Why do Green Schools Matter? Part 2

In my “Why do Green Schools Matter? Part 1” post, I focused on anecdotal evidence of the difference a green school in London, Ohio is making. Stories of increased attendance, better staff retention and just an overall sense of improved well-being aren’t unique to London Middle School either- we have heard similar stories from nearly of all our “green” schools. Drawing direct cause and effect linkages, though, between sustainable design features and actual improvement in student performance, health and well-being has been very difficult.

So, today I am going to shift my focus to what real research exists on these topics with the help of a recently published document. Last week, McGraw-Hill Research Foundation and USGBC’s Center for Green Schools released a white paper titled “The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Learning: A Call for Research” (download the white paper here).

This paper aims to identify how school environments can impact a student’s experiences and performance and also looks at what school stakeholders can do improve the amount and quality of available research on school environments. Unfortunately, this white paper contains more questions than answers about how high performance school are impacting the students they aim to educate. There are, however, still important pieces of information that can be gleaned from the white paper, so I am going to attempt to summarize the points that I found most thought-provoking below.

The introduction to the white paper identifies three primary questions that many of us have been asking ourselves about green schools for a while now:

  1. What building features are most likely to have large impacts on facility quality and health?
  2. What are the impacts of high-performance schools above and beyond “adequate” schools?
  3. How do high-performance design features interact with each other (such as daylighting and acoustics)?

In an attempt to identify what current research has shown and what research gaps still exist, the authors of the white paper have organized their paper into sections devoted to how students hear, breathe, see, feel, think and learn, and move. Each section has some key observations:

How Students Hear:

  • Acoustic performance can and does have a direct impact on student learning outcomes
  • Background noise and reverberation time have both been shown to be important aspects of good acoustical design

How Students Breathe:

  • Building systems and materials can have either a positive or negative impact on indoor air quality
  • VOCs have a variety of health impacts including respiratory issues, visual disorders, memory impairment and more
  • Mold is also a prime Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) concern, often contributing to respiratory illness and asthma
  • Current research does not provide an indisputable link between IAQ and student performance but potential linkages have been observed

How Students See:

  • Sight is critical to the learning process since so much learning is visually based. The focus of lighting design used to only be quantity of light provided but focus is now shifting to quality of light provided (better color rendition, natural light, focusing light, etc.)
  • Daylight instead of artificial light is intuitively good for students, but objective data has been hard to prove

How Students Feel:

  • Research indicates that even small changes in temperature and thermal comfort can impact student performance, especially the speed at which students can perform tasks
  • Studies have shown that teachers see having some kind of thermal control in the classroom as an aide to student performance, but correlation has been hard to find

How Students Think and Learn:

  • Academic outcomes are difficult to directly link to the school environment, but several observational studies have aimed to identify linkage
  • Average daily attendance (ADA) rates, test scores and college admissions rates are the most common metrics that are being looked at to demonstrate a link between school environments and student performance

How Students Move:

  • Active Design Principles can be used to design school environments that promote physical activity and overall health
  • “Safe Routes to School” programs in California have shown dramatic increases in the number of students who walk and bike to school and could be implemented elsewhere


Again, it is frustrating that this study has more questions on how a school environment measurably impacts students. However, hopefully the paper will act as a catalyst for those interested in educational environments to seek out or even demand additional research on these very important topics. In fact, the second half of the white paper itself is aimed at identifying ways in which different stakeholder groups such as school staff and leadership, teachers and students, design and construction professionals, researchers, government agencies and other supporting agencies can help advance the research around these issues.

Most of us know intuitively that green schools make a difference. Healthy learning environments support student health, well-being and performance and also attract top notch teachers. We’ve heard the stories. We’ve experienced the difference between being in well-designed spaces with good IAQ and poorly designed, poorly ventilated spaces in our own lives. As with many aspects of the sustainability movement, though, I feel as though we’ve reached the “put up or shut up” point and we need to prove these impacts using quantifiable metrics. So, the million dollar question becomes: what are the metrics of sustainability? I sure hope we figure it out soon.




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