Posted by: Francis Koster Published: January 11, 2016

Breathing Fresh Air Into The School Grading Debate

Breathing Fresh Air Into The School Grading Debate

Copyright Francis P. Koster Ed.D.

I know how to make sure local school kids score higher on statewide ranking tests - you do it by letting the students breathe clean air.

The quality of indoor air has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the top five most urgent environmental risks to public health.[1] Nearly half of all school buildings have unhealthy levels of indoor air pollution, according to the EPA.[2] Dirty air in schools lowers academic performance. [3]

One Michigan study found that middle schools located in areas with high air pollution had twice the failure rate on statewide standardized tests compared to schools located in areas with low air pollution – even when the wealth of the communities, the number of books in the homes, and all other factors usually associated with high test scores were equal among the school districts.[4] Studies have found that poor ventilation, resulting in increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, caused a 10-20% increase in absenteeism. [5],[6] And breathing polluted air can permanently lower IQ.[7]

Pollution can either be imported from outside the building, or released inside it.  School air pollution can include dust or mold, chemicals found in cleaning products and pesticides, various gases, low oxygen, or a combination of some or all of these factors.

Because of the large number of adults and children packed into smaller spaces, like classrooms, indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times higher than outdoor levels.[8]   Controlling exposure to indoor environmental factors could prevent more than 65% of the asthma cases among elementary school-aged children - the leading cause of school absence and kids’ health costs.[9]

One cause of this situation can be school district’s attempts to control energy costs.  If the system is set to bring in lots of fresh outside air, this fresh air must be warmed or cooled to make the room temperature comfortable – an expensive process.  So, if the school wants to reduce energy costs, maintenance departments set up the system to use less outside air.   Money is saved, but learning is negatively impacted.

There are no federal requirements for routine air quality monitoring in schools.

Some states have requirements that schools be located in pollution free locations.  North Carolina is not one of them - in fact, over the past year or so, Raleigh state officials have quietly removed about half of all public air quality monitors, making it impossible to know if a problem exists![10] Some states require periodic indoor air quality testing to make sure teachers and students are getting enough oxygen.  North Carolina is not one of them.[11]  Some states’ K-12 school systems score in the top 3/4 of the entire country.  North Carolina is not one of them.[12] 

It may be that school air pollution is not the main cause - but under current laws and practices, we will never know.

Cleaning up this mess can be a real help to children and parents while creating an employable workforce.  It can also grow the local economy because having a school system with a high national ranking helps recruit new companies to the area.

Fixing this is actually a very good investment.  According to a study done on California schools in 2013, each dollar invested in increasing ventilation rates saved eight dollars in wasted instructional spending by the local school.[13]   Many other schools report test scores and reputations rising after changes are made. A study of 100 elementary schools in the Southwest found that bringing more fresh air into classrooms helped children score 14 to 15 percent higher on standardized test scores than children in classrooms with lower ventilation rates.[14]

Some school districts (Louisville, Kentucky is one) are installing public air quality measuring devices in individual schools.[15]

Local officials would be well advised to pay attention to this opportunity now.  We are about to enter an era with the arrival of new wearable pollution monitors.   Imagine a dozen or so students or teachers in a so-called “low performing” school discovering that they all have been breathing unhealthy air throughout the school year, and that the state and local officials have not protected them despite the fact that it would have been cheaper in the long run to do so.

To see the sources of facts used in this article, and learn of other successful money and life saving programs that can be implemented locally to create a better future for our country, go to

[1] U.S. EPA. Indoor Air Quality. The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.  Why Indoor Air Quality is Important to Schools.



[4] Paul Mohai et al. Health Aff 2011;30:852-862

[5] , R.J., et al. 2006. A preliminary study on the association between ventilation rates      in classrooms and student performance. Indoor Air 16(6): 465-468.

[6] Associations between classroom CO2 concentrations and student attendance in Washington and Idaho – D.G Shendell, R. Prill et. all,  Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, January 2004

[7] EPA Connector E-Newsletter #52: Achieve Higher Test Scores with Improved IAQ April 5, 2013


[9] American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine as quoted in



[13] Association of classroom ventilation with reduced illness absence: a prospective study in California elementary schools. Mendell MJ, Eliseeva EA, Davies MM, Spears M, Lobscheid A, Fisk WJ, Apte MG.

Indoor Air. 2013 Dec;23(6):515-28. doi: 10.1111/ina.12042. Epub 2013 Apr 22.

[14] Association between substandard classroom ventilation rates and students' academic achievement. Indoor Air. 2011 Apr;21(2):121-31


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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.

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