feeling the heat

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

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.


Why more Denver students will now qualify for free public bus passes

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
A Denver East High School student board bus No. 2 on his journey home.

More Denver high school students will qualify next month for passes to ride public buses to school, thanks to a lower youth fare being rolled out by the Regional Transportation District.

The money Denver Public Schools will save on RTD passes will allow the district to relax its eligibility criteria. Currently, students must live more than 3.5 miles from their high school to get a pass. As of January, students who live more than 2.5 miles from school will qualify.

The district estimates 1,700 additional high school students will get a free RTD pass. That will bring the total number of students who qualify to more than 4,400.

Denver Public Schools does not provide yellow bus service to most high school students, and there are reasons other than proximity that students might not qualify for an RTD pass.

The district does not provide RTD passes to all students who attend a school that is not their boundary school — that is, the school in their neighborhood to which they are assigned. Critics see that as a problem given that Denver Public Schools has a robust school choice process that encourages families to choose the school that’s right for them.

Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation is among the advocates who have been pushing the district to expand transportation options for high school students. (Donnell-Kay is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.) Samelson called the new 2.5-mile rule “a great first step.” Whereas Denver’s previous walk distance of 3.5 miles had been the highest in the state, the new rule brings the district in line with other metro-area school districts.

But Samelson said it “doesn’t chip away at the equity issue of who actually needs transportation.” To solve for that, district officials have laid out several next steps, including moving from a system where all eligible students get a bus pass to a system where students must opt in. That would free up more passes for other students in need.

“If there are students and families who would be eligible and aren’t going to use it, let’s give that pass to somebody who would use it,” Samelson said.

District officials said they hope to start the opt-in system next school year. If it succeeds, they envision piloting a further step: providing bus passes to students from low-income families who are using choice to go to a school outside their neighborhood.

cracking the code

Newark schools partner with Girls Who Code to expand access to coding clubs

PHOTO: Kei-Sygh Thomas/Chalkbeat
Students at announcement of Girls Who Code partnership with Newark Public Schools at Rafael Hernandez School

Starting in the spring, more Newark middle schoolers will be learning how to code, owing to a new partnership between Newark Public Schools and Girls Who Code. Schools Superintendent Roger León announced the initiative at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School on Thursday. The partnership will establish Girls Who Code clubs in 24 of the district’s middle schools, providing an introduction to coding skills to more than 3,000 girls.

“If we are serious about equity and opportunity, especially when it comes to communities of color, we have to teach them how to code,” said Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code. “I think it’s an opportunity to reach the hardest-to-reach communities.”

The initiative complements a push to increase computer science education statewide. In January, New Jersey passed a law requiring every public high school, starting this fall, to offer a computer science class. And in October, Governor Murphy committed $2 million to increasing the number of public high schools making advanced computer science classes available to students. Priority consideration will be given to schools that receive Title I funds.

Girls Who Code already offers clubs in six Newark schools, according to its website: Newark Tech High School, East Side High School, Barringer High Schools, TEAM Academy, Hawkins Street School, and First Avenue. The new partnership will increase that number and target middle schools exclusively.

By age 15, girls have often lost interest in math, science or technological subjects, according to one report. The program wants girls “to act or think like a computer scientist,” said Chrissy Ziccarelli, the director of education at Girls Who Code.

It also hopes to inspire girls to enter technology-related fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that there will be approximately 4.6 million computing jobs nationwide by the year 2020 but not enough people with the skills to fill those jobs.

“A majority of our girls want to take another computer science class after they participate in a club,” Ziccarelli said. Alumni of the program are also more likely to major in computer science, she said.

The challenge for districts, however, isn’t just exposing students to computers, says Darrin Sharif, Executive Director of Newark Kids Code, another organization that provides extra-curricular enrichment programs for Newark students, but also showing them how to use them. The Thirteenth Avenue School has two computer labs, for example. Rather, schools struggle to find teachers who are trained in how to teach computer science.  

“It’s not a digital divide, it is a digital use divide,” Sharif said.

According to a report by Code.org, universities in New Jersey only graduated three new teachers prepared to teach computer science in 2016. Because of the shortage in computer-science instructors, Girls Who Code will use volunteer facilitators, who are not required to have a technical background (and often do not). Their training consists of two, 15-minute videos to introduce the structure of the program.

The facilitators are then encouraged to learn alongside their female students by completing tutorials with them. The clubs in the new Newark Public Schools partnership will also have access to one club specialist, who has a technical background, whom facilitators can reach out to online or by phone for support.

Newark Kids Code is approaching the teacher shortage by working to tap more homegrown talent. “There is a lot of tech activity that is happening downtown, but there’s no connection to our schools at all. It may be a while before [NPS] can fill that gap,” Darrin Sharif said.  

To compensate, Newark Kids Code recruits computer science students from New Jersey Institute of Technology. These NJIT student facilitators then use curriculum from Code.org to teach six-hour workshops to elementary school students every Saturday at the Urban League’s headquarters for ten weeks. Students learn to develop websites, animations, and games with HTML and Scratch.

Stephanie Burdel has been teaching coding at Hawkins Street Elementary School for almost two years and attends “training” at Newark Kids Code on Saturdays, where she assists students, some of whom attend Hawkins and can observe the NJIT student facilitators. Burdel uses the time to learn best practices for teaching coding to her own students.

“I get extra engagement with students and see what problems they come across in the Scratch program,” Burdel said. “I learn what to do when students have problems when they’re coding and speak with the facilitators if I have questions.”

Last week, Burdel’s kindergarten and first-grade students participated in an Hour of Code, a national event designed to encourage interest in coding. She was amazed by how engaged students were. Burdel believes that learning to code in school can help students build character and improve in other subjects.

“I especially love seeing the little ones sitting and talking through the problems together,” she said. “You don’t think they have the capability especially with shorter attention spans. But they sat engaged the whole time and they loved it.”

Ana Quezada is one of Burdel’s students. She is 10 years old and sees herself becoming a programmer so she can understand computers to make them better.

“When I’m not able to figure something out on my own after ten minutes, I look around to see who can help me,” Ana said. “I ask them to explain it so I know how everything works.”

Kei-Sygh Thomas is a Newark-based journalist, who grew up and went to schools in the city.