Lorraine Maxwell, Cornell University – Schools Falling Apart

portrait_lem3The condition of a school’s building could resemble the learning done within it.

Lorraine Maxwell, associate professor in the department of design & environmental analysis at Cornell University, explores if a rundown school could doom a child’s education from the beginning.

I joined the Design and Environmental Analysis faculty in 1993 as my first full time academic appointment. My first graduate degree was a masters in city and regional planning. I worked as city planner for a large city in New Jersey and as a facility planner and programmer for an architectural firm in New York City.  My PhD is in psychology, specifically environmental psychology. My research interests have always been, and continue to be, related to the ways in which the physical environment relates to children’s and adolescents’ development, behavior, and well being. Noise and crowding are of particular interest to me, especially when children are exposed to these potential sources of stress in more than one setting. Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological theory guides much of my research. I am also interested in the ways in which the physical environment is related to children’s and adolescents’ development of competency and self-efficacy and self-esteem.

More recently my research interests include the role of the physical environment of home, school, and neighborhood in the development of identity, self-esteem, and self-efficacy in children and adolescents. My initial appointment at Cornell included responsibilities in Cooperative Extension. My primary program was to work with the child care industry in New York State providing training and educational materials for child care providers and parents. As of the spring semester 2005 my appointment was changed to research and teaching. I teach the department’s programming course, Problem Seeking through Programming (DEA 3590/6500) as well as DEA 4100 Diversity and Facility Design. I also teach a graduate course, DEA 6200, Studies in Human-Environment Relations.

Schools Falling Apart


As we head into a new school year, educators, parents, and policy makers will continue to seek ways to improve student learning.  Many researchers work to understand how community, family, teachers, and curriculum combined with individual student characteristics contribute to learning and academic achievement. But what role does the physical environment – the actual school building – play in its contribution to student achievement? There is a growing body of knowledge by environmental psychologists that documents the importance of school building quality in student learning.

Research in this field identifies a correlation between poor school condition and poor student achievement. If you look deeper at this relationship – you’ll find a link between school building condition, student attendance, and academic achievement such that student attendance is lower in schools in poor condition.

My research expands this model by including student perception of the school’s social climate. Social climate includes factors like academic expectations, engagement, communication and respect. In a study using school-wide data of New York City middle schools poor building condition, assessed by building professionals, was significantly related to student ratings of a poor social climate. This in turn predicted lower student attendance and lower student achievement on standardized tests. Student socio-economic status and percentage of minority students contributed to school-wide test scores, but did not eliminate the role of the school building in explaining the scores.

Here’s the bottom line: The findings from this study should encourage educators and policy makers to pay more attention to the quality of school buildings. When it comes to student learning and achievement, the physical environment is a full partner.