by Roy Johnson, MA  • IDRA Newsletter • March 1997

Roy L. Johnson, M.A.In our nation’s schools today, teachers and students find themselves daily in environments that adversely affect their morale and their performance. Poor and minority students in particular find themselves in school facilities that are in desperate need of repair, yet they are expected to achieve high and challenging standards.

The American Association of School Administrators recently found that 74 percent of U.S. school facilities should be “replaced or repaired immediately” and another 12 percent are “inadequate places of learning” (Hansen, 1992). Far too often, even within school districts, poor and minority students from “the other side of the tracks,” rural areas and inner-city urban areas find themselves in less desirable school facilities than their counterparts. All students need access to quality facilities that are conducive to learning and optimize opportunities for student success.

Researcher Edmonds and others have cited a number of broadly accepted characteristics of effective schools (1979). Edmonds cites six major characteristics that lead to academic success for poor and minority students. In fact, these characteristics are widely accepted as prerequisites for academic success for any student group. These effective school characteristics include the following:

  • strong administrative leadership;
  • a climate of expectation (among teachers and administrators) that all children can and will succeed;
  • orderly school atmosphere (climate);
  • primary emphasis on student acquisition of basic skills;
  • school energy and resources focused on basic skills; and
  • frequent monitoring and feedback on pupil progress.

Researchers Purkey and Smith further suggest that school climate means the maintenance of an “orderly, safe environment conducive to teaching and learning” (1983). An orderly, safe and disciplined environment is imperative to maximize teaching and learning, and reflects the seriousness and purpose with which the school approaches the task of educating children and youth.

Students’ perceptions of their physical environment provide a gauge to measure what the students perceive about the quality of the education provided to them. It has been nearly 43 years since the “separate but equal” doctrine was ruled unconstitutional in 1954 by the US Supreme Court in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. Prior to this landmark case, some people felt that minority students should be provided “separate but equal school facilities,” but few would agree that these facilities were truly equal. Despite the prevalent view that facilities should be separate but equal, minority and poor students often attended schools with facilities in need of major repair, or they attended school facilities of lesser quality than their White or wealthier counterparts, particularly in southern states and rural areas within states.

School desegregation efforts in the mid 1950s through the 1970s focused on the physical desegregation of minority and majority students (Scott, 1995). The quality education components of most school desegregation plans focus on providing additional education services and improved conditions for minority students. Desegregation is defined here in the simplest sense as the assignment of students to schools and within schools without regard to race, sex and national origin.

Physical access to school facilities is mandated by a number of federal statutes and court rulings. For example, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of handicapping conditions. It requires that:

No qualified handicapped person shall, on the basis of handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity which receives or benefits from federal financial assistance…

Court rulings about school desegregation also apply. In Green County vs. School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, the US Supreme Court stated that a given district is “clearly charged with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch.” This decision is important for another reason beyond the fact that school boards must actively work toward desegregation. The court stated that, when reviewing the facts, “the racial identification of the system’s schools was complete, extending not just to the composition of student bodies…, but to every facet of school operation – faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities.” These factors, including racial composition of the student body in schools have come to be known as the Green Factors. Since 1968, these six factors have been used by the federal courts as a basis for determining the degree to which equal educational opportunity and “unitariness” exists in a district under review by the court (IDRA, 1996).

Below are some recommendations regarding the evaluation of student access to quality facilities.

  • State and federal mandates for educational programs and environmental safety must include provisions for financial assistance to local school systems.
  • Local school systems must conduct detailed evaluations of school facilities and develop long-range facility improvement and replacement plans. [The establishment of a facility planning and management office (or officer) would facilitate the conduct of the facility needs assessment and the development of the improvement plans.]
  • State education agencies must provide assistance to local school systems in the collection of data on facilities and in the development of facility improvement plans.
  • Local school systems must do a better job of communicating the need to improve school facilities to parents and the community in bond elections.
  • Local school systems must ensure that minority and poor students have equal access to quality school facilities that are conducive to learning.

Condition of School Facilities

According to a US General Accounting Office survey, about 60 percent of the nation’s 80,000 elementary and secondary schools are at some level of disrepair. The GAO estimates that $122 billion is needed to repair or upgrade the country’s school facilities to good overall condition (Robledo Montecel, 1996).

Since many school systems elected to postpone repairs or delay the construction of new facilities during periods of financial hardship, the condition of school facilities is deteriorating rapidly.

Local school systems are generally responsible for building and maintaining school facilities. Some school systems have found it increasingly difficult to pass bond elections to fund repairs and new construction. They are currently seeking innovative and grassroots strategies to make the issue of bond elections more plausible to the people in their communities. The consequences of deferring maintenance and construction include premature building deterioration, indoor air problems, increased repair and maintenance costs, and reduced operating efficiency of equipment (Frazier, 1993).

Dr. María Robledo Montecel, executive director of IDRA, testified recently before the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, stating:

Let us not be lulled into an argument of merely bricks and mortar. We are talking about the molding of the future of massive populations of children who are ready to learn, but because of bureaucracy and politics, the schools are not ready for them (1996).

Physical Environment and Student Learning

People are influenced and affected by their environment. Linda Frazier aptly states:

In many American schools, students and teachers find themselves in a physical environment that adversely affects their morale, and in some cases, their health. Although hard evidence is scanty, a few studies also indicate that when a school building is in despair, students’ achievement suffers (1993).

Many poor and minority students cope daily with school facilities with peeling paint, crumbling plaster, overflowing or malfunctioning toilets, poor lighting, poor ventilation, and malfunctioning or non-existent cooling and heating systems. These conditions affect the health and morale of both the students and their teachers.

Though few studies exist that establish a clear and direct relationship between student achievement and the quality of school facilities, common sense tells us that students in newer and better maintained school facilities are apt to have access to the necessary equipment, teaching staff and environment conducive to learning. One study in the Washington, D.C., school system tested the hypothesis that there is a correlation between student achievement and the condition of the school building. In this study after controlling for other variables, Edwards found that students’ standardized achievement scores rose by an average of 5.45 percentage points as the ratings of school conditions improved from poor to fair (1991). When the school conditions improved from poor to excellent, the average standardized achievement scores increased by 10.9 percentage points.

In another study, the Saginaw public schools initiated a five-year project in 31 of its schools. Using a school improvement survey, school staff at each school building were surveyed, and the results were used to identify and solve problems that affected school learning (Claus and Girrbach, 1985). Reading and mathematics achievement improved as schools attained higher percentages of their school improvement goals.

The issue of deteriorating school facilities must not be delayed any further. More delays will only result in increased costs and limited student achievement. The interrelated concepts of adequacy and equity must also be addressed. Adequacy deals with the sufficiency of the school facilities to carry out the expectations of quality education as it pertains to teaching and learning. Equity refers to the access of students and teachers to quality school facilities that are conducive to teaching and learning. The bottom line is whether or not poor and minority students have comparable school facilities that are capable of providing a modern, quality education.


Claus, Richard N., and Charmaine J. Girrbach. “An Assessment of the Saginaw Successful Schools Project: A Look at the Data.” Paper presented at the Joint Meeting of the Evaluation Research Society and the Evaluation Network. (Toronto, Canada, October 17-19, 1985).

Edmonds, R. “Effective Schools for the Urban Poor.” Educational Leadership (1979), pgs. 37, 57-62.

Edwards, Maureen M. “Building Conditions, Parental Involvement, and Student Achievement in the DC Public School System.” Masters Thesis. (Georgetown University, May 1991).

Frazier, Linda M. “Deteriorating School Facilities and Student Learning,” ERIC Digest (1993), Number 82.

Hansen, Shirley. Schoolhouse in the Red: A Guidebook for Cutting Our Losses: Powerful Recommendations for Improving America’s School facilities. (Arlington, Va.: American Association of School Administrators, June 1992).

Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA). Analysis of Educational Equity in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November 21, 1996).

Purkey, S.C. and Smith, M.S. “Effective Schools: A Review,” Elementary School Journal (1983), pgs. 83, 52-78.

Robledo Montecel, M. “School Finance Inequities Mean Schools Are Not Ready to Teach,” IDRA Newsletter. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1996).

Scott, B. “The Fourth Generation of Desegregation and Civil Rights,” IDRA Newsletter. (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 1995).

Roy Johnson is a senior research associate in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]