Green school buildings create an environment where students and teachers are more comfortable, less prone to illness and more focused on teaching and learning. The quality of school facilities is often overlooked as a major factor in students’ scholastic performance. However, school buildings are not only the setting for learning—they can also help or hinder the learning process.
Green schools improve health, wellness and academic performance.
The information below provides a brief overview of existing research related to health and the learning environment. A more thorough review can be found either in the Center for Green Schools’ 2012 paper, The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance, or in the 2016 report from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Schools for Health.
- Exposure to toxins: Known toxins have no place in schools, where contact with young children can cause serious consequences. Recently, attention has been drawn to lead and other heavy metal contamination in drinking water, and several states have now adopted laws to require schools to test their drinking water sources. Additionally, many chemicals found in pesticides and cleaning products are not safe for inhalation or skin contact and can be particularly harmful to children. Green schools are those that implement practices to reduce risk for students and teachers, such as using green cleaning, integrated pest management and green purchasing. The Green Classroom Professional Certificate course has more information about these programs in schools.
- Indoor air quality: Students in America miss almost 14 million school days per year because of asthma. Additionally, teachers report the highest percentage of work-related asthma cases in the U.S., compared to other non-industrial occupations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 60,000 schools, or 46 percent of U.S. public schools, have environmental conditions that contribute to poor indoor environmental quality, including allergens from cockroaches, rodents, dust mites and fungi, as well as respiratory irritants from sources of formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen dioxide.
Studies have found relationships between lower ventilation rates and increased missed school days due to respiratory infections, increased incidence of sick building syndrome and increased school nurse visits for respiratory symptoms. Moreover, improving environmental air quality promotes teacher well-being. In a survey of 500 teachers in New York State, more than 10 percent reported negative impacts on their ability to teach effectively due to headaches, drowsiness, eye and throat irritation, congestion and other symptoms caused by dust reservoirs, moisture problems and other irritants.
By improving indoor air quality, green schools can improve the health of students, faculty and staff, potentially decreasing sick days. Beyond the positive impacts of keeping students and teachers in school, indoor air quality also has direct effects on student achievement. In one study, students in schools that were unable to meet a minimum ventilation rate had a greater likelihood of performing poorly on math exams. Researchers found that task speed increased significantly in students ages 10–12 when outdoor air supply rates (more fresh air) were increased.
- Acoustics: Optimizing classroom acoustics so that children can hear is fundamental for learning. Many studies confirm the importance of low background noise level and better speech intelligibility in maintaining appropriate acoustic conditions for student learning. Research shows that the development of memory, attention and other cognitive processes in students occurs slowly and can be sensitive to chronic noise exposure. Since 2014, more than 20 studies have shown a negative relationship between environmental noise exposure and children’s learning outcomes and cognitive performance. A green school provides an environment to lessen distractions and encourages participation by incorporating features such as high-quality acoustical ceiling tiles, lined ductwork and heating and cooling systems with appropriately placed vents designed to lower background noise in the classroom.
- Thermal comfort: Comfortable indoor temperatures enhance productivity and keep students more alert. In a 2016 study examining high-stakes test scores for 75,000 students in New York City, researchers found that for every 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, test scores fell by 0.2 percent. Though seemingly small, the results mean that the likelihood of a student failing an exam is 12.3 percent higher on a 90-degree day than a 75-degree day. Another study found that maintaining adequate ventilation and thermal comfort could raise a test score from average to “commended performance.”
- Daylighting: When deprived of natural light, studies have shown that children’s melatonin cycles are disrupted, likely having an impact on their alertness during school. One 2013 study analyzing data from over 21,000 students found a significant positive relationship between classrooms with daylighting and better test scores and student performance. Daylight also plays a critical role in the behavioral development of young students. A 2014 study that assessed daylight in preschools found a significant relationship between student social behaviors and classroom daylight conditions. This study also found a strong relationship between cognitive skill improvements and classroom daylight conditions. Skylights and large windows allow daylight into green schools, which improves student wellness and academic performance.
- Access to nature: A broad base of research has demonstrated a multitude of benefits in ensuring that young people have access to nature. The Children and Nature Network has compiled a research library to explore this depth of information on connections to behavior, academic, wellness, community and other positive outcomes. Green buildings are those that provide green space and views to the outdoors for those inside. Additionally, green schoolyards, nature-based play and meaningful experiences in nature are foundational to a green school.
Retaining teachers saves money
A 2010 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future estimated that the nation's school districts spent at least $7.2 billion a year on teacher turnover. Increasing teacher retention helps to lower a school district's personnel replacement, recruitment and training costs. In a 2017 study from the American Federation of Teachers, poor building conditions were cited as one reason teachers chose to leave. Better, greener buildings can ease many of the other stressors inherent in the teaching profession. One powerful example of teacher retention comes from Great Seneca Creek Elementary School (LEED Gold) in Germantown, Maryland, which was the first LEED-certified green school in the state. Within two years of opening, the school saw zero teacher turnover.
Green schools provide opportunities for experiential learning
Not to be overlooked is the opportunity for green buildings to serve as teaching tools that provide real-life examples of concepts being learned in the classroom. Teachers at green schools can use their buildings as the basis for project-based, experiential learning. Green schools provide a clear opportunity to connect students with curricula in environmental and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, and they can serve as tools for interactive lessons across all subjects.
For example, math students can track and chart utility cost savings, science students can analyze and compare the difference between eco-friendly and traditional cleaning products, and humanities students can debate the impacts communities have on their environments. Every student can benefit from the opportunity for hands-on learning that demonstrates the interconnectedness of people, the built environment and natural systems.
The Center for Green Schools has gathered over a dozen partners to provide curriculum units that give teachers what they need to bring green school concepts into the classroom. Find all of the collected content on the Learning Lab platform and keep an eye on the ever-growing offerings there.