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School Building Boom Led to Gains for Young Students in L.A.

A study of a $19.5 billion, decade-long school construction program in the Los Angeles school district found that elementary school students moving from overcrowded facilities into new buildings showed achievement gains that were the equivalent of up to 35 additional days of instruction a year.

The students who remained at older schools in the 640,000-student also saw improvement in test scores as their schools became less overcrowded.

However, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that high school students moving from overcrowded buildings into new high schools had only modest improvements in their English/language arts test scores, and none in mathematics scores.

"The lack of an effect is still mysterious to us," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at Berkeley, in an interview with Education Week. Fuller directed the research project, the results of which were released Tuesday. He said several reasons could be behind the trend. The learning trajectory of older students may already be set, for example, and new facilities and younger teachers in new schools may be factors that help younger students more than high schoolers.

The construction boom came after voters approved five local and state initiatives that provided bond money for new buildings and renovations. The school construction project was the second-largest public works project ever undertaken in the United States, after the construction of the federal highway system, the study notes.

The study included about 20,000 elementary and high school students from 2002-2008, using district data that allowed researchers to follow specific students and measure their learning results over time. Some of those students, prior to the construction of 131 new school buildings, had been attending elementary schools of 2,800 to 3,000 students, Fuller said. Some high schools were serving 5,000 students and had to run multitrack schedules.

It's difficult to say just why new facilities helped with student achievement, the study said. The new schools could have better classroom equipment and a instructional environment more conducive to learning, the report hypothesizes. But the cost of construction itself—ranging from $12,000 to $22,000 per student seat—did not have any connection to student test scores.

One element that did correlate with higher gains was the degree of overcrowding that the student experienced before transferring to a new facility. Students who transferred from severely overcrowded schools saw higher math achievement than those who left less-overcrowded schools.

The researchers said that the results offer ideas for Los Angeles and other districts to consider: among them, that more-expensive facilities may not be linked to student achievement, and that boosting high school achievement will involve more than reducing overcrowding.


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