A growing body of research shows a relationship between the physical environment of schools and student achievement.

Share story

The debate over how to improve education usually focuses on changing the textbooks, the learning standards, teacher training and hiring practices, and other big shakeups to the system.

But what if improving schools’ lighting could make a difference?

Or cutting down on outside noise?

Or improving the building’s air circulation and keeping the temperature at a comfortable level?

Most Read Stories

Cyber Sale! Save 90% on digital access.

Or planting some trees?

A growing body of research is showing that a school’s physical environment matters.

Take, for example, a study published this week showing that students attending elementary schools surrounded by lots of grass and trees performed better on some mental tasks over the course of a year than kids at schools with less green space.

Researchers followed about 2,500 students attending 36 primary schools in Barcelona, Spain, for a year. They periodically gave the students, ages 7 to 10, computerized tests measuring attention and working memory (the ability to keep different pieces of information in mind to perform a task).

Students attending schools with more green space — measured by analyzing satellite imagery of vegetation both on school grounds and within about 55 yards of the property — did better on the tests.

While the study doesn’t prove that planting more trees around schools will raise student achievement, it shows a strong association between exposure to green space and improved working memory and attention.

A study last year of third-grade students in Massachusetts also showed a similar relationship between green space around a school and higher scores on state math and reading tests.

The authors of the Barcelona study estimate that 20 to 65 percent of the association may be explained by a reduction in air pollution from traffic. Green space may also provide a noise buffer.

Outside noise, inadequate lighting, poor air quality, and deficient heating all make learning more difficult, according to a paper published last year by University of Washington psychology professor Sapna Cheryan and her colleagues at the UW and the University of California, Berkeley.

While they didn’t downplay the importance of teacher training and curriculum development, they argued that “a plethora of scientific evidence suggests that student learning and achievement is deeply affected by the environment in which this learning occurs.”