Study: Hotter Classrooms Make it Harder for Students to Learn

 Gabrielle Levy
  30th-May-2018

STUDENTS' ABILITY TO learn is undermined when their classrooms are too hot, new research says, a finding that could help explain persistent gaps in performance between students in poorer regions and countries without consistent access to air conditioning and those in wealthier areas.

An analysis published by the National Bureau of Economic Research comparing student test scores with average temperatures suggests that when classrooms get too hot it prevents students from learning as well as they would in more comfortable temperatures, with lasting impacts on students' future success and their ability to contribute economically. It also found that adequate investment in school infrastructure – namely air conditioning – can mitigate the negative effects of hot weather.

Researchers compared daily historical weather data collected by a network of thousands of weather stations across the United States operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the PSAT scores of 10 million students who took the test at least twice between 2001 and 2014.

Although repeat test-taking typically results in increased test scores, test scores for affected students actually went down when they took the test following a warmer year.

On average, a school year that was hotter by 1 degree Fahrenheit correlated to a loss of 1 percent of a year's learning, the researchers found, calculating that each additional school day with temperatures in the 90s meant one-sixth of 1 percent of a year's learning, while days over 100 degrees had an effect that was 50 percent larger.

Moreover, the effect was as much as three times more damaging for black or Hispanic students compared to white students. Researchers accounted for the disparity by noting that white students are significantly more likely to live in cooler climates and attend schools with air conditioning in most or all of their classrooms, as reported by students and school counselors in surveys conducted by the College Board, which administers the PSAT as well as the SAT.

"Given the correlation between income and temperature," they conclude, "our results suggest that the impacts of additional heat exposure from climate change are likely to be more acute for poorer individuals both across and within countries."

"We argue that heat effects account for up to 13 percent of the U.S. racial achievement gap," they said, noting that black and Hispanic students generally live in hotter places than white students and because heat damages their achievement more than that of white students.

Installing air conditioning successfully offset "nearly all" of the effects of higher temperatures, as the researchers observed that the negative impact of heat exposure decreased over time for specific students after their schools installed air conditioning.

Finally, they calculated that rising temperatures due to climate change would have 20 times the negative impact on students learning in schools without air conditioning than in schools with increased air conditioning by 2050. They estimate that installing air conditioning would offset more than $25,000 of potential future earnings, per classroom, that would occur if global temperatures increase in line with climate change model predictions.

"Understanding the causal relationship between cumulative heat exposure and learning is of heightened policy relevance in light of accelerating warming in most parts of the world, and given that the overwhelming majority of the world's population does not yet have access to air conditioning," the study's authors wrote. "Our evidence suggests that heat not only interferes with physical capabilities of a nation's workforce but also with its cognitive capacities, and most crucially the rate at which valuable skills are accrued by the workforce over time."

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