ITHACA, N.Y., July 21 (UPI) -- New research helps explain why, all things being equal, students attending well maintained schools score better on standardized tests than students at run-down schools.
As many parents surely warn their kids as they select their outfit for the first day of school, appearances matter. Lorraine Maxwell, an environmental psychologist at Cornell University, suggests decrepit schools send students a message of indifference.
A shoddy learning environment -- out-of-order bathrooms, dirty cafeterias, peeling paint and plaster, broken ceiling tiles -- causes students to feel negatively about the school and their teachers' norms and expectations. As a result, absenteeism rises and test scores suffer.
"School buildings that are in good condition and attractive may signal to students that someone cares and there's a positive social climate, which in turn may encourage better attendance," Maxwell, an associate professor of design and environmental analysis, said in a news release. "Students cannot learn if they do not come to school."
Maxwell's latest research -- published last month in the Journal of Environmental Psychology -- relied on two surveys concerning New York City middle schools. One survey featured assessments of the physical environments of 236 schools, conducted by architects and engineers. The assessments were paired with measurements of academic performance. A second survey featured responses from parents, teachers and students regarding each school's social climate.
When Maxwell analyzed the data from the two surveys, she found 70 percent of poor academic performance could be explained by negative perceptions as a result of a shoddy physical environment. In her analysis, Maxwell controlled for socioeconomic status and ethnic background, factors that can be associated with academic achievement.
"Those other factors are contributing to poor academic performance, but building condition is significantly contributing also," Maxwell said. "It's worth it for society to make sure that school buildings are up to par."
Maxwell says the science is clear, a building's appearance matters. An attractive, well-maintained building suggests society values what happens inside. The opposite is true of a building that is falling apart.
"Those students are already potentially facing more of an uphill battle, and sending more positive messages about how the larger society values them is critical," Maxwell said.