showed a modest improvement in English/language arts test scores  and a slightly more modest improvement in students' average math test scores. In addition, students' average daily attendance rose by four days, and their teacher-reported grades rose.

"This matters," Lafortune said. "There are still large gaps in the funding and quality of school buildings, and they tend to matter a lot when it comes to student achievement."

Between 1975 and 1996, the Los Angeles district hadn't built any new schools, and as of 2000 its schools were on average 60 years old and severely overcrowded. Students were on staggered, year-round schedules and many were packed into portable units. The district's schools, many of which didn't have air conditioning, were crumbling. A state commission described the schools as "overcrowded, uninspiring and unhealthy."

Between 1997 and 2008, voters approved a series of bond issues that added up to more than $10 billion in new school construction for the city. Between 2002 and 2017, 131 schools were built, 65 campuses were expanded, and 170,000 new seats were added to the district. More than 1,800 parcels of land was acquired by the district and almost 4,000 houses and businesses were moved. 

Lafortune said he hasn't pinpointed what about the new schools led to the academic gains the researchers found. He also noted that, counterintuitively, students at newly constructed schools sat in slightly larger class sizes with less-experienced teachers and more disadvantaged students than at their old schools.

He said further studies could explore what could be the underlying mechanisms driving the improvements flagged by the researchers, the impact the newly constructed schools have on teacher productivity and recruitment, and the impact they have on real estate prices and demographic compostion.  

The early findings also could feed into a growing body of research that buttresses the argument that more money leads to better academic outcomes, a theory disputed by many conservative politicians.  

A much smaller 2014 study by Christopher A.Neilson and Seth D. Zimmerman on the impact of a school construction boom in New Haven, Conn., found that students' reading scores improved, but not math scores.

America spends more than $49 billion per year on new schools and major capital projects, and $46 billion a year for maintenance and operations, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But, according to the NCES study, it will cost more than $925 billion over the next 20 years to get every school into "overall good condition."  

Because more than 80 percent of school construction is funded by local tax dollars, the age and condition of school facilities is closely tied to a school district's poverty level. States such as Rhode Island and West Virginia have attempted to spread school construction bond money more evenly.  

Lafortune said his findings are an indication that local and state officials should consider the conditions of a school building heavily when looking for ways to boost students' academic outcomes. 

Above Picture: The former Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles, once the scene of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, has since reopened as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex.

--Nick Ut/AP

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