The Influence of Acoustics on Learning

With a classroom having good acoustical characteristics, learning is easier, deeper, more sustained, and less fatiguing.

—The Acoustical Society of America, in its introduction to Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, Part 1: Permanent Schools

When I first moved to NYC from California, I was taken aback by the unceasing din. In our first apartment, my wife and I were treated to an all-night alleyway party each weekend by our downstairs neighbors. In desperation, we bought a white noise machine, but this proved to be a mostly futile gesture.

Our second apartment was perched above a popular nightspot, which considerately recycled its beer bottles outside our bedroom window at three AM every morning. We got an additional white noise machine and put up layers of cardboard against the windows. But outside of professional acoustical treatment, there’s no hiding the intense, high decibel sound of twenty-five gallons of beer sodden glass bottles slamming repeatedly into their brethren as they are dumped into a bin.

So I well know how noise can impact a person’s well-being. But maybe I’m just overly sensitive. I see people everyday move along unphased as truck horns blast in their face. Humans are a highly adaptive species, after all, and we go on about our business with a cacophony of ambient noise hovering about us like smog.

While many of us may consider noise to be a minor nuisance (except, perhaps, when we are trying to sleep), it can have a profound impact on our health. Studies have shown that constant exposure to noise, such as living near a highway or airport, can lead not only to loss of sleep, but hypertension, higher blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and lower birth weight, just to name a few long-term consequences (Casey, James, & Morello-Frosch, 2017).

There’s a lot more we could say about the impact of sound on health, whether physical or psychological. But most pertinent to our focus are the findings on how harmful noise can be for learning, most especially in the places where learning should be what is held most sacred: our schools.

Given that children are far more vulnerable to noise than adults (Klatte, Lachmann, & Meis, 2010), ensuring that children have a learning environment unthreatened by noise should be a commonsense goal. Yet how frequently have you heard an education reformer discuss acoustical treatment as a school or district improvement initiative? […silence… crickets… beeping horns…]

Never? Exactly. So let’s start talking about it. In this post, we’ll examine the impact of noise on students and on teachers, then consider what we can do about it.

The Impact of Noise on Student Learning

Chronic Noise: What You Hear Is How You Learn

The natural sensitivity that the human ear has to auditory vibration is not a primary design consideration for most schools. Surfaces are hard. Corners are sharp. Floors are tiled. Every squeak of a sneaker, shout of a hormonally charged teen, recurring bell at the end of a period, each slam of a heavy door can be amplified, reverberating throughout the building and, especially during fire drills, deep into the marrow of one’s bones. 

In 1975, a seminal study by Arline Bronzaft and Dennis McCarthy at a school in NYC illuminated the impact of noise on learning. At Public School 98 in uptown Manhattan, the elevated 1 train roared by a mere two hundred feet from the southeast side of the building every few minutes, disrupting learning in nearby classrooms.

One can imagine a teacher hovering exasperated in mid-sentence for the 6th time that period, awaiting the rumbling clatter of the train to recede into the distance, her students’ flighty attention ebbing away just as rapidly.

P.S. 98 in Inwood, Manhattan on an overcast spring day in 2018. You can see the tracks of the 1 train at the far end of the street.

Four year’s worth of data show that students located in classrooms nearest the train had far lower reading scores than those on the quieter side, lagging behind by three months to as much as a year. 

Imagine if your child were placed in a classroom where they might lose an entire year’s worth of reading ability simply due to where the classroom happened to be located in the building.

 To their credit, these results were significant enough to spur the NYC Board of Education and MTA into immediate action (a verb phrase not commonly associated with either entity). The school installed special tiling in the classrooms facing the train, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority insulated the tracks adjacent to the school. In a follow-up study, students across all classrooms were found to have comparable reading levels as a result of these simple interventions (Bronzaft, 1981). This demonstrates that the delay in student reading ability was not due to the quality of the staff nor curriculum, but solely to the location of the classrooms in the building.

Later studies have further revealed the impact of noise and school acoustics. Chronic exposure to noise, such as residing near a highway or airport, impairs a child’s ability to learn. In 1973, researchers measured the reading and auditory processing abilities of children living on different floors of the Bridge Apartments, a quartet of 32 story high rises bestride one of the busiest highways in uptown Manhattan (Cohen, Glass, & Singer). They found that children living on lower floors, in greater proximity to the unrelenting noise of the highway, had lower reading scores compared to those on higher floors. The longer a child lived on a lower floor, the greater the gap.

 This is a vivid visualization of how where a child lives can either expand or inhibit their opportunities to learn—down to the floor they may happen to live on within the very same building. Noise pollution, as with pollution of other sorts, is worse in neighborhoods segregated by race or class (Casey et al., 2017). Schools serving primarily poor, Black, or Latinx communities thus tend to have greater amounts of ambient noise, which most likely means their classrooms will also be noisier—unless those spaces are constructed with materials that absorb external noise, or are belatedly given acoustical treatment (we’ll look more at how to fight noise in a minute).

In a series of studies of schools located near airports in New York, Munich, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK, cognitive tasks requiring memory and language processing, such as learning a word list, were impaired by aircraft noise, as were reading comprehension scores and auditory tests of speech perception (Evan & Maxwell, 1997; Hygge, Evans, & Bullinger, 2000; Stansfeld et al., 2005).

In sum, noise makes it harder for all children to hear, to read, and to remember.

Now is probably a good time to highlight the strong connection between reading comprehension and auditory learning. While our visual system is clearly an important component of reading, comprehension of the written word is founded on the ability to discern the sounds that letters and words are composed of. For children that struggle with reading, especially those classified as dyslexic, their difficulty is closely related to trouble with auditory processing (Hornickel & Kraus, 2013).

All children should learn in environments in which speech can be clearly heard, but it is especially critical for young children, children with hearing impairments, learning challenges, or learners of a new language (Kristiansen et al., 2011).

The Importance of the Intelligibility of Speech

The connection between noise and learning makes a lot of sense when you consider that speech and language are central to most classroom instruction. The more difficult it is to discern individual words, the more cognitive energy a brain must exert to fill in the gaps, drawing from prior knowledge and context (Pichora-Fuller, 2007). This is similar to the challenge a struggling reader faces when they expend more cognitive energy decoding words rather than deciphering meaning. And while you may be able to hold a conversation in the middle of a dance club and understand what your inebriated friend is saying, don’t expect that children can so easily fill in the blanks. Even those adults who are deaf—and are therefore experienced lip readers—do not recognize a large majority of words spoken to them without signing (Altieri, Pisoni, & Townsend, 2011).

A 2000 report, “Classroom Acoustics: A Resource for Creating Environments with Desirable Listening Conditions,” framed the difficulty children face in understanding classroom speech thus:

In many classrooms in the United States, the speech intelligibility rating is 75 percent or less. That means that, in speech intelligibility tests, listeners with normal hearing can understand only 75 percent of the words read from a list. Imagine reading a textbook with every fourth word missing, and being expected to understand the material and be tested on it. Sounds ridiculous? Well, that is exactly the situation facing students every day in schools all across the country. (Seep et al., 2000)

Let me repeat that claim above again in a different way to stress this point: in many classrooms, due to poor acoustics, children may not understand 25% or more of the words their teacher speaks. It’s hard to verify a statistic like that, but there have been some surveys of acoustics across many schools in the world, and what is clear is that the acoustical quality of schools and classrooms can vary quite dramatically (Mealings, 2016).

Given that the majority of learning in most classrooms is based upon speech, you might conclude that acoustics would be one of the primary concerns of classroom design. You may also think that it would be one of the first things a school leader considers when evaluating the learning conditions of their classrooms. The reality is that acoustical design is rarely considered due to cost and complexity, and noise continues to be dismissed as a minor nuisance. Meanwhile, children are sitting in classrooms where they miss a substantial portion of what their teacher says each day, due to no fault nor inattention of their own.

Noise Begets Noise

But it is not only chronic, deafening noise from cars, airplanes, and trains that can impair learning. The background noise within a classroom can also be harmful. In a 2006 study, 158 eight-year-olds were randomly assigned to classrooms with three different noise conditions and administered tests: normal sound levels during testing (no talking), a constant stream of children babbling (around 65 decibels), and classroom babble with intermittent external noise events, like sirens (Dockrell & Shield). One of their findings was that classroom chatter can have a detrimental effect on student performance on both verbal and nonverbal tasks. Which should surprise exactly no one who has ever tried to concentrate while others around them were gabbing.

In a survey of secondary schools in London, researchers measured the unoccupied levels of ambient noise and reverberation in classrooms and compared it against sound levels during lessons across multiple subjects and activities (Shield et al., 2015). They found that sound levels during instruction were related to the acoustical quality of the rooms themselves, and that disruptions to learning, such as students talking or shouting, were correlated to rooms of poorer acoustical quality. Thus, the poorer the acoustical quality of room—as measured before anyone occupies it—the noisier the room is likely to be once kids are in there. And the more likely, as a result, learning will be thrown off track.

This gives us a general principle: when a space is of poor acoustical quality, it is more likely to become noisier once in use. In other words, noise begets noise. And noise tends to lead to less self-regulated behavior. In a bar or a club, maybe that’s a desirable thing. But not in a school.

We can see this everyday in school cafeterias. Cafeterias can be some of the worst acoustical offenders, becoming deafeningly loud, which is hardly surprising given they are chock full of hungry students with pent up energy socializing in giant rectangular spaces rife with reflective surfaces. Rather than a respite after a long morning of thinking and learning, lunch breaks instead become a time of sensory overload due to poor acoustics. If it’s an option, students sensitive to noise seek to escape to the calm, restorative environment of the classroom of their favorite teacher instead.

All teachers dread the class that must be taught after lunch. That’s the period when kids come in buzzing with the latest scuttlebutt. In my first years of teaching in a self-contained 5th grade classroom, I learned that transitioning my students into academic learning too swiftly after lunch would result in no academic learning. It was as if they needed a break from their lunch break. Looking back, I wonder how much the frayed nerves of my students can be attributed to a lunch period spent in a noisy basement with terrible acoustics?

Because noise doesn’t only hinder learning. It also causes fatigue. Earlier, we discussed how when it is harder to hear, our brains must work harder to fill in the blanks. This can not only be taxing, but furthermore cause us to miss subtle cues and thus have distorted perceptions in social situations (Anderson, 2001). When you consider the trouble that adolescents already have with self-image and complex social situations, now consider the fisheye effect of cafeteria noise. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Another overlooked area of poor acoustics are school stairwells. Again, these tend to be filled with hard, reverberant surfaces that echo with the scuffle of sneakers and shouts. Some stairwells, like the one at a Bronx middle school in the picture below, carry sound across multiple floors. As groups of students traverse the stairs, noise magnifies. Students grow louder as they enter the stairwell in an effort to be heard, demonstrating the power of the signal-to-noise ratio in real-time.

Signal-to-noise ratio is the audibility of what you want to hear (such as someone’s voice) against background noise. In order for speech to be intelligible, a positive signal-to-noise ratio must be maintained, which is why we tend to raise our voices when there is more noise around us.

This Bronx middle school stairwell becomes a sea of noise when students use it.

The Impact of Noise on Teachers

Unwittingly, teachers themselves may exacerbate the noise in their classrooms. It is natural to speak more loudly when there is noise around us. Given the prevalence of reverberating sounds in classrooms, compounded by frequent group work and the natural propensity of children to speak loudly and excitedly, teachers invariably end up talking at higher volumes in the battle to make themselves heard. Some teachers operate nearest to a level of hoarse hollering as a matter of normalcy. They may proudly term this their “teacher voice.”

 But speaking constantly at higher volumes has consequences: teachers are more susceptible to voice-related issues. Across two studies, one in Sweden and one in the U.S., teachers were “the commonest ‘at risk’ occupation” and “four times more commonly represented clinically than in the population at large” (Williams, 2003). Another study found that poor acoustics and related voice problems reduced teacher well-being, as well as increased absences due to illness (Kristiansen et al., 2011). Teacher voice problems also may have an impact on the economy: one study estimated a cost of $2.5 billion per year to the U.S. economy due to effects such as absences, clinical visits, and medication (Verdolini & Ramig, 2001), while another study of Colombian teachers estimated the cost as potentially up to 37% of a teacher’s monthly wage (Cantor Cutiva & Burdorf, 2015). Even more importantly, a teacher’s vocal impairment can make it difficult for students to understand what a teacher is saying (Rogerson & Dodd, 2005).

Another way of saying all of this is that while it may be obvious that loud, constant, chronic noise hinders learning, the poor acoustical quality of schools and classrooms can also have a cumulatively detrimental impact, both for teachers and for students.

This doesn’t mean that classrooms and schools should all be expected to be hushed rectories where you can hear a pin drop. A certain degree of ambient sound may even support focus, at least for tasks involving creativity (Mehta, Zhu, & Cheema, 2012). I find that I can sometimes be more focused and productive when writing, for example, when I am somewhere with an ambient buzz of social activity and conversation, like at a cafe.

But it does mean that too much noise, whether chronic or acute, external or internal, will make learning significantly more difficult for the students who can least afford to fall behind.

Add to all of this the unceasing calls over a loudspeaker that can interrupt instruction throughout a school day. Well-organized schools ensure such calls are only made when absolutely necessary. At some schools, however, unscheduled announcements cause needless additional noise and constantly impede classroom learning.

Can we quantify the impact of interruptions from loudspeakers? This should be an area for further research. But having been interrupted in the middle of a lesson countless times myself, I can state pretty confidently such interruptions devalue learning. It’s hard enough as it is to maintain the attention of children without additional distractions.

School Design for Acoustics

What is it about a classroom or school that determines the quality of its acoustics? 

One key factor is reverberation, which refers to the amount of time that it takes a sound within a room to fade. Too much reverberation intensifies and complicates spoken language, making it harder to understand. Imagine giving a speech in an unfurnished apartment with hardwood floors, as an example. Rather than hearing your words directly, listeners would also hear it reflecting off multiple surfaces, muddying your delivery. But some reverberation time (RT) can also be desirable, especially in a larger space, as sound needs to carry to listeners seated furthest from the speaker (ANSI/ASA, 2010). The more that reflective surfaces are covered over, RT is reduced, such as in a room with a carpet or with tapestries or pictures hanging off the walls.

There are recommended guidelines for how much reverberation is acceptable in a classroom environment. RT is generally measured in unoccupied classrooms through the creation of a sharp, sudden sound, such as by clapping two boards together or popping a balloon (there’s videos on the internet demonstrating measurement of different RTs in classrooms before and after acoustical treatments: search for something like ‘classroom reverberation time’). For hearing impaired children, less than 0.3 seconds of RT is recommended, while 0.4 to 0.6 seconds is recommended for general education classrooms (Mealings, 2016). In a 2001 survey by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of U.S. children were estimated to have hearing loss due to noise exposure (Chepesiuk, 2005). It therefore seems to me that we would want all our children, regardless of disability, to learn in classrooms with a RT closer to 0.3.

In surveys of school spaces across different countries, actual reverberation times varied dramatically from 0.2 to 1.9 seconds. To put this in context, a RT of 0.2 – 0.5 seconds is akin to what you would get in a recording studio, while a RT of 1.0 – 1.9 seconds would be akin to the amplified echoes of a concert hall. Reverberation time in large spaces is great for performances. But in a classroom, where both individual and group work is the norm, fluttering echoes make concentration and learning all the more difficult.

Fighting Noise in Schools

Acoustical Treatments

For schools that are already built and suffer from poor acoustics—the majority of our schools—there’s investments that can be made in acoustical treatment targeting floors, ceilings, or walls. As you consider which kind of treatment you or your school may want to invest in, bear in mind that absorptive materials work best when spread throughout a room, not concentrated in any one area (Seep et al., 2000).

Carpets and Floors

Carpets are one of the most direct methods to control sound levels. They also provide an area for class gatherings. However, carpets collect dirt and dust and need to be well-maintained, requiring more intensive upkeep than a laminated floor. And as anyone who has worked in a school knows, carpets don’t get replaced often, and rarely steam cleaned, if ever.

If you can’t get a carpet, reduce noise from the daily clatter of moving chairs and desks. While some teachers cut tennis balls and place them under chair and table legs, you may be inadvertently increasing indoor air pollutants. Instead, get “floor savers” (little felt disks) that adhere to chair and table bottoms. For a classroom with 32 chairs, this would cost around $75 at the time of this writing (packs of 24 for $15).

Ceilings

A better target for absorbing reverberation in classrooms is the ceiling, as absorptive ceilings can be more effective at absorbing sound than carpets (Shield et al., 2010). Some schools may already have some form of suspended acoustic ceiling tile, but those tiles may not be high performing enough to reduce reverberation times to adequate levels.

Swapping existing ceiling tiles with higher-performing ceiling panels can go a long way towards reducing reverberation time. Seep et al. recommend tiles of noise reduction coefficient (NRC) values 0.75 or higher (2000), while another source recommends NRC 0.9 or higher (Betz, 2015).

Not all spaces have suspended ceilings, however, and some ceilings are very high. Another method to absorb sound can be to hang acoustical treatments from the ceiling. These can come in various forms and colors, such as cubes, tetrahedrons, or waveforms, and are referred to by nifty names like baffles, clouds, and canopies. These decorative treatments could be well-suited for school hallways or entryways.

For a less expensive DYI approach, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends “suspending banners, flags, student work, and plants from the ceiling to contribute to the reduction of noise and reverberation” (ASHA, 2015). Your ability to do this will depend on the nature of your ceiling, of course.

Walls

Most classrooms have parallel walls, which means that sound reverberates between them. Even if ceilings are acoustically tiled and floors carpeted, walls can still reflect a lot of sound.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends “placing mobile bulletin boards and bookcases at angles to the walls to decrease reverberation” (ASHA, 2015). Another expert also recommends hanging “portable corkboards” at an angle on the walls (Betz, 2015).

Portable corkboards and mobile bulletin boards can be pricey for an individual teacher to purchase, but the basic idea here is that any furniture, like bookcases, with a large surface area can be angled to help diffuse sound and keep it from reverberating back and forth between the walls.

It’s not clear how absorbent cork in general is for sound, but it seems to be a material that could work well as a DIY panel. Collect enough wine corks, and you can make your own corkboard! I don’t know how well these would work as sound absorbers (more research, please!), but might be worth a shot if you can’t afford professional paneling. Other low cost options may be furniture stuffing or denim.

Classroom furnishings in general can help to dull sound, but for larger spaces like science labs, cafeterias, or auditoriums, strategic placement of acoustical wall panels may be necessary. Acoustical panels are made of a foam or fabric that can absorb and diffuse sound.

Teacher and Student Actions

The simplest and most direct approach is to seat students who have the most trouble hearing the closest to the teacher (Klatte, M., Lachmann, T., & Meis, 2010). Generally speaking, students that have an identified problem with hearing will have this recommendation mandated as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), but it’s a good rule of thumb to bring students who seem to struggle with retention or following directions closer. It may be an auditory or visual issue that can be supported with proximity.

Think also about how much your instruction relies on auditory learning. Supplement and reinforce auditory learning with tasks and texts (edu jargon: plan for multiple modalities). Use visuals and gestures when speaking, and ensure that directions for tasks are provided on a chart visible from the back of the room or as a handout.

Be aware of the signal-to-noise ratio in your room. When the background noise increases, resist the urge to speak louder. Teach your students to recognize sound levels that are most appropriate for different tasks (i.e. whispers during reading time, “4 inch voices” during partner/group talk, across-the-room projection during class discussions).

 As I was drafting this, I facilitated a professional learning session for teachers in a classroom on the historic DeWitt Clinton campus in the Bronx, and because all of this research was fresh on my mind, I was hyper-aware of the terrible acoustics of the room. The ceilings were high and did not have any acoustical tile. All it took was one pair of teachers having a side conversation to raise the overall background noise of the classroom.

 When I found myself raising my voice, I spoke to my participants about the acoustical quality of the room to make us all aware of it, and I noticed that framing my request for one voice at a time in this way was also more effective. It depersonalized the refocusing needed during discussions or work time. Building a similar awareness with students in our classrooms can support collective ownership of sound levels in the learning environment, rather than making it incumbent on the teacher to constantly monitor and shush students.

In fact, why not teach students directly about the importance of the impact of noise in the places they learn and live? The NYC Department of Environmental Protection has free resources to teach students about sound and noise available on its website: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/sound_noise.shtml. There is a guide on sound mapping, and this could be done as part of an interdisciplinary project using tools for sound measurement. Student experiments measuring the sound levels in their own school and community can be an enlightening exercise for both students and the adults. For example, a group of 5th grade students in Alexandria, Virginia, discovered that “the decibel level in the cafeteria could reach an average of 101 decibels, equivalent to the noise in a subway station” (NIDCD, 2016). 

If we want our students to become civically engaged citizens, advocating for their own needs and the needs of others, then the acoustics in their own classrooms would be a wonderful place to start.

Amplification

Amplification systems could be of some benefit to both teachers and students, but if an amplified voice just reverberates around the classroom walls, it may lend itself to the creation of more noise. Amplification systems also tend to amplify only the teacher, not students, and asking students to pass around a microphone to speak is not an ideal workaround for every group discussion (Seep et al., 2000). Designing classroom walls and surfaces to dampen noise may be the wiser investment.

Policy

The best way to solve problems with acoustics is to prevent them beforehand, not correct them after the fact (Seep et al., 2000). And there is evidence that regulations of new school construction can have a positive impact on the acoustical quality of classrooms. In England and Wales, legislation introduced in 2003 required new school buildings to meet specifications for noise, reverberation time, and acoustical treatments. A study in 2015 that measured 185 schools across a range of representative secondary UK schools found that the amount of spaces that met the requirements doubled in those built after the regulations, compared to those built before (Shield et al.).

So regulations matter. Unfortunately, many schools are constructed with cost as the most important factor, and acoustics can be all too easily overlooked, despite their centrality to learning. Regulations that provide clear specifications for acoustical design would help to ensure that built spaces provide an environment where speech can be heard.

 The good news is that the U.S. has a set of rigorous acoustical standards that could guide school design. In 2002, the Acoustical Society of America and American National Standards Institute published the American National Standard Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, which were further revised and updated in 2010 (ANSI/ASA). For classrooms and other school spaces, they provide design specifications to address background noise, reverberation times, and more.

 The bad news is twofold. First, these standards are not compulsory. Since the federal government does not collect and publish information on school construction, it is unclear how many schools built after 2002 comply, and furthermore, how many schools built prior to 2002 may be anywhere close to these standards.

 Second, construction authorities already must adhere to a biblical amount of code, and they are not necessarily receptive to adding more costly and complex ones on top of it.

At the time of this writing, a clearer and narrower technical standard associated with reverberation time was proposed for inclusion in the International Building Code, a well-respected code created by the International Code Council and adopted by many states and municipalities (NRMCA, 2017). For reference, this proposal would establish a scope for technical criteria in Section 808 of the ICC/A117.1 – 2017 Section 1207, “Enhanced Classroom Acoustics” (ICC, 2018). This update will apply for new school construction when and where the code is adopted in 2021. But this highlights a key caveat: a state or municipality still needs to adopt that updated building code in order for it to apply and become enforceable — so we’re still kicking the can down the road.

What can citizens who care about this do? Instead of waiting for the updated International Building Code to be adopted, we can advocate for more rigorous acoustical guidelines to be applied now by our school construction authorities for all new school buildings.

And we’re still only talking about new school building construction. Noise abatement and quality acoustical treatment in older buildings becomes even more costly and complex.

Grant funding for schools is frequently targeted for items of more immediate concerns, like technology or musical instruments. But why not seek to gain capital funding for acoustical treatments for classrooms and cafeterias? The impact could not only be significant, but furthermore sustained over the course of life for the school building, impacting countless students and teachers.

It’s also important to remember from an advocacy perspective that acoustics are an accessibility issue. If a child is hearing impaired, their Individualized Education Program (IEP) should address the acoustical environment—this is especially important the younger the child is. But a child’s IEP is only an avenue for advocacy on a case-by-case basis. Advocacy to a public office of disability and to our public representatives is a broader way to tackle the issue, in conjunction with advocacy for individual students within the school.

In Sum

  • Noise makes it harder for all children to hear, to read, and to remember.
  • Children in many classrooms miss 25% or more of what their teacher says each day due to poor acoustics.
  • When a space is of poor acoustical quality, it is more likely to become noisier once in use.
  • Poor acoustical quality not only impedes student learning, but furthermore creates costly teacher voice problems.
  • Reverberation times in classrooms should ideally be 0.4 seconds or less.

To combat noise in schools, we can:

  • Stick “floor savers” (little felt disks) on the bottoms of chair and table legs
  • Install or replace acoustical ceiling tiles with noise reduction coefficient (NRC) values 0.75 or higher
  • Install acoustical panels in cafeterias and auditoriums
  • Hang stuff from the ceiling, such as:
    • Acoustical baffles, clouds, or canopies
    • Banners, flags, student work, or plants
  • Place furniture and other large surfaces at different angles to the walls and ceiling to help diffuse sound
  • Support students in understanding and taking ownership of sound levels in their living and learning environment
  • Advocate for new school construction to adhere to ANSI or updated International Building Code guidelines for classroom acoustics
  • Seek funding for older school buildings to obtain professional acoustical treatment

Extra Credit: The Ecology of Acoustics

Schools leaders constantly scan the acoustical environment of their building. They can tell when an escalating voice may mean a fight is about to break out, versus when a class performance is about to occur. The subtle yet critical distinction between the emotional valence of kids having fun or experiencing crisis is something that becomes instinctual.

    What about the cumulative types of sounds that kids make over time? What is the positive-to-negative ratio of words used? Can we identify the frequency and patterns of positive or problematic speech? 

Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause has recorded the sounds of natural ecosystems for nearly half a century. From his experience listening intensely, over time, to the sounds associated with specific places, he has developed a hypothesis that the health of an ecosystem can be gauged by the layered diversity of its sounds (Keim, 2014). According to this “niche hypothesis”—which he calls biophony—in a complex, diverse, and well-balanced ecosystem, each animal’s call finds its place within a tapestry of sounds, in the manner that the leaves of a thriving tree stagger themselves three dimensionally to best catch the light.

Conversely, in a damaged ecosystem, animal sounds thin out, devolving into extremes of either noise or silence. Due to the increasing noise of human traffic and industrial activity, animals sensitive to noise may have difficulty finding a niche in which they can be heard, thus reducing their ability to procreate and thrive.

In the ecosystem of a school, one hopes that every child’s voice will find its niche. Yet all too often, there may be more noise than signal.

Can we gauge the health of a school ecosystem through the tapestry of its sounds?

Is there a threshold that could be identified in the trends and types of school sounds, where we could intervene before problems occur? Could issues with school climate be identified more swiftly?

In many cities in the U.S., scanners are programmed to automatically detect gunshots, using a technology called ShotSpotter. Once gunfire has been detected, it is submitted to police dispatchers with a GPS location in order to be investigated (Smith, 2016). Similarly, scanners are now being embedded in natural areas that are in danger of illegal logging or poaching that can alert rangers (Hausheer, 2017).

Maybe one day automated scanners will monitor the sounds within school hallways, stairwells, and cafeterias, supplementing the instinctual sense of school leaders with acoustical data over time.

References

Altieri, N. A., Pisoni, D. B. and Townsend, J. T. (2011) ‘Some normative data on lip-reading skills (L)’, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 130(1), pp. 1–4. doi: 10.1121/1.3593376.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (n.d.). Classroom Acoustics (Practice Portal). Available at:  www.asha.org/Practice-Portal/Professional-Issues/Classroom-Acoustics (Accessed: 30 May 2018).

Anderson, K. (2001) ‘Noisy classrooms: What does the research really say?,’ Journal of Educational Audiology, 9, pp. 21–33.

ANSI/ASA S12.60-2010/Part 1 (2010) American National Standard Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, Part 1: Permanent Schools. Acoustical Society of America, 35 Pinelawn Road, Suite 114E, Melville, NY 11747, USA.

Betz, K. (2015) ‘Struggling To Hear, Learn, And Teach’, Commercial Architecture Magazine, 1 March. Available at: https://www.commercialarchitecturemagazine.com/struggling-to-hear-learn-and-teach/ (Accessed: Accessed: 28 May 2018).

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On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

Just Imagine

“Demarcus Taylor, a seventeen-year-old junior at King, had had enough. He was tall and slender, with broad shoulders, and as he spoke, he shook his hands in exasperation:
I’m not here to put the blame on anybody. I’m here just to reflect. Just imagine being at a school where you sit down, get your education, you get back up, go home, next thing you know you brought bedbugs from school to your home. Now you have an infestation at your house. Just imagine being at a school where your teachers are all sick and tired, and they’re acting like they’re not able to teach because they’re not getting paid for what they do. Just imagine when your teachers say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next year, I don’t know if I can afford my car loan. How can I afford to pay rent, how can I afford to even live with the wage I’m getting?””
—Alexandria Neason, “Held Back” in Harper’s Magazine

EdBuild Report: Can the US overcome the ‘fault lines’ of segregation?

EdBuild has released a damning indictment of economic segregation in the United States. The report and interactive sheds much-needed light upon an illogical system that ensures poor kids are kept segregated by arbitrary district lines and confined to poorly resourced schools.

I urge you to read EdBuild’s full report. There’s a scathing resonance to the sentences that helps to convey how cruelly unjust and unnecessary school district lines are. Here’s one example:

“The fact, too seldom acknowledged, is that district boundaries themselves compound the inequalities that our public schools were intended to conquer. In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”

And:

“Our wealthy are consigning lower-income students to a lesser caste by cordoning off their wealth and hiding behind the notion of ‘local control’.”

Reading this report, I couldn’t help but think of parallels to the current political battle on NYC’s Upper West Side over potential rezoning of a school district. The rezoning would place a well-off segregated school in the same zone as a segregated school that serves the projects just down the street.

Some well-off Upper West Side parents have made statements such as:

“It’ll take thousands, maybe a hundred thousand dollars off the value of my apartment.”

Or:

“We moved here basically for that school, and that school is kind of like our right.”

Is this what a public school has become? A status symbol of the property value of a neighborhood?

Even “progressive” NYC Mayor De Blasio has defended the rights of private property owners to their own segregated public schools:

“. . . families who have made a decision to live in a certain area . . . made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”

Our public schools have become de facto private schools for those with money and means. Such parents can “invest” in the property that allows them to live within the district boundaries of their chosen school. They then can rely upon hale and hardy school district boundaries to keep less fortunate kids out. In this dismal reality of the US education system, instead of a Game of Thrones, it’s the Game of School Zones. This cut throat game determines the fate of our nation, and we play it with our children.

What does a public school really stand for in this country?

Must providing a quality education for some students mean denying a quality education to others?

Does ownership of property entitle you to be relieved of any commitment to the common good?

Success can’t be measured by one or two numbers

“Whenever you make huge decisions about complex situations based on one or two numbers, you’re headed for disaster — especially when those numbers can be gamed.”

—Mark Palko and Andrew Gelman, “How schools that obsess about standardized tests ruin them as measures of success” on Vox

We’ve questioned Success Academy’s “success” on this blog before. These statisticians bring a new lens to that question.

I don’t want to denigrate the good work that Success Academy teachers and students are doing. There are practices and systems well worth replicating and investigating in these schools. But Eva Moskowitz’s political framing and marketing of her schools as the solution to poverty is problematic.