By. Erin Green, Educational Consultant, Performance Services, Wisconsin


Educators today are broadly familiar with past studies addressing the connection between indoor environmental quality in their schools and student achievement. The factors that contribute to student success are varied and complex, so it’s admittedly difficult to measure the impact of any one variable. Fortunately, recent and planned research regarding the built environment is now exploring larger questions and seeking more definitive answers about how these varied environmental factors—together and independently—influence student performance.


I currently have the privilege of serving on the board of directors for the Green Schools National Network (GSNN). Our vision at GSNN is that every student will have an opportunity to learn and grow in a green and sustainable school. I became interested in this field while leading my former district, Greendale Schools, to a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Award and two Environmental Protection Agency awards. I saw firsthand how providing a healthy indoor learning environment, as well as outdoor “place-based” areas such as school gardens and forests, can enhance student attention and learning. I witnessed how integrating sustainability topics into the curriculum can increase student curiosity and engagement. For example, our newly implemented school gardens were utilized by art classes, English classes, science classes, special education students, the lunch program, summer school gardening classes, and student clubs.


One of the sessions I attended at the 2016 Green Schools Conference and Expo was conducted by representatives from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They are actively researching the connection among a variety of factors that impact student health and cognitive performance with one factor being the impact of the built environment, including: thermal comfort, indoor air quality (IAQ), lighting, acoustics, and internal design elements. The Harvard session, presented by Erika Eitland, a Harvard doctoral student and researcher, revisited a 2012 research report on this topic. Erika shared with session participants the McGraw Hill Research Foundation report authored by the University of California, Berkeley with the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council and McGraw Hill Construction. This report, The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance, does a superb job of defining and segmenting the varied aspects that impact student performance.


Various metrics were studied such as respiratory illness, school attendance, sick leave, pro-social or aggressive behavior, blood pressure, heart rate, headache, hearing tests, vocal symptoms, fatigue, physical activity, focus, alertness, error rate, speed and accuracy, concentration, reading speed, boredom, reading comprehension, coping with ADD, test scores, and writing and reading tests. These metrics were then studied in relation to thermal comfort, IAQ, lighting, noise, and internal design elements.


The Harvard team—building on this report—has offered an understandable framework to illustrate the interrelationship of the contributing factors of a successful student. Harvard researchers intend to examine each factor independently, including the impact of the built environment, and ask key research questions.



In 2016, the researchers asked three important questions that directly impact the learning environment in school construction projects:

  1. When prioritization is necessary, which building components can be expected to have larger impacts on student health?
  2. What are the impacts of high-performance school buildings, above and beyond an adequate (and potentially new) school building?
  3. How do high-performance design features interact with each other? Relationships such as those between daylighting and acoustical design are understood less in terms of how they interact than in isolation.


The variety of research conducted in recent years has discovered the following:

  • An increase of 50-370% of respiratory illness in spaces with low ventilation rates (Lawrence Berkeley Labs, 2016).
  • Faster and more accurate responses to a cognitive function test at high ventilation rates (Bako-Biro, 2012).
  • Schools with balanced mechanical ventilation had lower CO2 concentrations and significantly higher test scores than schools with only natural ventilation (Toftum et al, 2015).
  • Students exposed to the noisiest HVAC systems underperformed on achievement tests relative to those with quiet systems (Jaramillo 2013).
  • Access to daylighting or proper lighting levels had a positive influence on educational outcomes (Thombs, RP 2015).


The Harvard researchers will explore this topic, including recent case studies, and will soon publish a report of their findings. As educators, we would do well to pay attention to this evolving research. Getting new findings into the hands of school administrators and school boards should be a priority. After all, what school board or superintendent is not looking for every opportunity and advantage to close achievement gaps?


About the Author

Erin Green, Sr. Education Consultant

Erin is a past president of ASBO International and the Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association. She joined Performance Services in June 2015, bringing with her 35 years of school business management experience. Erin currently serves as Treasurer for the Green Schools National Network and as an educational consultant for Performance Services Inc.

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