American Students Don’t Learn Well When It’s Hot Outside

A new study suggests hot weather makes it harder for high-school students to learn, a potentially growing concern in a warming world. The good news, according to the analysis of roughly 10 million U.S. students who took the Preliminary SAT more than once between 1998 and 2012, is that air-conditioned classrooms appear to neutralize the mind-dulling effects of high temperatures. “When outside temperatures exceed 70 degrees, students’ learning appears to suffer. The hotter it gets beyond that point, the more student learning suffers,” said Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. But, he added, “It appears that well-functioning school air conditioning can almost entirely offset the impact of heat.” The study, circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May as a working paper by Mr. Goodman and three other researchers, linked weather-station data from the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with test data from the College Board, which administers the PSAT to high-school students, usually in the 10th and 11th grade, each fall. Many students take the test twice and some take it three times, which allowed the researchers to study how scores for individual students compared from one year to the next and identify whether differences in daily temperatures during the preceding school year affected expected scores. Their findings: on average, every 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in the average temperature during the school year reduced learning by about 1%. Especially hot days were particularly damaging while cold days had little effect on test scores, in line with other research on the differing economic effects of heat and cold. The temperature effects were seen for students of all backgrounds. But the negative effects of warm weather were especially large for African Americans and Hispanics, as well as students in low-income areas. Mr. Goodman said those students may be less likely to attend schools with effective air conditioning. He also speculated that wealthier and more educated parents may employ strategies that improve student performance despite any weather effects, such as hiring tutors and helping with homework. “Those compensating behaviors are less available to students of lower socioeconomic status,” he said. Scientists believe global temperatures will continue to rise in the coming decades, so installing air conditioning in more schools could provide a net benefit for the economy and head off a potential source of widening inequality. “Heat interferes with students’ accumulation of knowledge, and we know that the modern macroeconomy is increasingly dependent on having highly skilled workers,” Mr. Goodman said. “Certainly in the long run, if heat is preventing people from learning, that should be a drag on the macroeconomy and on economic growth.” Mr. Goodman wrote the paper with Michael Hurwitz, the College Board’s senior director of policy research; R. Jisung Park, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles; and Georgia State University economist Jonathan Smith. RELATED
Climate Change May Deeply Wound Long-Term U.S. Growth, Richmond Fed Paper Finds (May 2) It’s Hot Days, Not Cold, That Really Chill Labor Productivity (Feb. 12, 2015) SAT Scores and Income Inequality: How Wealthier Kids Rank Higher (Oct. 7, 2014) Climate Change May Increase Income Inequality (Jan. 5, 2010) Economists Ponder Human Adaptation to Climate Change (Jan. 3, 2010)

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