Matt wrote about black-market private schools in the third world housed in open-air shacks on the same day that newspapers reported that my local school board in Fayetteville, AR wants to re-build the high school so that we have a “21st Century” facility.
While it is better not to have schools in open-air shacks, I can’t understand why people think we need educational palaces to teach our children. Buildings don’t teach kids. People do.
We should invest much more in ensuring that we attract, retain, and motivate the best people as teachers rather than in “21st Century” facilities (whatever that blather means). The systematic evidence overwhelmingly shows that the quality of school facilities in the United States has no relationship to student achievement, while the quality of teachers is very strongly related. In the Handbook of the Economics of Education, Eric Hanushek reviews all of the research meeting minimal quality standards regarding the relationship between school facilities and student performance. He identifies 91 analyses on the issue in the U.S. and finds that 86% of them show no statistically significant relationship. Of the remaining 14% of analyses that did show significant effects, 9% were positive and 5% were negative.
Research from developing countries told a different story. Of the 34 analyses he identified on the relationship between school facilities and student performance in developing countries 65% showed significantly positive effects, 9% significantly negative, and 26% not statistically significant. Clearly there is some level of building quality below which student achievement suffers. But school buildings in the United States are nowhere near that threshold where the facility makes a significant difference. The kids in the open-air shacks would probably benefit from an environment that screened out noise and dust more effectively, but almost all kids in the U.S. are in buildings that meet the minimum requirements for student learning even if they are not all luxurious.
But I suspect that is the problem in Fayetteville. Just up the highway in Springdale, they recently built a Taj Mahal of a high school, called Har-Ber. The marble-floored interior is pictured above. Here is the giant-columned exterior: (Web site with photos was taken down, but you can still view pictures of the school here: http://www.wddarchitects.com/ )
Har-Ber was built for about $37 million, or about $93 per square foot. People in Fayetteville had been talking about building a new school for more than twice that amount. In our version of keeping up with the Joneses, some folks in town fear that the superior academic reputation of Fayetteville High School could be eclipsed if we don’t top the Har-Ber building.
Yes, Fayetteville High School is half a century old. Yes, its cafeteria and auditorium are too small. But there are smarter and less costly ways of addressing those problems than temporarily housing students elsewhere while we spend tens of millions to build a new one. How about if we just build a new cafeteria and auditorium? The recently completed appraisal of the facility said that it was in “excellent condition,” so why do we have to tear it all down and build a shinier new one?
And how about if we take some of the money that we were willing to spend on a shiny new building and invest it intelligently in recruiting, retaining, and motivating the best teachers?
As a separate matter, someone needs to look into why exactly school buildings cost so much. The average cost for housing construction in the area is $55.10 per square foot compared to $93 at Har-Ber and who knows what at the potential new Fayetteville High School. My guess is that school construction firms have effective lobbies that insert all sorts of gold-plating and burdensome requirements into school building codes. Doing so limits possible bidders who could meet all of those requirements while it drives up the construction profit. And I imagine that most of those requirements have nothing to do with educational necessity or realistic student health and safety.
(edited for typos and pictures currently unavailable from source site but can be viewed here: http://www.wddarchitects.com/)