Learning is inhibited by heat exposure, both internationally and within the United States

Abstract

Human capital generally, and cognitive skills specifically, play a crucial role in determining economic mobility and macroeconomic growth. While elevated temperatures have been shown to impair short-run cognitive performance, much less is known about whether heat exposure affects the rate of skill formation. We combine standardized achievement data for 58 countries and 12,000 US school districts with detailed weather and academic calendar information to show that the rate of learning decreases with an increase in the number of hot school days. These results provide evidence that climatic differences may contribute to differences in educational achievement both across countries and within countries by socioeconomic status and that may have important implications for the magnitude and functional form of climate damages in coupled human–natural systems.

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Fig. 1: Temperature exposure and PISA scores.
Fig. 2: Impact of temperature on PISA and SEDA exam scores.
Fig. 3: Heterogeneity of hot temperature impacts.
Fig. 4: Temperature exposure and SEDA scores.

Data availability

The weather data that support the findings of this study are available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/). The international assessment data are available from PISA (https://www.oecd.org/pisa/data/). The US assessment data are available through NCES, compiled by district, grade, subject and year at SEDA (https://exhibits.stanford.edu/data/catalog/db586ns4974). Additional data at the country level, including employment shares and per-capita income, are available at the World Bank’s World Development Indicators archives (https://datatopics.worldbank.org/world-development-indicators/wdi-archives.html).

Code availability

Custom code that supports the findings of this study is available from the corresponding author upon request.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge P. Stainier for excellent research assistance. We received no specific funding for this work.

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R.J.P., J.G. and A.P.B. designed the research, performed the research, analysed the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to R. Jisung Park or Joshua Goodman or A. Patrick Behrer.

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Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1–9 and Supplementary References.

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Park, R.J., Goodman, J. & Behrer, A.P. Learning is inhibited by heat exposure, both internationally and within the United States. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-00959-9

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