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How Lack Of Air-Conditioning In U.S. Schools Can Hurt Students

LAUREN GILGER: We know it's getting hotter here in Arizona and in many parts of the world, but the effects of that heat are just starting to be researched. And our next guest's research shows heat is having an effect on racial achievement gaps in this country. R. Jisung Park is an assistant professor of public policy at UCLA. And he told me something like 90 to 95% of households in the U.S. have some kind of air conditioning. But according to his data, only up to 40% of schools in the country have complete AC. Here's more about the effects of that he and his fellow researchers found.

R. JISUNG PARK: So the headline finding is that students who experience a greater number of hot school days — so that's weekdays during the academic year — appear to do worse on subsequent standardized exams. And, you know, in this particular study, we don't have data on school air-conditioning, so we're not able to say for sure that it's because of lack of air-conditioning that students who do experience these negative consequences do so. But a number of other recent studies, we found suggested evidence that that's the case. And the basic punchline is that for one reason or another, it appears that, you know, being exposed to hotter temperature when you're supposed to be learning, you know, maybe you can think of it as a sort of a thousand little cuts that make it just that much harder for students to, to focus and concentrate and, and retain the information that they're supposed to be learning in class.

GILGER: And, and you actually point out that this is more common in schools in northern regions that have more issues with this, as opposed to like here in the Southwest where we are used to this kind of heat, I guess. Why is that?

PARK: Yeah, it's an interesting question. So, so both in this study and in other studies that look at things like the effect of heat on health, for example, say mortality, researchers find a larger negative impact of heat in historically cooler regions. So think places like, you know, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, as opposed to the Arizonas and Floridas of the world. One hypothesis is that they're just not as used to extreme heat up in northern latitudes. So whether it's the built infrastructure in terms of air-conditioning or the way that individuals respond either physiologically or in terms of their activities to heat, that may be different. But it also begs the question of well, if, if there are schools or students in these really hot places — I know Arizona gets really hot, to say the least — that don't have adequate cooling, you know, it may be a much bigger issue for them.

GILGER: Absolutely. Absolutely. Let's talk a little bit about the breakdown here, too, because this is also revealing — and I guess not so surprisingly — that there is a big racial inequity when it comes to working air-conditioning in schools.

PARK: Right.

GILGER: Let's talk a little bit about how that played out, where you saw the biggest disparities and what effects that might be having.

PARK: Yeah. So we don't have individual level data on either air-conditioning or student-specific information on test scores in this particular paper. But when you look at average scores for underrepresented minorities by U.S. school district, we do find that the effect of heat seems to be much larger — that is much more negative in terms of standardized performance — for African Americans and Hispanic students. One can speculate why that is, but it certainly does suggest that, you know, the same heat wave, the same climate appears to have a different impact on, you know, student learning by race and socioeconomic status. I should add that we also find, you know, differences in terms of the impact of, say, the same 90 degree day, depending on the average income in a school district, which we proxy for using the proportion of students who are on subsidized school lunch.

GILGER: So is this essentially tied to school funding then and the models and mechanisms that we use across the country to enable that?

PARK: That's a great question. I wish I had better data on that. That certainly seems to be a possibility, right? I do know that at least in the research that I know, it seems like we've come a long way in terms of closing funding gaps across states and to some extent even acro — within states. But when it comes to school facilities, it seems like for whatever reason, highly local tax bases matter a lot. And so that could be a part of the story here, definitely.

GILGER: And then, as you sort of described it, like a thousand cuts, right? Like, this has a compounding, sort of year-after-year effect. And, and you were able to draw some, some, some conclusions in this, right, about the economic disparities, the long-term kind of issues that might be caused by something as simple as this?

PARK: Yeah. I would hate for your listeners to, to come away, you know, from this research or this interview thinking that, "Oh, my god, climate change is the end of the world" or that "Heat is the, is the end of all learning." That, you know, that's certainly not what we're finding. It's, it's, it's not a huge effect. It's a, it's a subtle effect. I came down with the flu sophomore year of college and I was out for a week. Did that end up affecting my GPA? It's really hard for me to know as an individual case by case, right? But what we're able to do in this and in other studies is that because we're able to line up the data in such a way that makes it as if nature ran a series of somewhat randomized experiments on, on these unwitting students over a long period of time, we can sort of discern — we can, we can tease out the small but cumulative effects. And it does appear to be the case that over time, if you experience more hot days during the school year, and especially if you go to school in an area that doesn't appear to have adequate school facilities, for whatever reason, those small cuts do seem to add up in a way that, that actually ends up being measurable in your standardized achievement. And there are many, many studies, you know, that connect those changes — changes in standardized achievement generally — to other things we care about — you know, whether it's later life income or marital status, what have you. And so we know that to the extent that education is such an important component of economic mobility, you know, one would be concerned about the cumulative nature of these cuts. But it also means that, to the extent, that you can avoid these damages, the gains from doing so are also cumulative in some sense, too, right?

GILGER: All right. That is R. Jisung Park, an assistant professor of public policy at UCLA and associate director of economic research at UCLA's Luskin Center for Innovation. Thank you so much for joining us, Professor Park. We really appreciate the information.

PARK: Oh, thank you for having me on the program.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.