School Buildings Matter

Image result for baltimore schools cold"

I spent nearly two months, off and on, researching the state of our schools for an article that The 74 published last week. When I dove into stories in local newspapers, I was shocked at what I found.

There were stories about students and teachers suffering in overheated classroom, mold on the walls, administrators begging local taxpayers to pass local bonds, boilers on their last legs. Everyone that I spoke to on the phone used words like “crisis” and “desperate” and “unthinkable.”

Local newspapers were full of these stories. It’s probably one of the biggest concerns of local school districts, along with costs of special education and healthcare costs for teachers. But there has been very little written in the national press on this topic. I think that Warren is the only candidate who addresses this problem with a proposal for additional federal spending on schools.

It’s a tragedy that isn’t getting nearly enough attention by the national press or by politicians. Students are missing school and having their instruction interrupted, because the buildings are already falling down. In another five years, the situation will be worse. And people who know about schools know this.

Why don’t people care? Well, maybe because the teachers unions haven’t taken a strong enough stand on it. They want money to go to the teachers first, which isn’t totally crazy. Maybe it’s because the public thinks that this is an urban-only problem and won’t affect them, which is wrong. A. Suburban schools are falling down, too. And B. Ugh.

But the fact that schools are all falling down at the same time does offer some opportunities. Opportunities to rebuild and create new learning centers that reflect modern educational needs.

One guy told me that schools should look like modern workplaces. If students are going to work in a modern workplace some day, they should be ready for it. What does that mean?

When Steve got his first job at a big named Wall Street firm, I remember stepping out of the elevation with the kids in the stroller to meet him for lunch one day. As someone who had spent most of my life in university classrooms, I was shocked.

His office building which took up nearly one whole block of Manhattan was a big open space. A football field with long desks and computers. Something like this.

Image result for office design modern desk open floor plan"

Modern schools should look like this, at least at the high school level.

Each kid would have their own desk, their permanent space. They then would go into small conference rooms in the interior of the building where they work with teachers and other students in small groups to work collaboratively on projects or to get mini-lectures on Descartes or Napoleon or The Civil War. Rooms would be filled with natural light from full length windows.

The school day wouldn’t be broken up into 8 modules made up of 50-minute classes. Instead, students would have various learning goals that they would have to master at their own pace. Some students could plug through Algebra 2 in six months; others might need two years.

There is a strong movement to ditch the old system of year-long classes and instead work towards mastery of particular topics. Oh, look I wrote about this movement a couple of years ago for Edutopia.

I talked about this concept with my brother-in-law, who is the director a major architecture company. He said that their firm does a lot with higher education, because colleges have all the money, but not with K-12 schools. He said he would hollow out existing buildings and then rebuild the floor plans to look like this.

If rebuilding schools happened simultaneously, using common plans, with well-vetted construction companies, with federal dollars, it could happen. It might even bring costs down, if buildings were constructed using green technology and modern methods of insulation.

Neglected school buildings, and their coming demise, might be an opportunity to rebuild better and more efficiently.

31 thoughts on “School Buildings Matter

  1. I’ve never worked in an open space that big. My first job had a cubicle and when I started at the university I had a cubicle for a year until space opened up. Otherwise, I’ve always had a private office with a door. It’s nice. My current office is bigger than my last one, but the view isn’t as nice.


  2. Not everyone works well in a big open space.

    But beyond that, there is an inherent difficulty with the curriculum model that you’re describing (not that it doesn’t have its very appealing features).

    That model, with its individualized pacing and just-in-time decisions about what to teach next to each student, is hopelessly opaque to outsiders — i.e. parents, taxpayers, colleges trying to evaluate applicants. If these outside stakeholders can’t see and understand what is going on in the school, they will withhold their support and approval of the model. I dearly wish that someone would experiment with this model (i.e. an entire high school or entire school district) because it would solve a lot of problems in some ways, but it would also bring with it other problems that have to be addressed before it could find wide acceptance..

    And finally, many students need to have an educational structure that has a lot of consistency and predictability. They don’t shift gears very easily. Two of my kids are among those. In the trade-off of stability versus flexibility, stability would win hands-down for them. Would that be true for your Ian as well? My kids are not on the autistic spectrum, they’re just kids who get disoriented by too much flux in their environment.


  3. My elementary school, back in the 70s, built a new section of open classrooms. Within a decade, they had changed it to a library, as open classrooms are catastrophically loud.
    An open space with everyone staring at their own screens is not a place in which I would ever put my children. Like, Circle of Hell level of bad.

    Also, “at your own pace” would highly reward all the children with helicopter parents who could keep them on task. It would destroy the education of normal children, who might be tempted to access social media instead. (See all the college professors who want to ban laptops from lectures, and all the studies that show that students learn more when they take notes by hand.)

    I am concerned by all the young adults who are not hitting the standard timeline for “adulting,” which in part I would attribute to the introduction of screens to childhood. Further atomizing the school day to independent screen time does nothing to develop social skills.


    1. Cranberry said, “Also, “at your own pace” would highly reward all the children with helicopter parents who could keep them on task.”


      When I was in high school, I wound up with some self-paced courses (my University of WA correspondence Russian courses and my 2nd and 3rd year French) and while I did make progress, I probably would have made a lot more progress with an appropriate peer group and more of a classroom experience. (The school, in its wisdom, had decided to stick the 2nd year and 3rd year French students into the 1st year classroom, and the first years occupied 95% of my French teacher’s time and attention.) I did get one semester of college credit for my high school Russian, which was nice. But there was a lot of procrastination…As I recall, I spent a lot of my French class doing my Russian homework, and a lot of my library study hall that was supposed to be for Russian work reading thrillers and bodice rippers instead…The time wasn’t 100% wasted, but it was at least 50% wasted.

      My oldest took one year of classroom French and has been doing Duolingo at home since then, with excellent results (she’s got something like a 300 day French streak going and did very well on the National French exam last year), but a) Duolingo is not equally good in all languages and b) the equivalent doesn’t exist in all subject areas.

      It’s really weird that Oregon Trail was first released in 1971 (!), I played it in school 30+ years ago, and educational software is still not (on average) all that interesting or effective. We have not seen 30 years of progress, in my opinion. My big kids did maybe 7-8 chapters of Python on Zybooks at home this summer but a) there were some glitches in the explanations (there was some work they could not do with the information provided) and b) that required lots of adult-provided motivation.

      Another problem I foresee with self-paced work is that loosely supervised kids will get drawn into endless internet rabbit holes in the name of “research.” It’s hard enough for us adults to resist the internet sirens and be productive–teenagers are much less well equipped to resist.


    2. Cranberry said, “I am concerned by all the young adults who are not hitting the standard timeline for “adulting,” which in part I would attribute to the introduction of screens to childhood. Further atomizing the school day to independent screen time does nothing to develop social skills.”



  4. I wonder if school districts would be better off leasing property for schools. Especially for smaller school districts a predictable annual payment to a landlord that is responsible for maintenance is easier to plan for. I’ll admit this is not a fully formed thought, and there would be lots of details to work out. But being in the middle of my company moving from an office that needs a lot of work (that is the landlords problem because our lease is ending and we’re moving) to a new space built out to our specifications, there is a real convenience to it.


  5. And then about school buildings. Yes, there are certainly many school buildings that should be rebuilt. However, there is also a political dance about the process. For example, no voter will agree to rebuild a building that can be fixed. So the local papers will be full of stories of buildings falling down. Sometimes the stories are true, however, often the stories are carefully chosen to make an argument.

    School building construction is regulated by the states. Thus, the reconstruction can be more expensive than it should be, due to state regulations. That means the planning and construction tends to be in the hands of a small number of specialty architectural firms and construction firms. ($$$)

    If you want to geek out on cost data, Massachusetts makes it very transparent: Arlington and Belmont are building high schools that will cost nearly $300 million each. The cost per square foot is over $500. That’s a huge expense.

    Our local school districts tend to have school building committees, staffed by volunteers, mostly parents. It’s interesting that the largest part of the town budget is under the control of amateurs.


    1. Cranberry said, “The cost per square foot is over $500. That’s a huge expense.”

      Yeah, especially if that’s just construction costs, not land purchase.

      I’m not sure about our local TX per-square foot costs, but here are some things I know:

      –Our private school building projects have cost in the low 7-digits (a million or two million) per project. They haven’t built anything from the ground up, but they’ve converted commercial/industrial buildings into school space. I believe that the construction project they are currently raising money for (a major expansion of the elementary building) is going to cost around $2 million/$2.5 million. Our elementary school is the prettiest elementary school I have ever seen. The junior/senior high school is a bit scruffy and cramped (and had a major rat infestation a couple years ago), but I believe there is some talk of a new building.
      –We rented space from a church for a long time.
      –I was looking at a 2010 article on local public schools, and they were planning to build a new elementary school serving around 600 kids for $12 million and a new intermediate school for 900 students for $24 million.


  6. Here in NZ we’ve been converting and/or rebuilding classrooms to the open plan structure for the last 10 years (all new build or renovation using Government money has to be open plan). Classrooms are 2-3 times the size of single cell ones. And co-taught by 2-4 teachers (depending on size of class and age of students). These are ‘well-designed’: breakout rooms, variety of seating environments, acoustic baffling, integrated tech, etc.
    Results are …. mixed.
    For some kids it works well. Kids who are naturally self-starters, are motivated to set and achieve own goals, and tolerate (or work well in) a sensory intense environment (these rooms are ‘busy’), do well. Kids who struggle in any of these areas do rather poorly. Guess which there are more of in the under-12 age groups.
    Teachers need to change their teaching practice radically – embracing co-teaching, and tracking multiple students at multiple stages of educational progress. Some are great; some struggle just as much (if not more so) than the kids.
    And – biggest risk – kids simply fall through the cracks. Unless they’re outstanding in some way (usually bad) it’s highly likely they’ll simply be ignored as they zone out, act up, socialize or play.
    My son had 2 years of this in his last 2 years of elementary. He’s not a self-starter, not self-motivated to succeed, is a bright kid with a couple of learning difficulties, and a bit of a bully target. First year was great – excellent teachers, and a heavily involved helicopter Mum (we had a lot to make up after a year when he actually went backwards in all the educational tests). 2nd year was a disaster. Really bad personality clash with the main teacher (she hated him, and the feeling was reciprocated) – and she didn’t like me either – and refused to give me any info about his progress (or lack of). As far as I could see, he either acted up, or zoned out and ignored her. Not a great educational outcome. This was an educationally poor year for over 80% of the kids (and the remaining 20% would likely have done well whatever the educational environment)
    This year, he’s off to a (boys only) secondary school (our version of your middle and high schools combined). Reversion right back to the ‘old’ style: single cell classrooms; kids move between lessons, working at a desk, single lesson taught for each subject; required homework to show it’s been mastered; weekly feedback to parents on classroom behaviour; and parents have online access to test results. On average, excellent teachers (there’s always one or two who you don’t like or don’t get their teaching style). He has simply excelled. The firm boundaries, clear communication of expected outcomes and personal relationship with each teacher is exactly what he needs.
    A few kids have struggled with the firm boundaries – however these were not kids who were being well-served by the open-plan either. The self-starter kids do well (as they will in just about every educational environment), and the kids who need scaffolding into learning do much better.
    From my perspective, the open plan classrooms are not a success story. They incentivize and reward naturally quiet and industrious kids (mostly girls) – and this is not the group falling behind in our classrooms.


    1. BTW, large chaotic classrooms can also fail quiet girls. My wife started her education in a NYC public school. She was shy, so she sat in the back, she didn’t raise her hand or cause trouble, so the teacher didn’t pay much attention to her, her mother was an immigrant whose education and English literacy weren’t that strong, and her father was a typical 50s father who came home, had a drink, talked briefly to the children, and left the household management to his wife. At some point in second grade, her father noticed that she couldn’t read, transferred her to a private school, and it took several years for her to catch up.


  7. There are two issues here. First, how can enough money be raised for the amount of school construction and repair that is needed nationwide? Second, to the extent that schools are being built new or gut rehabilitated, how should they be designed? I have no thoughts on the first issue. On the second, I join in the skepticism of open plans. My office (a law firm) doesn’t look like that. It would be impossible to concentrate on reading or to have telephone negotiations (my two main activities) in an open space. I think that what students most need to learn is how to read and analyze written texts, and that requires private, head-down (or eyes on the screen) concentration, not an environment with lots of flux and external stimuli.


  8. Most adults hate open floor plans so I don’t know why we would force that on children. Businesses do it because it’s cheaper and because in many modern corporate offices people frequently work from home. In my corporate job, the assumption is that the mobile open floor plan workers will only come into the office three days a week. The open floor plan only works because of that rule and it’s not the kind of a rule that can be transferred to schools.

    This is just a gimmick, a short cut people are hoping will improve outcomes without increasing investment. Doesn’t work! What works is the boring old stuff we’ve always known has worked: improving stability for the family, well-trained and paid teachers, research-backed educational methods. There are no shortcuts.


  9. The high school I was supposed to go to “centennial” was built on an open floor plan. It was universally detested and was eventually carved up into badly ventilated pieces. I think noise was a huge issue. That was in the olden days, but I see the same issue in open spaces with children now. They are remarkably loud. Since I don’t spend time with many groups of children I am always shocked when I do. Most recently, I met in a room with kids in class above me, and they sounded like elephants.


  10. Some local thoughts:

    –Our city (low 6 figure population) has demolished a bunch of old schools and at least several new public schools have been built in the county over the last 10 years, while at the same time, a number of older commercial buildings have been converted for charter or private school use.
    –Slightly over a decade ago, an abandoned early 20th century elementary school was burned down by arsonists. Meanwhile, an early 20th century downtown public high school has been turned into lofts (really, really ugly lofts).
    –There have been a lot of moves, mergers and demolitions. An older middle school and post-war high school are completely gone, replaced by a massive grocery store and a commercial plaza.
    –There have been so many closures and reorganizations that a lot of city neighborhood schools have been lost, but at the same time, there are a lot of newish or renovated school buildings in the county.


    1. Many people are moving to Texas, due to its vibrant economy. The math is different in the areas people are leaving behind. In some cities, it would be rational to consolidate students from several under enrolled schools in one renovated or new school. It is usually less expensive to build new, rather than renovate. There are many reasons this doesn’t happen, including political considerations.

      If you think the city should build a new school in 5 years, and that an old school will be torn down at that point, it makes no sense to replace the school’s HVAC system with a 20 year system. Etc.

      In our area, I believe the most difficult factor is the array of strategies used by school systems to make it difficult for families with children to move to town. We should be building more family housing, across the country, even in “good school districts.”


    2. There’s also the history, in America, of the school being the nucleus of a town. There’s a perception (at least partially true) that closing a town’s schools is the end of the town.


  11. Laura wrote:

    “Each kid would have their own desk, their permanent space.”

    I actually like this idea (something like a graduate student office), but in a 2,000 kid high school, this would be hard to pull off.

    “Rooms would be filled with natural light from full length windows.”

    I love natural light, but sadly, glare is a thing…

    “Neglected school buildings, and their coming demise, might be an opportunity to rebuild better and more efficiently.”

    …and/or make expensive systemic mistakes that persist for decades…

    “The school day wouldn’t be broken up into 8 modules made up of 50-minute classes. Instead, students would have various learning goals that they would have to master at their own pace.”

    I kind of lean in the other direction.

    On the one hand, it is true that there are a number of kids in my senior’s math class who belong elsewhere. On the other hand, my kids have benefited from attending a school with really coherent curriculum. From 7th grade to 12th grade, their literature class is synced up with their history class. They study ancient history + ancient literature, medieval history + medieval literature, renaissance history + renaissance literature and modern history + modern literature. That works really well. From 2nd grade to 12th grade, they spiral through world history three different times, at different levels of depth. That also works really well. They also do physics in 4th grade, chemistry in 5th grade, biology in 6th grade, and then have a chance to run through the sequence again before they graduate (although my oldest has had physics in 10th, 11th and 12th grade). They do the same thing with Latin and Bible.

    One of the biggest problems with US education is that we fly by subjects once and expect them to stick, whereas the best way to get material to stick is to keep digging into it at greater depth.


  12. We’ve been reopening schools, as student populations increase; many were closed as the population was decreasing. One was sold and turned into condos. In retrospect, that was a very bad decision, one that eliminated the possibility of a school in that area, probably forever (because land costs are so high).


    1. bj said,

      “We’ve been reopening schools, as student populations increase; many were closed as the population was decreasing. One was sold and turned into condos. In retrospect, that was a very bad decision, one that eliminated the possibility of a school in that area, probably forever (because land costs are so high).”


      There have been so many closures and reorganizations here that some of the choices made can’t have been ideal, but our downtown high school to loft conversion was probably OK. It was a very early 20th century school and 4 (?) stories tall…right in the middle of an area with very limited residential population and in a larger community with relatively inexpensive land costs.

      It occurs to me that school buildings are and have to be somewhat disposable. That multi-story downtown high school was presumably a show place circa 1915 (I swear, it looks like Downton Abbey…), but it was abandoned by the 1970s.

      Meanwhile, midcentury buildings still have issues with handicapped accessibility (stairs and restrooms), and even newer buildings may not be well suited for the type of classroom technology that is becoming popular today.

      I think we have to expect that school buildings are going to be a work in progress, and that there are always going to be emerging needs that weren’t foreseen by the builders of 10-100 years ago.


  13. I started thinking more about the education system that’s being floated in this post, rather than the physical space in which it operates. I agree with cranberry that students working at individual computers in cubicle is my idea of 7th circle of hell (and, would not be appropriate for my child). I also think plans that involve individuals working at their own pace independently (technological aided or not) have a place. But, if that kind of model is what one was looking for, why not have it happen at home? Why go to school?

    I think there’s a balance between the customization available in a school and what to me is a significant role of school — which is learning with others. And I don’t think we talk enough about when these two goals are actually in tension with one another. I also think an important aspect of school is learning the soft skills, of getting along with others (or at least tolerating them), working with others, being a part of a common society, . . . . But, even ignoring those “soft” skills, if you want to *learn* with others, it means accommodating people who won’t be learning as fast as you (or are learning faster than you).


  14. I’m very tired of the argument that “the education system of today was invented in the industrial age; a new system is needed for the Knowledge Economy!!” For me, it’s often the sign of someone who’s been to Inspiring Conferences. There’s a great deal of money to be made, if an education publisher can secure The National Curriculum Contract. Many hedge funds and private equity firms have invested in computer-delivered education. The selling point is, of course, cutting out the human teachers with canned lessons.

    The workplace may have changed, but children have not. On top of that, where has independent, scheduled, computer-delivered curriculum been shown to be superior? With, like, test scores and such?

    Pragmatically, we are in a time of really scary pension debts. There isn’t room in the budget to increase spending on education. Many cities and towns are already laying off public safety services to service their pension debt.

    As the population gets older, more voters will be living on fixed incomes. There will not be great enthusiasm for increased spending on the schools. I’ve already witnessed senior citizens in our town moving out of town because they can’t afford the property taxes.

    Sorry to be depressing. The traditional, 25 student to teacher model was designed to educate masses of children well. So far, I would opt for that system, over theoretical systems that have not yet been proven.

    It may well be more efficient to have specialty schools for children who are so far off the norm that they are entirely bored or entirely lost in class.


    1. Pensions are certainly much of the problem here. Old people are complaining about taxes going up with no willingness to see that they’re up because a much larger generation left it to a smaller city to pay for the pensions they should have paid but instead punted on.


    2. Cranberry said, “The traditional, 25 student to teacher model was designed to educate masses of children well. So far, I would opt for that system, over theoretical systems that have not yet been proven.”

      But a more a la carte, self-paced version might make sense for a course here or there.


  15. Hey, guys. Lots of good comments here. So many that I think I need a dedicated post to answer them all. I’m just getting to the computer for the first time today. Ian has a two day school holiday and Steve took the day off, so we’re catching up on family chores together.

    Also, my side hustle of selling books is suddenly taking off. I made over $1K this month, so I’m frantically getting stuff to the post office and going to estate sales to buy new stuff. One woman bought 11 things this week, which added up to $622. All for stuff that I got for free, or nearly free.


  16. Laura said, “Also, my side hustle of selling books is suddenly taking off. I made over $1K this month, so I’m frantically getting stuff to the post office and going to estate sales to buy new stuff.”

    Good gravy! That’s excellent!


  17. “The selling point is, of course, cutting out the human teachers with canned lessons.”

    Yes, and that’s where there’s money to be cut and money to be made. If one tech provider can provide canned lessons and cut out the human teacher, they can scoop up a lot of the money of firing many teachers (while sending a “kickback” to the people paying).

    I am very convinced that learning is significantly about human interaction; that we learn using the brain systems we have in place for social interaction. There are exceptions, but they are minor. Say, Uri Triesman — UT math guy can accidentally teach himself modern algebra as a middle schooler by himself. But what works to teach UT Austin students calculus is small [human] groups collaborating on hard problems (from the Paul Tough book, again).


  18. Cool on the side hustle. Do you treat the side hustle money as side hustle spending? That is, do you get to buy a really cool bag or shoes? Or does it just go into the budget?

    I just watched the gift of the magi episode of Little House on the Prairie (Laura sells pony to get her mother a stove; Pa gets Laura a saddle) and it occurred to me that I no longer have that sense of wonder at finally being able to buy something that was saved for. And, that my children don’t know it at all. We could set up artificial constructs (as some money advice folks suggest), but they’ve never really worked well in our family. Everyone thinks of them as fake.


    1. No. I’m stocking up the money in a PayPal account and using it to build the business, like bookcases for the basement and better lighting down there. At some point, if I take it to the next level, I’ll buy special software for keeping track of inventory.


  19. Laura said, “One guy told me that schools should look like modern workplaces. If students are going to work in a modern workplace some day, they should be ready for it.”

    Eh, I don’t know. There are lots of modern workplaces that don’t look like that.

    Also, high school students are not the same as white collar employees. You can fire white collar employees if they don’t get with the program–you’re mostly stuck with high schoolers. High schoolers are in school because they have to be there and they are not being paid for their efforts.

    Also, they’re 14-18, not 22-65. It makes a difference!


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