Photo Credit: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez
By Arline L. Bronzaft, PhD, Founding Member, The Quiet Coalition
Editor’s note: The impact of environmental noise on kids’ performance in public schools is a sadly familiar one—even though solutions have long been known—witness this article about classroom noise in Decatur, Georgia. Selective progress has been made—thanks to four decades of work on this subject by one of The Quiet Coalition’s co-founders, Dr. Arline Bronzaft, including development of an ANSI standard for Classroom Acoustics*. We asked Dr. Bronzaft to reflect on this four-decade-long project. Here are her thoughts:
In the mid-1970s, a parent of an elementary school child (like the Decatur parent, C. Aiden Downey, in the article above), asked me, her psychology professor, to help her lessen the noise intruding on her child’s classroom learning. The source of the noise were passing trains on elevated train tracks in New York City. We needed proof to back up her claim that noise intruded on learning. With the help of the principal of P.S. 98 in Upper Manhattan, my co-author and I conducted a study which demonstrated that by the sixth grade children attending P.S. 98 classrooms near the tracks were nearly a year behind in reading compared to children on the quiet side of the building. Armed with proof and the support from public officials and the media, my requests to the Transit Authority and the Board of Education resulted in noise abatement on the tracks and in the classrooms. After the abatement was in place, a second study at the school found that children on both sides of the building were reading at the same level.
Today, forty years later, the Decatur parent above is lamenting about the intrusion of noise in his child’s classroom despite numerous publications on the deleterious effects of noise on learning, including several of my writings on how architects, engineers, and planners can involve themselves more assertively in providing quieter classrooms. Even former President Obama commented on noise near schools. Early in his first term, in a talk before Congress, he referred to a child in the audience who attended a school in Dillon, South Carolina, where teaching had “…to stop six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom.” I later learned that this student’s school did get funding to address its leaks and peeling paint and, one hopes, the noise. But President Obama turned a “deaf ear” to pleas to revitalize the noise arm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and today, under Scott Pruitt, the EPA’s website on noise has been weakened.
The way to reduce classroom noise is known; it is the will that is lacking. It is this message that Dr. Downey and the parents of school children in Decatur and elsehwere have to bring to their local authorities. They can count on my assistance.
*Development of the ANSI Classroom Acoustics Standard was kick-started by Dr. Bronzaft; it was based on her research and encouraged by the U.S. Access Board. Development was carried out over a decade by a stalwart band of engineers. Since completion of the standard, several states have adopted it into their building codes. But all building codes are local, so this national standard will only be adopted by local school building programs if parents are actively engaged in the decision-making regarding school construction and renovation. Only parents can press their local school boards to recognize that research has proven noise interferes with learning and impairs children’ future success. Meanwhile, noisy classrooms will continue to be a problem across the U.S.