Controlling pollution raises K-12 school rankings

We can fix our schools without messing with teachers

In the area of North Carolina where I live, the four school systems around me all score in the bottom half of all the state’s school systems on standardized tests.[1] Our state ranks 23rd in the nation[2], in a country that ranks in the bottom half of the world’s richest 35 countries[3].


This is true for half of our nation’s schools – including those around you.


These schools are not a grand place to send your kids – or to improve your local workforce and economy.

This can be fixed, using a surprising solution almost no one knows about.


Well intentioned citizens trying to improve our community schools advocate for a long list of “reforms”, including home schooling, religious based education, integrated schools, granting existing public schools greater freedom from regulation, and creating public and private charter schools.


Their hearts are in the right place – but the range of solutions that they consider is often too narrow.


One of the main things that lowers student performance has been shown to be the poor quality air students breathe in class. Fixing air quality has been shown to raise students test scores one and in some cases two letter grades for the entire school[4]. Clean air also reduced payroll costs because teacher absence rates (requiring paying for substitute teachers) goes down.


Only half a dozen states require schools to be routinely inspected for air or water pollution. There are no federal or North Carolina state regulations requiring that schools be routinely tested for issues with air or water quality.


There are two contributors to poor quality air in schools – outside air around the school, and the air inside the school that is often 2-5 times (and occasionally more than 100 times) worse than the outside air[4].


In 2011, scientists studied the success rate of 1.6 million K-12 students in in the State of Michigan. They looked at student success rates in 3,660 schools located across the entire state – some in areas with clean air, and some with dirty air. Because of the common belief that poor grades were often the result of bad parenting and/or poor neighborhoods, they paid particular attention to how wealthy students performed in schools with dirty air, and how poor students performed in areas with pure air.


They found that when the air outside the school is polluted, students failed standardized tests twice as often. Said another way, if a school was located in areas of clean air, their pass rate was twice as high. This was true for poor students and rich students, rural and urban students, and all in between.[5]


In El Paso Texas, students who were exposed to air pollution had lower grade point averages than students of the same social class who attend schools surrounded by cleaner air.[6]


In Israel, a multi-year study of 400,000 students taking the qualifying examination for college showed outside air pollution around the schools had a significant impact on national standardized test scores.[7]


The air pollution in China is awful, and getting worse because of the construction of many coal fired electrical generating plants.   In a just published study[8], international researchers from both the United States and China tested more than 25,000 Chinese citizens using standardized tests. They found that long-term exposure to air pollution causes significant decline in mental functioning. The study has not been in place long enough to document the total impact of polluted air on children as they age, but even in the study’s early stages it is clear this pollution is causing large and long term harm to young children.


China is growing dumber due to outside air pollution.


And so are parts of the United States – with a greater impact on students attending older schools near busy highways in urban areas.


On a hopeful note, there is equipment that can be added to existing older schools to keep dirty air out – and schools that have installed this equipment have reported significant improvement in student performance.


Know any schools could benefit from that?


Next week:  How students do better when inside air quality is improved.






[5]Paul Mohai et al. HEALTH AFFAIRS 2011;30:852-862Paul Mohai et al. HEALTH AFFAIRS 2011;30:852-862

[6] Clark-Reyna, S., Grineski, S.E., Collins, T.W. (2015). Residential exposure to air toxics is linked to lower grade point averages among school children in El Paso, Texas, USA.


[8] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, Robert M. Hauser, Center for Demography of Health and Aging, Madison, WI.