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Atmosphere Affects Learning

The end of the spring semester and the start of summer school are reminders of how much campus atmosphere affects student learning. We tend to forget this fact in our obsession with teacher quality as the greatest in-school factor.

The most obvious concern is the lack of air-conditioning ("Schools Are Not Cool," The New York Times, June 2). Classrooms can become ovens during the spring and summer, making it almost impossible for even the best teachers to get and hold their students' attention. I was quite fortunate during the 28 years I taught in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District because my classroom was a bungalow on a hill facing due west. As a result, my classroom almost always had an ocean breeze. But most of my colleagues taught in buildings that were designed without regard for the comfort of students and teachers.

Equally distressing is the physical condition of the school plant. I'm referring now to leaking roofs, rampant litter, fetid bathrooms and widespread graffiti. When students are surrounded by such, it sends the unmistakable message that education is not valued. It's analogous to the broken windows theory that James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling first wrote about in a 1982 article in The Atlantic. They found that unattended problems are an invitation to vandalism. I remember vividly how quickly restrooms deteriorated at my school after the district cut back on janitorial services, until it was almost impossible to use the facilities without gagging.

We are all affected by our surroundings, either consciously or otherwise. But for students who are repeatedly told how important education is for their future, the disconnect with reality breeds cynicism. For example, there are at least 35,442 unresolved calls for service and repairs in the LAUSD because of the loss over the past five years of about 500 custodians and plant managers, as well as about 650 carpenters, electricians and plumbers ("L.A. schools falling apart, literally," Los Angeles Times, Mar. 12). I'm not saying that learning cannot take place under such conditions, but if the goal is to maximize learning we need to address the appalling physical state of many schools.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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