Blog: Air Conditioning and the Achievement Gap - Care enough to be aware

Pam Costain

For 30 years I lived without central air conditioning. I had a loud and very inefficient window air conditioner which I reluctantly installed halfway through the summer every year. I put fans next to my bed, took cold showers and complained a lot. I was always miserable and crabby in the kind of heat we are experiencing this week.

During this time I also found myself thinking and worrying a lot about other people who were suffering even more than I was. I was concerned about elderly people living on the second or third floors of their apartment buildings with no breeze. I worried about families with young children who didn’t have the cash to get to a swimming pool or buy extra fans. I thought about those who worked outside and hoped they would be okay in the intensity of the midday sun. Because I identified with others who were hot, I thought about and took their experience seriously.

Last summer – after another horrific heat wave – I finally caved and installed central air conditioning. Today as I prepared to come to work, I realized how cool and happy I felt in my morning routine after being sheltered from another hot and muggy night. I slept well and woke rested and refreshed.

I also realized that I was no longer thinking about the people without air conditioning. I didn’t need to; it was no longer my experience. It strikes me that this is like so many other issues. If it doesn’t affect me or my family, I can afford to ignore it.

If my children are doing well in our public schools, the fact that so many other children are not doing well is light years away from my reality. If my child has the opportunity for exciting summer and after-school enrichment experiences, I can be oblivious to the fact that some kids live in neighborhoods that are unsafe to play in and have only TV or babysitting by an older sibling. If I can pay for tutoring for my child who is behind in math, I can escape thinking about all the families who can’t afford this luxury. I can compensate for summer learning loss, but the family down the street cannot.

Herein lies the dilemma of living in a racially, economically and culturally diverse community. How can we be grateful for what we have without forgetting about others who don’t share our comforts, privilege or financial resources? How do we turn on our air conditioning and find a cool retreat while acknowledging that there are so many others who are suffering in the heat? How can we know that our own children are doing well while remembering that this is not true for all of the children in our city?

Do we care enough to be aware?


I work for Mitsubishi

I work for Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating and love the analogy....comfort is very important in all of our lives. When you draw in the school and learning experience, it certainly DOES make a difference. Let us all work towards giving our children, and theirs a better, more comfortable place to learn life's knowledge and lessons.


I have taught in a building w/o air and very tiny windows for years. My school is also one of the highest free and reduced lunch rates in the metro area. My students have commented to me as they travel to play teams in the 'burbs, "How come they get nicer schools?"

My students are put up against the same tests, yet asked to make greater strides in less than effective learning environments (think no ac & no breeze). It's not just summer school however, May, June, September are warm months w/o air as well!

Good article

How A/C directly affects the achievement gap was evident this summer. I am offering a STEM program at Sabathani Community Center"s Horizon Youth Program this summer.. The A/C had broken down. The children came dragging in and slumped over the tables complaining of being tired and hot. They had no energy. During one workshop the A/C repair people arrived and managed to fix the problem. As the cooler air filled the room, those same children sat up and eagerly dove into the project. Environment does make a difference. Considering all factors of achievement gap is essential. If children are hot, or hungry, or tired they do not achieve their potential.
B. Everts

Thanks and

thanks, Pam. One next step is to be serious about learning from the most effective schools, whether they are district or charter.

Will AchieveMpls do this, and if so, how?

hot summer school too

I'm surprised you don't mention the fact that some of our public schools don't have air conditioning, making summer school itself miserable both for students and for teachers. A friend of mine has always complained about that to me when she was debating whether to take a summer school teaching gig (she opted not to for the past couple of years). Not exactly extra enticement for quality teachers to give some extra help to our students who need it the most, and certainly not a conducive learning environment for the kids! Glad I teach preschool with central air. When the power went out with the solstice storm we reasoned that it would be unsafe NOT to cancel school just due to the high temperature and lack of AC, never mind the lights.


As I read I thought you were going to point out how difficult it must be when a child arrives at school, hot from the humidity, or dehydrated from the start, to learn under that scenario. Is it impossible for a child to learn when they are hot , or hungry or crabby? Of course not. But like your morning commute that starts with your basic needs met, how much easier is it to focus on learning when the same is true for a child.

Today I read research that shows 66% of teachers named working with underprivileged kids as a major factor in their career choice while 25% name it as their most important factor in career choice.

The research shows that teachers care do much, we actually make a career out of teaching kids without air conditioning.

Like you, I agree that people stop caring when their own needs are met, but chief among the things people forget is the struggle so many have in making ends meet and by extension the impact that has on kids ability to "fight through the heat" toward learning.
Jim Barnhill

Very True

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

We live with the illusion of separateness. What affects one, affects us all. This is true on a practical level and a spiritual level.

Great article Pam!

From Karen Monahan

Forgot to put my name