What would a reality show about school turnaround look like? Teachers would be fired, replacements pounding Doubleshot would be hired, and data would be gathered like mad. The charismatic new principal would turn some tired educational cliche into a national catchphrase. The host? Jeff Probst, meet Justin Cohen.
Nah, sorry, too boring. Here’s an idea instead: A rotting excuse for a school building gets renovated in just ten days by a cheery, predictable reality show team. (Megaphone, check. Designer with hipster glasses, check.) Welcome “School Pride” to your Friday evenings this fall on NBC.
This model has two advantages over “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” First, the only thing more compelling than five needy people crying at their newly revealed glam surroundings is five hundred people doing the same. Second, rather than a kindergartner getting her bedroom decorated to a fare-thee-well based on a casually mentioned interest she will probably ditch next year, the whole kindergarten classroom will get that treatment, benefiting five-year-olds for decades to come.
And guess what? Nice buildings boost academic achievement! Well, at least according to the show’s promotional material. And according to executive producer Cheryl Hines, who says in the trailer that the show positively impacts people’s lives ... “and the test scores shoot up.”
At Carver Elementary, the Compton, Calif., school featured in the trailer, scores did go up after the renovation. They had gone up the year before too (though less so). Was it because of the new paint, toilets, playing field, gym, flooring tiles and Ikea furniture? Or the enthusiasm built from the community joining in the work? We have no idea. Suggestions of a link between test scores and capital improvements will surely be repeated throughout the series, so it is worthwhile to look at what the research says. Some studies link specific building issues to outcomes that themselves may impact test scores: air quality, for example, affects absenteeism. There are doctoral dissertations and reports by architects that make a broader case for at least correlation, if not causation. But rigorous, peer-reviewed research that shows that capital improvements boost scores? Not so much.
Frankly, children deserve non-disgusting school buildings no matter what happens to test scores. I will certainly watch the show, lying as it does in the heretofore untouched sweet spot of the Linda Perlstein brain where school reform meets interior design meets reality television. I will certainly cry. But I hope that Cheryl Hines and gang curb their enthusiasm about the test score stuff—and maybe even let us know what it takes beyond renovation to make sure that students learn.