Jargon has long grown wild and free in the field of education. The term “educational adequacy” is particularly difficult to pin down, however. Remarkably, the phrase was in vogue by 1982 when several educators published papers about how to go about developing a working definition for it.
Over time, educational adequacy has figured in legal action, in the allocation of funds and as a scale that measures the fit between school facilities and their educational purposes. Since 1990, “adequacy” lawsuits in more than 25 states have boosted funding in less wealthy communities to correct inequalities among public schools. Courts have based their rulings on each state’s constitutional obligation to provide all of its citizens with free and "adequate public education." Georgia’s constitution contains such a clause.
Educational adequacy often refers to capital improvements. But it also involves a less quantifiable distinction: Do classrooms and other spaces inside and outside of the school provide an environment that enables principals, teachers and students to pursue a truly rigorous curriculum?
In 2010, the DeKalb County School System organized site visits to determine the educational adequacy of all of its elementary, middle and high schools. Using a scale of 20 to 98, state and local administrators along with representatives of the community and the engineering and construction firm Parsons, concluded with discouraging results.
Of the 134 DeKalb County schools surveyed, 50 scored at adequacy levels of poor or unsatisfactory.
These scores are shocking yet not surprising. Most of the schools are about 50 years old. Officials allowed them to deteriorate structurally during the 27 years–1969 to 1996–when federal courts oversaw the DeKalb County School System. During those same decades nationwide, many school districts took advantage of the relatively prosperous economy to enlist community support for referendums to expand and renovate school facilities.
So what is DeKalb County looking at? Thirteen schools built in 1955 alone and 34 built between 1956 and 1958. A few, such as the Dresden and Sagamore Hills elementary schools, went up in the early 1960’s.
Unfortunately, while postwar educators and architects held aloft a great vision of new school buildings that would dot the American landscape, the design and construction of schools of that vintage are poorly suited for modern use. And that’s not even considering the steady march of technology into the classroom. Most if not all public schools will have high speed internet by 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The vast expansion of public education that began around 1900 led directly to standardization in schools. The “proper apparatus” for teaching–globes, textbooks, maps, blackboards–found its way to most urban classrooms.
Proper hygiene also became a consideration as educators pushed for natural light and circulation: not just big windows that would open wide but lots of room to move around in hallways and schoolrooms.
Most schools of the Cold War era are the antithesis of earlier designs. Built to perform triple duty as bomb shelters, community social centers and schools, they feature few windows and long, uninterrupted walls. An overemphasis on clean lines lends them their institutional quality.
While these schools were designed with civil defense in mind, their construction was cheap. Hardware, lighting and ventilation systems were not built to last, and without maintenance they quickly deteriorated.
Between 1958 and 1976, the Educational Facilities Laboratories (EFL), a nonprofit corporation established by the Ford Foundation, supported research and gave grants to encourage innovation in school design. Since then, one of EFL’s proudest initiatives, the open classroom, has been widely discredited.
Today, retrofitting schools to meet current needs poses an enormous challenge. Lots of light and air circulation are once again paramount with daylight considered a “more potent predictor” of academic performance than sex, class size or family background, multiple studies show. Sound and window views also affect achievement.
Historically, the minimum size of a classroom was 30 square feet. Consider how much of that space is now given over to computer hardware which is often consolidated in one area.
“A good school facility supports the educational enterprise” is the first line of an often-quoted 2004 report on the Los Angeles public schools.
Redistricting and consolidation do not solve educational inadequacy. The awful scores remain, improved slightly by less crowding.
Just around the corner, the University of Georgia’s School Design and Planning Laboratory is home to some of the nation’s top consultants in planning, design, management and sustainability. Among them, Professor C. Kenneth Tanner wrote an award-winning research paper, “”Effects of School Design on Student Outcomes” (2009).
Educational adequacy, explained Tanner in response to a query, is a relative term. “It means you are just getting by. Minimum standard. Below average, but getting by!”
Very discouraging indeed.