Metrics that Matter: Changing our Nation’s Paradigm on Education and Health

January 21, 2014

How health and the education sector can use metrics to make informed decisions about school health.

We were thrilled recently to share an update on HSC’s efforts as part of the Working Group on Health and Education as this work transitions to a new phase in the year ahead. This Working Group, convened by former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin at HSC’s recommendation, has focused on ways that our health and education systems can work together to help close the achievement gap and reverse the trends that, unless we make some significant changes, will lead today’s children to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents.

HSC President and CEO Rochelle Davis served as co-chair of the Working Group with Jeff Levi, chair of the Prevention Advisory Group and executive director of the Trust for America's Health. The former Surgeon General charged this group with a set of tasks that, in essence, mean changing our nation’s paradigm around school health. The Working Group took this charge to heart and has recommended a set of priorities for moving forward, including a proposal to form a National Collaborative on Health and Education.

As the new year begins, we invite you to join us in thinking through some of the key issues that the Working Group has identified.

For the past several years, discussions in the health and education sectors have focused a great deal on metrics. Report cards, grades and tests have long been part of the student experience — but within the past decade, these gauges have also been used to evaluate schools and school districts. These metrics have focused almost entirely on specific academic competencies without measuring other social determinants that we know influence learning, including student health and schools’ ability to promote health among students.

While the topic of long-term data collection can incite animated conversations in the education policy and public health worlds, it tends to fall flat in general conversation. It’s not as intuitive for us to speak up for effective metrics as it is to speak up for, say, fresh produce in school lunch. So why does it matter so much?

Data on school health can inform decision-making in a major way, not stigmatizing parents and students but instead helping schools and school districts make the right changes to support students’ health and learning.

If accountability systems recognized the full experience of a student — including health conditions that might impede learning — educators could develop a more comprehensive understanding of student performance, and could deploy resources to schools and students at greatest risk.

Recently, the Working Group on Health and Education called attention to the question of how metrics can best be used to support children’s wellness and learning. The group asks: What metrics can be used and/or developed that are common to both the health and education sector? More specifically,

  • How can metrics related to health and wellness be incorporated into educational data tracking systems?

  • How can educational data be incorporated into public health tracking and surveillance systems?

  • In what ways can these data be used to measure success and motivate increased investment in health and education in both sectors?

  • In what ways can the health and educational sectors bi-directionally share health records and other pertinent student data?

We learned a great deal about using metrics in this way through our Health in Mind work and continued this conversation with the working group on education and health. Through our work with school nurse leaders, we’ve learned how valuable — but how difficult — it can be for medical professionals to access information about the full picture of a child’s care.

Here in Chicago, we were thrilled when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) added a “healthy school certified” indicator to its school report cards. CPS used achievement in the HealthierUS School Challenge as its measure. With this simple addition, we saw interest in our Go for the Gold program, which supported schools in meeting this challenge, skyrocket. As a result, more than 200 schools (serving about 90,000 students) created healthier learning environments.

At the state level, HSC successfully advocated for a school wellness indicator on the Illinois state school report card , and we continue to speak up for a more comprehensive measure.

We learned that about six years ago, the state of Texas responded to the childhood obesity epidemic by requiring an increase in physical activity in schools with an emphasis on tracking students’ fitness levels and monitoring academic outcomes. You can read more about this fascinating initiative here on HSC’s blog.

We look forward to learning about more innovative efforts in this area and working with researchers and analysts to understand how these lessons can be most effective at a national level. We will continue to share updates on this work here on the blog.