Do New Schools Improve Educational Outcomes?

This graph shows the low correlation between the age of the school and English SOL pass rate of the students.

City of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney celebrated yesterday the planned construction of new school buildings to replace three of the city’s oldest, most decrepit facilities, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. With money raised from a hike in the meals tax, leveraged to issue $150 million in bonds, the city will build new structures for George Mason Elementary (96 years old), E.S.H. Greene Elementary (63 years old), and Elkhardt Middle School (77 years old).

There is understandable revulsion at the disgraceful physical condition of the city’s older schools, some of which have rat droppings, leaking roofs, broken sinks and toilets, and malfunctioning heating/cooling systems. Over and above conducting emergency repairs to bathrooms, the city has committed to a $225 million, 44-school modernization program over the next three decades.

An assumption underlying the plan is that there is a strong relationship between the physical condition of a school and the quality of educational outcomes.

One can readily agree that every school should meet certain minimum standards — no leaks, no rats, no broken toilets, functional heating systems — no matter what. But will the construction of new schools — as opposed to remedying the obvious deficiencies — do anything to help Richmond students do better at reading, writing, math, and science? I have seen no indication that anyone is asking that question.

I made a stab at finding an answer by correlating the age of Richmond city schools with average English Standards of Learning pass rates. The data is incomplete and imperfect — the best I could cobble together in a couple of hours of blogging — and should be seen as no more than an illustration of the kind of analysis that could be done.

I took the age of the schools from a 2004 School Efficiency Review. Several new schools have been built since then, and I haven’t found an online source identifying which ones, so that data would have to be updated. The SOL scores come from the Virginia Department of Education’s Build-a-Table database. I also threw out a handful of schools with only partial SOL data. The result is the scattergraph above,which shows a very low correlation between the age of the school and SOL scores.

Of particular interest are the four yellow dots at the bottom of the graph. They are relatively new schools, only 19 years old. Hence, we can assume they are in good condition compared to the older schools. The average English SOL pass rate for the school district as a whole was 58.9%. The pass rates for the four newer schools were:

Blackwell Elementary — 44.4%
Miles Jones Elementary — 58.7%
Linwood Holton Elementary — 74.8%
Lucille M. Brown Middle — 62.0%

Average pass rate for all four: about 60%. That’s barely better than the school district as a whole.

To repeat, these results can be regarded only as illustrative of the kind of analysis that is possible. To draw hard conclusions, the average-school-age data would have to be updated.

But let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that current data would show similar results. If pumping money into brand, spanking new physical facilities yields little in the way of improved outcomes, we need to ask what else could be done with the money. What is the alternate opportunity cost? Could the city pay teachers more? Could it reward good teachers? Could it reduce average class sizes? Could it hire more special ed staff? 

A 2015 Facilities Task Force reported to the Richmond School Board that a community survey found that 46% of those who responded said that school facilities impacted the learning environment “unfavorably” or “very unfavorably.” That was as close as the task force got to probing the relationship between school facilities and educational outcomes. The survey may have captured prevailing popular sentiment based in part upon negative news stories about Richmond city schools, but it offered no hard data. From an analytical perspective, it was worthless.

In a recent review of the academic literature, C. Kirabo Jackson found the following:

 As a whole, studies on the impact of capital spending in different states is mixed. Of the 7 studies identified, four are positive and three are null impacts. The fact that none were negative suggests that the average impact of capital spending is positive but that there may be considerable heterogeneity in that impact (and it may be zero in many cases).

While new school construction might contribute marginally to educational outcomes, Jackson did not address alternative uses of the money.

If the City of Richmond is going to raise taxes in order to build new schools, it’s got to provide a better justification than what we’ve seen so far. The same can be said of virtually every other Virginia school district, and of Governor Ralph Northam’s budget proposal to boost teacher salaries 5% in the next biennium. What impact will these investments have on educational outcomes compared to other potential investments? We don’t know. We’re just throwing money around on hunches and guesses.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


23 responses to “Do New Schools Improve Educational Outcomes?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    so the Broken Windows theory does not apply to schools?


  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Is there a likely outcome difference between a new school and a 20-year-old building which has been properly maintained? Probably not. But a decrepit hulk of a building with cruddy bathrooms and poor lighting and falling ceilings is bound to send a message to students that the community doesn’t value education, so why should they. To have a decent stock of buildings, a reasonable replacement schedule is logical. Do you complain about new schools out in the Rich West End? Hmmmm? I’m the city taxpayer here and I’m happy to see this.

    If I had more energy I’d take you on over teacher salaries, but I’m sure you gave back every raise you were given during your actual working years, right? Always thought your old salary was adequate (or did you also come to those lunches and bitch sessions up at Asey’s Confectionery a few blocks from the paper back in the day….)

    1. “A decrepit hulk of a building with cruddy bathrooms and poor lighting and falling ceilings.”

      I made it pretty clear in the post that such buildings should be replaced. Certain conditions should be be tolerated.

      The real choice is building new schools vs. renovation old schools vs. patching and repairing old schools sufficient to bring them up to basic health standards.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Just FYI – it would cost more to renovate most older schools, plumbing, electricity, HVAC, insulation, etc than build a new one and that does not even include the operational costs for heating and electricity which are a major annual cost for older schools.

    Trying to measure educational outcomes based on the physical bricks and mortar in my view, is another example of taking available metric data and misusing it inappropriately to prove some belief or premise because you can show a correlation…. and do a scatter chart…

    I agree with Steve.. sending kids to crumbling schools with bad plumbing and heat and rat droppings, etc.. we’re okay with that as long as we can’t prove better outcomes from a new school?

    what the…. ??????? come on Jim… geeze…guy

    You need expand your reading by the way to the concept of Community Schools which are upgraded schools in low income neighborhoods to make the schools a place where kids – and parents WANT TO GO to be… more than just daytime school.

    look it up.

    1. Larry, just curious, can you read? Here’s what I wrote in the post:

      “One can readily agree that every school should meet certain minimum standards — no leaks, no rats, no broken toilets, functional heating systems — no matter what. “

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        that’s basically lip service that in my view evades the essential issue.

        crumbling schools are NOT fixed this way… once they reach a certain point, it simply is not cost-effective to try to rehabilitate them.

        we have an old high school in Spotsylvania that the supervisors wanted to bring up to current code – and they were told – there was no way to do that without gutting the building and re-building it…

  4. OK, here’s another way to express the point I tried to make in the post: What is the Educational Return on Investment (EROI) for building new schools compared to the EROI on alternative ways to spend the same money?

    All I get from Larry is to always spend more money on everything with no acknowledgment that schools have finite resources.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      well.. you have to differentiate between recurring operational expenses and one-time capital expenses.

      I’m NOT in favor of just spending more money – but penny-wise and pound-foolish is a real thing also.

      but basically, your premise is – is it cheaper to not spend money on infrastructure and instead spend it on staff which is not a real choice – it’s like telling VDOT to continue to fix an old bridge rather than replace it so they can have more money for other projects.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Richmond looks like the model of school construction and remodeling efficiency compared to the DC of Columbia –

    “When the Duke Ellington School of the Arts reopens it … From head to toe will be the showstopper in the decade-long drive to modernize the D.C. Public Schools. But Ellington will also reopen more than a year behind schedule and about $100 million over the $71 million budget … making it the biggest budget-buster in the modernization effort for all 115 DCPS schools. And the spending at Ellington isn’t finished.

    Last month ,frustrated council members considered a late request for $4.5 million to have the school ready for its 575 students when classes start Aug. 21. Among the extra costs were $1.5 million in permit fees still unpaid and $250,000 to bleach terrazzo flooring.

    The council members huffed and puffed their annoyance with the unexpected charges.

    “Exhibit A in how not to control cost,” said Elissa Silverman (I-At Large).

    It shows me bad planning, again . . . and lackluster oversight,” said David Grosso (I-At Large).

    “We shouldn’t be in the business of building palaces, anyway,” said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

    “Ellington is the example of madness,” said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).

    “How we got to this stage is beyond me,” said former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).

    All but Silverman voted to approve the request.

    Rising costs are hardly unique to Ellington. Across the city, school renovations have come in late and well over original budgets. In 2006, the council approved an additional $100 million annually in capital funding for rebuilding schools. But that number has ballooned. So far, $3.35 billion has been spent, financed in part through city borrowing, with another $1.3 billion included in the capital improvements plan ….”

    This fine Washington Post article goes on and on. See:–100-million-over-budget/2017/08/16/

    In 2013, students nationwide took NAEP reading and math tests. When the NCES listed the scores of public-school eighth graders in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, D.C. came in last in both subjects. Only 17 percent of D.C. 8th graders rated “proficient” or better in reading.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    Beyond a reasonable minimum I don’t see the facilities making a difference in outcomes. Northern Virginia has a mix of older schools in need of more maintenance and newer prettier schools. Academically, some of the schools are pretty damn good, some are pretty damn bad. I see no correlation between newness and academic capabilities.

    Again … beyond a reasonable minimum. Schools that are falling apart are a whole different question.

    The real question ought to be what constitutes a reasonable minimum condition and whether spending beyond that level provides any benefit at all.

    The socialists in Arlington can build all the gold plated public high schools they want and they’ll still be ranked below Langley High School (built in 1965) and McLean High School (opened in 1955).

  7. Check the teaching staff at new schools. I have noticed that good teachers frequently wind up at newly built schools.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      That doesn’t translate to quantitative measures of academic success in Northern Virginia. In fact, I was once told that a teacher in Fairfax County can have their children attend the school at which they teach without paying an “out of district tuition”. I know of at least one teacher who traveled quite a distance to get to Langley High School so his kids could attend that school. Langley was built in 1965.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Most experts I’ve read say that teachers are not the problem. The problem is how they are forced to teach, what they are made to teach, and the conditions under which they have to try to teach.

      Our system of education, its ways and means, impose great obstacles on many teachers and kids, these experts say. These obstacles often come from the outside culture, and also from the Educrats who reflect that culture and who rule the system that they have made largely dysfunctional by their own policies that hurt kids in many different ways, including the learning they must have to thrive and survive in our world today.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Teachers that have good academics and good performance reviews PICK where they want to teach – and they pick the better schools… better in terms of infrastructure and better in terms of student demographics.

    That’s just a simple reality. They get no more pay for going to a school with poorer demographics and academic performance… even if it were a “new” school to be honest because when these low-income neighborhood schools get bad SOLs result – the scapegoating from the higher-ups begins and good teachers get whacked on their careers.

    Whether or not an older school can be cost-effectively renovated is on an individual basis… some can…some can’t. You actually have to hire consultants to do an assessment but trading off whether a school should be renovated or not versus paying for more/better staff is not a real world choice. it does not work that way. Competent, skilled teachers will not go to problem schools for the same pay and threats to their career.

  9. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Any school board doing its job would insist on a valid study that compares the costs of remodeling an existing school and building a replacement. It should also consider whether an existing, but not used, building could be repurposed to a school when one exists in the area.

    Is there value to the community to retain a historic school’s façade while gutting and rebuilding the rest? If so, that option should be considered too.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t know about Fairfax TMT but I suspect they do the same thing we do down here which is a consultant study to determine which is more cost-effective. We have been able to do some older schools primarily because they had enough land to have trailers while the remodeling or tear down was done.

    But Jim’s basic premise where he is confusing the cost to build a school with the costs of additional staff to “help” at-risk kids is just totally wrong-headed on several levels.

    First – he compares the age of schools to SOL scores. It’s MORE than just the age of the schools – it’s the state of their repair and the feasibility cost to upgrade them – something that is NOT provided in basic metrics that he is using.

    Second, he says this: ” What is the alternate opportunity cost? Could the city pay teachers more? Could it reward good teachers? Could it reduce average class sizes? Could it hire more special ed staff? ”

    For capital budgets – it really does not matter whether you rebuild new or rebuild/repair in place – either path costs money and requires money set aside every year towards that eventual expenditure. This is no “opportunity cost” where you spend that money towards staff instead. If you do that, you’ve taken your capital budget money! Jim is not a dumb guy, he’s actually a pretty smart guy but he can’t seem to help himself from going down these rabbit holes sometimes.

    Finally. It is the FEDS who fund higher educated/skilled staff for disadvantaged kids with needs but the funds are limited and not enough to provide enough higher paid / higher skilled staff to cover the numbers. The state offers matching grants for the localities to up their budgets towards that end but few actually do it – to the level it is needed. Some of the richer schools do a little of it but not near enough to fully staff the low-income neighborhood schools with higher skilled staff. Regular paid teachers are not going to take assignments at these troubled schools without additional salary but the additional salary at the Fed level REQUIRES a Masters Degree in Remedial Education – how many teachers are going to try to get a Masters Degree? Even then such teachers become handy targets if the schools’ scores come back bad. The school administrations – some – will scapegoat teachers at these low performing schools – and replace them with whoever they can find to send there – treating them as “expendables”. They’re called “turnover” specialists and their job is to clean house.

    This is why I do support non-public competitors but they can’t be de-facto publically funded private schools for higher income kids. They have to be schools that specialize in low-income kids and they have to be held to the same standards as their public school counterparts.

    All this “crap” that Cranky and others “spin” just basically impugns the schools without saying what should be done instead. It’s just destructive tear-down. There is no question there are issues. The data obviously confirms it but putting up that data over and over in slightly different forms to accomplish the same thing – over and over – i.e. to condemn the public schools while advocating de-facto private schools NOT for the disadvantaged kids but for the other NOT disadvantaged kids is just destructive ideological stupidness.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Jim’s points are well taken. He repeatedly described his analysis as a starting point rather than a formed theory. Private enterprise makes the choice between capital budget outlays and operating budget outlays all the time. Eventually the need to spend capital will occur but that spending can be delayed by years or even decades in many instances.

      I’df suggest that the next step in Jim’s mental model be the separation of mandatory facility quality vs optional facility add ons. A top priority should be the funding required to meet the mandatory facility quality level. However, after that, a great deal of discussion and debate should be had as to whether the optional quality “add ons” are as valuable to educational outcomes as alternate uses of those funds. For example, did Arlington really need to build a planetarium inside a public high school or would that money have been better spent by providing money for college students to tutor the high school students in select areas.

      As for Cranky – why should he be required to solve the problems? There are armies of bureaucrats at the federal, state and local levels who claim to be experts in education. Cranky is a taxpayer and voter. Creating “report cards” that hold the armies of so-called experts accountable for results is a perfectly reasonable activity. Our education system is observably failing. Your ire should be directed at the vast crowds of educarats who happily draw decades of salary and gold plated benefits without solving the problems that an energetic citizen like Cranky can plainly see.

  11. This is no “opportunity cost” where you spend that money towards staff instead. If you do that, you’ve taken your capital budget money!

    Money is money. Districts can spend tax receipts on debt service for school construction or salaries. You can build an addition to your house or choose to go on vacations. I don’t understand your point.

    1. Didn’t clarify that I was responding to a comment when I posted this.

      Larry wrote: “This is no “opportunity cost” where you spend that money towards staff instead. If you do that, you’ve taken your capital budget money!”

      My view is money is money. Districts can spend tax receipts on debt service for school construction or salaries. You can build an addition to your house or choose to go on vacations or get temporary help. So I don’t understand the point.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Izzo – all financially responsible localities have two budgets – one for operations and one for capital projects.

        You set money aside every year towards what are going to cost you for capital facilities. Whether you build new or renovate – the costs are still there and still have to be planned.

        You do not divert money from the capital budget to the operating budget without flirting with financial disaster not to mention what the credit rating agencies would do to your ratings that affect your borrowing costs.

        The point is as buildings get old – they have to be repaired or replaced and you have to plan for that. Whether you choose repair or replace is a calculation but either choice takes money that you have to have set aside for it. You cannot “save” money by deciding to not build new… and divert that to salaries – you’re still going to have costs to repair which in a lot of cases for older schools – is going to be MORE than if you replaced.

        1. Larry, everyone makes decisions on whether money is better spent in capital projects or operations. DJ echoed that from his private sector experience. I don’t see how what Jim said was off base. There was a SCHEV report I read not too long ago that analyzed higher ed spend in Virginia and one of the points was that capital spending ratios in Virginia higher ed had become high compared to benchmarks. These are not set in stone.

  12. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    “An assumption underlying the plan is that there is a strong relationship between the physical condition of a school and the quality of educational outcomes.”

    Maybe the condition of the schools has more to do with the interest and motivation of the people that live in that district for their kids educastion. A vocal community who cares about their children’s education is one of the important factors in those SOL’s. That is what CT assumed. It might not be as much of a criticism on the racial component as on the poverty levels in a particular community. NC had the same idea and redesigned school boundaries to assure that the poorer neighborhoods were not relegated to one building or one district.

    Next is the teacher population. Who is going to go teach in a rat-infested school?” Or even one in which the working environment is dilapidated? Skimping on maintenance to keep the budget down eventually comes home to roost. That is the ‘penny wise and pound foolish” attitude. Replacement planning is important and can allocate funds better than waiting til ‘stuff’ breaks.

    The mostly excellent staff at the high school where I served on the Board still needed challenging. Our way to approach that was to set aside funds to do staff ‘continuing ed’. They returned with renewed enthusiasm for their jobs.

    I am not sure SOL’s are the best measure of accomplishment but the ones you list are not good, not even the best ones. This old hand says … good schools need to engage their community, hire good teachers and keep them engaged in their fields. Sounds like the Gov is on the right track. It will take time.

  13. LarrytheG Avatar

    capital improvements and academic outcomes – aside

    there is a perception that if we pay teachers higher salaries that they will teach more and “better”.

    but when you’re dealing with kids from low-income circumstances – teachers teaching more and harder is not going to fix it.

    You need specialized teachers who have additional skills – the kind the Federal Government requires for Title 1 teachers. These are folks with Masters Degrees in remedial education. They don’t come cheap and more than that – most teachers are not interested in the effort it takes to get the Masters degree because they’ll then get sent to an academically-troubled school and if SOLs don’t get better – the teachers get blamed so people’s careers are put at risk – compared to them continuing to teach at schools that don’t have those issues.

    So you’re not going to fix this even if you offer higher salaries much less by choosing to pay higher salaries over maintaining decent schools physically.

    If you want to succeed at this – you have to incentivize improvement. Instead of threating to fire for no improvements – you have to reward for improvements – you don’t fire people and then have no equivalent replacements – you have to work to improve the quality and performance of the teaching staff as a whole. There will always be one or two that were not equal to the task – but that ought to mean keeping the majority of the others and working together – to improve outcomes.

    The way we do things right now is akin to VDOT firing those that are supposed to fix potholes – because we continue to have potholes and obviously they are not ‘fixing’ them! That’s the simplistic mindset at work here in BR sometimes too!

Leave a Reply