An Argument for Acoustics

Sometimes it is all about being in the right place at the right time, or as some would say “the alignment of the stars.” Audiologists Lisa Cannon, Cheryl DeConde Johnson, and Dan Ostergren (in absentia), along with several parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing had an exceptional opportunity to testify before the Access Board on July 24. This Board is an independent federal agency created in 1973 to ensure access to federally funded facilities.  The Access Board is a leading source of information on accessible design through its development of guidelines and standards. The design requirements are used to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Access Board worked with the Acoustical Society of America to establish a working group of representatives of interested professional organizations, including the American Academy of Audiology (AAA) the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), and the Educational Audiology Association EAA, to develop classroom acoustical standards culminating in the publication of the standard, ANSI S12.60-2002, in 2002. The standard, however, is voluntary until codified, or in other words, referenced by a state code, ordinance, or regulation. At this time, the Access Board identifies the following states, local jurisdictions, and boards of education as having taken action on classroom acoustics:

Adopted ANSI S12.60-2002

  • New Hampshire State Board of Education
  • New Jersey School Construction Board
  • Ohio School Facility Commission
  • State of Minnesota
  • State of Connecticut
  • New York City Public Schools

Other Classroom Acoustics Standards/Directives in Use

  • New York State Department of Education
  • Los Angeles Unified School District
  • Minneapolis Public Schools
  • Washington State Board of Health
  • Washington DC Public Schools
  • California Collaborative for High-Performance Schools
  • New England Collaborative for High-Performing Schools
  • Seattle School District
  • Redmond WA School District
  • Portland OR School District
  • Clark County NV School District
  • Maryland State Department of Education
  • University of Minnesota
  • School District of Philadelphia
  • Fort Collins CO School District

Members of the working group had hoped that the standard would be codified as a component of the International Building Code (IBC), a set of building standards that are utilized in all construction across the U.S.  The alternative was to advocate for the standard to be referenced in the ADA’s Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). Since there has been no adoption after four years in the IBC, it was determined that a request to the Access Board for consideration in ADAAG would be appropriate. Lois Thibault, the Access Board’s Coordinator of Research and champion of the classroom acoustics project there, was able to see that classroom acoustics was on the agenda for this Board meeting. Typically the Access Board has one meeting each year that is located outside of the DC area. The July meeting in Denver was this opportunity. 

The presentations given by audiologists and parents covered the basics of classroom acoustics and included Dan Ostergren’s testimony regarding his Ft.Collins, CO, school district’s adoption of the ANSI standards and use of sound field amplification.

The presentation included recommendations for the Access Board to:

  • initiate a national effort known as “Quiet Classrooms” to promote awareness and the implementation of the ANSI Classroom Acoustics standard and recommendations;
  • adopt the ANSI standard into the International Building Code (IBC);
  • adopt the ANSI standard into the ADAAG;
  • consider “No Child Left Behind” as a potential regulatory source to adopt and enforce standards;
  • create a “Toolkit” of resources to assist persons and organizations in state and local efforts to adopt the ANSI standard for school construction;
  • target school parent organizations and teacher organizations to increase awareness and support for classroom acoustics efforts;
  • promote research on the effects of classroom acoustics on educational outcomes for all learners.

One parent gave this testimony: “As a parent, learning about the impact of my daughter’s hearing loss in her day to day life came to me over time.  I remember another parent telling me they were considering putting a six foot height of landscaping in their front yard to reduce the noise of the busy road beyond.  I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. It wasn’t until my daughter started attending preschool that awareness about the impact of background noise for children who are deaf/hh began to emerge. We had a functional listening evaluation administered in my daughter’s classroom. When she was close up (two feet) to the speaker with no background noise, her speech reception was at 95%.  When she was placed eight feet from the speaker, with minimal background noise introduced (far less than what the normal classroom would be), her speech reception dropped to 38%.  I was stunned.  People always compliment my daughter on ‘what great speech she has.’ But I have now learned that the real concern for her is that people do not realize the impact of the environment…adding a fan to the back of the class, poor acoustics in a room, the sound of lights buzzing overhead, or the sounds from an old AC/heater to my daughter’s learning environment.  They assume because she can speak, she can hear everything, at any time…”

School District Adopts ANSI Standard

Daniel Ostergren, an educational audiologist with the Ft Collins, CO school district, submitted testimony (excerpted here):   “Almost 15 years ago I had the good fortune of working with a number of other audiologists and researchers to establish a set of guidelines for improved acoustics in learning environments. It had become clear at that time that many classrooms in the US did not provide equal access to the curriculum for students who were Deaf/Hard of Hearing because the background noise and/or reverberation levels in the classroom compromised students’ receptive communication. It also had become clear that D/HH students were not the only ones affected by poor classroom acoustics. Children with attention difficulties, those students for whom English was a second language, and those students with other associated learning difficulties were also adversely affected. Younger children, whose language base was limited, were at particular risk. So, in 1995, ASHA published our guidelines for classroom acoustics, and the first national effort to improve communication access in America’s schools began.

It is quite simple to conceptualize a classroom with good acoustics. Simply have a seat in the living room of an average home and close your eyes. Pleasant, isn’t it? If someone is speaking to you in this environment at their typical vocal level, they would likely be audible, intelligible, and comfortably loud for you, the listener. Their voice would probably be at least 15dB above the background noise of the room, which, not coincidentally, has been shown to be the level required for adequate understanding of speech for many students that are Deaf/Hard of Hearing. Reverberation in this environment is minimal because our hypothetical room is small, carpeted, and appointed with large, soft furnishings. I might have attended class more often in high school had my classrooms been of a similar design.

Most classrooms do not begin to approach this idealized environment, and for obvious reasons. The enclosures must be much larger to accommodate 25 or more students. They must meet mandated air exchange and lighting standards, and often contain numerous computers and other technologies for teaching and learning. Many classrooms are not carpeted and have brick or cinderblock walls that are acoustically reflective. External traffic noise in urban areas may be present in the classroom. The list goes on.

The challenge before us then has been to work with educational facility planners, architects, and school administrators to first demonstrate that these designs negatively impact learning for a significant number of children, and to then find design solutions that afford improved access to direct and indirect instruction for all students at all times.  My school district, Poudre School District in Fort Collins, CO, approached the issue in the following way.

When the ANSI standard was published in 2002, our district was already at the forefront of sustainable school facility design. We were utilizing wind power for electrical needs, recycled and recyclable materials whenever possible, natural lighting, etc. in new school construction. Requests for presentations regarding our school design approach from around the country were so numerous that the district elected to hold a conference in July, 2006 detailing our efforts (the Conference on High Performance Schools). One area that was emphasized at the conference was that these design and construction measures did not need to be more costly than traditional school designs.

During the 2004-2005 school year, our Facilities and Design Team was re-writing the district’s guidelines to formalize these construction goals, and I approached them about considering the inclusion of the ANSI S12.6-2002 Standard. Cursory acoustical measurements in some of our newer schools suggested that we were already at or near compliance of the Standard. Therefore, it would make sense to formally adopt and implement it in all new school construction and renovations. After reviewing the Standard, and meeting with architects in our area, the district formally adopted the standard as part of the Sustainable Design Guidelines in March, 2005. Now for the true test – could we build a school that met the standard?

Already in the design phase, Kinard Junior High School was set to open in August, 2006. It was to be a showcase of educational facility technology – geothermal heating and air conditioning, extensive use of natural lighting, high volume/low speed HVAC ductwork, and a centralized media delivery system for internet, cable television, and DVD/VCR sources in every classroom. Gone would be the “TV in the corner”, replaced by a projector connected to a central media delivery hub. In addition, since all the necessary components were in place, soundfield amplification was included for every classroom as well. This would allow equal distribution of the teacher’s voice throughout the enclosure, even though each classroom should meet the ANSI Standard.

Kinard opened on schedule in August, 2006 and though there were some “teething problems”, the teaching staff was overjoyed with the facility. In fact, when asked to indicate their usage rate for the soundfield system, most staff used the system 70-80% of their instructional day, and 100% would recommend such systems as an option for other schools in our district.

What’s next? Two new elementary schools are being built to the Standard as we speak. The first, opening on August 18, 2007, will not have soundfield systems in the classrooms, and the second, opening in 2008 will have soundfield systems. I am most interested in examining students’ standardized test scores longitudinally, as well as other performance metrics, to see how these facilities contribute to student success.  The time is now for encouraging America’s school districts to embrace appropriate acoustical design and construction of educational facilities. It is an attainable goal. It does not have to have a negative impact on construction budgets. It saves money over retrofitting existing classrooms to meet the standard. It helps meet the communication needs of those students at risk academically. Quite simply, it is the right thing to do.”

Following the presentations given by the audiologists and parents, additional testimony in support of classroom acoustic standards was provided by consumers and agencies. The response of the Access Board members was gratifying. There was genuine interest as demonstrated by the questions and discussion following the presentation that was directed at the presenters as well as by the testimony. The Board includes public members appointed by the President, a few of whom are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as federal agency representatives from the Office of Education, Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, Department of Labor, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Interior, Department of Commerce, Department of Veteran Affairs, and the US Postal Services. Needless to say, this group of individuals is connected and knows how to make things happen. Follow-up conversations left the presenters feeling that the hour devoted to this discussion with the Access Board may result in more action to promote a national agenda on classroom acoustics and codification of a standard than any other effort conducted to date. In addition, AAA has a committee on classroom acoustics (Peggy Nelson, Chair) that is focused on adoption of the ANSI standards as policy for the Academy as well as other activities to promote its implementation. For current information on the Access Board’s activities in classroom acoustics visit their website at  ~

By Cheryl DeConde Johnson and Janet DesGeorges with contributions from Daniel Ostergren, AuD. Portions of this article are also printed in the Educational Audiology Review, Fall 2007, “Colorado Educational Audiologists Testify before the United States Access Board on Classroom Acoustics” by Cheryl DeConde Johnson.


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