New School Facilities Matter for Student Achievement

A paper presented to the annual conference of the American Economic Association in January that examined the largest school construction program ever in the United States found strong evidence that it lead to improvements in test scores, attendance and student effort. It also found that the construction program increased neighbourhood house prices.

To date, the research evidence on the effects of capital expenditure on schools has been mixed with some studies showing no effect on student achievement and others finding some evidence of positive effects. However, many of these prior studies did not estimate the effects of capital expenditure on students directly affected but relied on average outcomes of school districts. School districts in the US consist of at least several schools while new school construction and school renovations only affect a subset of students in a district.

The new study used data on students directly affected to examine the impact of a huge school capital expenditure program in Los Angeles School District that constructed over 150 new schools and renovated hundreds more between 2002 and 2017. It concluded:

Studying the largest school construction program in US history, we provide robust new evidence that school facility investments lead to modest, gradual improvements in student test scores, large immediate improvements in student attendance, and significant improvements in student effort. [p. 40]

The study found modest improvements in English and mathematics test scores for students who spent over four years in new facilities. In addition, students in newly constructed schools increased attendance by an average four additional days per academic year and teachers reported increases in student effort at school.

It also found that new facilities generated indirect improvements for students elsewhere who did

not attend new facilities. There were smaller increases in test scores and attendance by students at existing facilities as a result of reductions in overcrowding.

The findings are consistent with two other studies that examined direct effects on students in new school facilities. A study of the impact of new schools in the Los Angeles School District over 2010 to 2014 published in the Economics of Education Review last year also found positive effects on both English and mathematics scores. An earlier study of new school construction in Connecticut published in the Journal of Public Economics found significant improvements in reading, but not mathematics, and increases in public school enrolments.

The study also examined the mechanisms through which improved results were obtained. It found that the majority of the effects were due to improved facility quality, while reduced overcrowding was also an important factor. There was little evidence that changes in student composition, class size, peer quality, or teacher quality at newly constructed schools explained the improvements.

It found some evidence that student gains were larger for students who switched from schools that operated multi-track calendars throughout the year, for students who switched from more overcrowded schools, and for students who came from schools with a high share of portable classroom buildings.

Trevor Cobbold

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