Correlating Indoor Air to Student Academic Performance

by Richard J. Shaughnessy

Nearly 55 million people in the United States — 20 percent of the population — spend their days inside K-12 schools. Few realize the air within those walls can adversely affect both their health and their learning potential.

According to U.S. government reports, almost half of the nation’s schools have poor indoor air quality: air contaminated with particulates, fibers, pollen, dust, gases and other pollutants. Without an exchange of this stale air with fresh conditioned outdoor air, the potential for long- and short-term health problems for students and staff increases, attendance decreases and student achievement is jeopardized.

Although federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency have been promoting the benefits of improved indoor air quality for years based on results of studies on worker productivity in offices, few studies have been conducted in school environments to explore the potential association between student performance and IAQ.

Research Connections
One pilot study investigating classroom ventilation rates and their association with student performance was conducted in a school district in 2004 by an international research team led by the University of Tulsa Indoor Air Program. Carbon dioxide concentrations were recorded in 5th-grade classrooms in 51 elementary schools to assess ventilation rates. At the same time, investigators gathered standardized test scores and background data related to the students in those specific classrooms.

Results of the investigation revealed a significant association between classroom ventilation rates and student performance on standardized test scores in math. As observed ventilation rates increased incrementally, test scores also increased.

Another study subsequent to the 2004 investigation examined air quality in 50 elementary schools. This study also focused on carbon dioxide concentrations as an indication of ventilation. Other environmental aspects studied included temperature, humidity and airborne particle concentration.

Initial analysis of the data revealed a similar trend — increasing ventilation improved test scores. But further analysis is necessary to adjust for the effect of confounding factors such as percentage of gifted and limited English enrollment, socioeconomic factors and mobility.

Once these data are analyzed, researchers may be able to merge the data to better define the association between ventilation in schools and academic performance. The significance and strength of such findings increase as more schools are added to the analyses.

Research unfortunately shows that inadequate ventilation in classrooms is more the norm than the exception. The 2004 University of Tulsa Indoor Air Program study revealed the amount of outdoor air being circulated into most classrooms was less than the minimum standard set by the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers. A 2005 study by Mark Mendell and Garvin Heath showed few states regulate or even have minimum ventilation standards for schools. Faced with budgetary and staff shortages, schools have little incentive and few resources to protect their students from poor indoor air quality.

There may be hope in this direction, however. Given the current era of funding levels tied to academic achievement, associations between improved environmental quality and increased academic performance may provide the necessary impetus to justify expenditures to improve the air quality in schools.

Low-Cost Measures
Understandably, curriculum drives the bus when school districts set out to improve student learning, but the importance of indoor air quality cannot be overlooked. For example, absenteeism is often identified as a predictor of student performance, and a 1 percent improvement districtwide can translate into millions of dollars in lost school days. Multiply this by the 55 million children in 90,000 schools nationwide and the significance is obvious.

Many of the improvements to air quality can be implemented with little or no cost to the school district yet can have a measurable impact. By formalizing and enforcing these standards related to classrooms and building maintenance, administrators play a key role in affecting classroom conditions:

  • Air vents in classrooms should not be blocked;
  • Clutter should be kept to a minimum throughout the building to allow custodial staff to clean more efficiently;
  • Live animals, stuffed animals, upholstered furnishings, scented candles, deodorizers and harsh cleaning products all negatively affect the air quality and should be avoided;
  • Maintenance staff should change air filters regularly according to manufacturers’ recommendations and address any mold or moisture sources immediately; and
  • Walk-off mats at entrances, least-toxic cleaning products and integrated pest management practices greatly reduce the introduction of pollutants to the school environment and should be incorporated into every school building.


In addition, a better overall understanding of the effects of poor IAQ on academic achievement may provide motivation and justification for schools to improve classroom conditions.

Our research teams’ future studies will focus on gathering more evidence about the possible association between classroom ventilation rates and students’ academic performance. This evidence may help prompt regulatory actions to ensure adequate ventilation in schools, including improved design and management of school facilities.

Richard Shaughnessy is program director for the University of Tulsa Indoor Air Program in Tulsa, Okla. E-mail:

Tools for Schools

The Environmental Protection Agency sponsors a voluntary program called Tools for Schools that provides low-cost approaches to improve indoor air quality.

The Tools for Schools Action Kit, available through AASA, offers background information and checklists designed for different school personnel to use to assess their school’s IAQ. The University of Tulsa Indoor Air Program staff is available to train personnel, help school districts successfully complete the Tools for Schools evaluation process and develop an IAQ Management Plan.

IAQ Design Tools for Schools, which complements the IAQ Tools for Schools program, helps schools solve air quality problems and provides voluntary guidance for school personnel, architects, engineers, builders and contractors on school construction and renovation issues.

For more information, contact Richard Shaughnessy at 918-749-4358 or