We are an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.Learn More.

Heat and Learning: The Ultimate School Climate Issue

Air conditioning can be an expensive investment in school infrastructure and is often bypassed for more pressing needs. But a new working paper—Heat and Learning by Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz, Jisung Park, and Jonathan Smith—suggests that it can be worth the cost given the relationship between high temperatures and cognitive skill development.

The primary objective of the authors is to establish a causal relationship between heat and poor academic achievement. Working off of previous findings and the growing literature on the impact of heat on individual outcomes and cognition, the authors used PSAT score data and temperature readings from the NOAA to investigate their claim that air conditioning is a worthwhile investment for schools. The PSAT was a useful metric for this study as the test is given on a single day, centrally graded, and required advanced registration. Using data collected from over 10 million PSAT-takers, the authors found hotter school days in the year prior to the test reduced learning.

Air conditioning provides a hopeful solution to this issue. While, each 1-degree Fahrenheit increase in school year temperatures reduced the amount learned that year by 1 percent, air conditioning was shown to effectively offset the negative repercussions of high temperatures. The effects of heat were particularly damaging for low-income and minority students. For students living in ZIP codes in the lowest quintile of average income, a 1℉ hotter prior school year is three times as damaging to academic achievement as it is for those living in the highest quintile of income. The authors found “the impact of heat on achievement is three times as large for black and Hispanic students as for white students.” Therefore, the authors are hopeful that greater investment in air conditioning infrastructure can help to close the achievement gap.

They conclude that installing air conditioning is a worthwhile investment considering the impact of heat on student performance and the overall loss of instructional gains; even in cooler regions. The study found in cooler areas of the country, where air conditioning is less common, heat can be especially damaging to student achievement. The authors’ estimates suggest the benefits of school air conditioning outweighs the cost. Considering future climate predictions, this is an issue that could likely worsen as temperatures continue to rise.