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Francis Koster: A surprising way to fix schools

First in a four-part series

Locally, the school system of Rowan/Salisbury ranks in the bottom quarter of the school systems in the state that ranks (almost) in the bottom half of the country , in a country that ranks in the bottom half of the world’s richest 35 countries .

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 heart is 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 poor quality air students breathe in class. Fixing this has been shown to raise students’ test scores one and in some cases two letter grades for the entire school — and reduced payroll costs, because teacher absence rates (requiring paying for substitute teachers) goes down.

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 two to five times (and occasionally more than 100 times) worse than the outside air.

In 2011, scientists studied the success rate of 1.6 million K-12 students 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.

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.

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.

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, 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 are tools that can be added to existing older schools to keep dirty air out — and schools that have installed this equipment this have reported significant improvement in student performance.

Know any schools could benefit from that?

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

Kannapolis resident Dr. Francis Koster is a retired pediatric healthcare administrator with a passion for helping children maximize their potential. He has created a not-for-profit organization that loans out to students and others meters that “make the invisible visible” so opportunities to improve performance.

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