Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on School Wellness: “If children aren’t healthy, they can’t fulfi

August 07, 2012

by Ashley Hofmann, HSC public policy intern

Ashley Hofmann is completing the final practicum to earn her Masters of Social Work from the University of Missouri. Her academic research and passion focuses on disparities in access to healthcare and how policy can act as a catalyst for social justice. As a summer intern at HSC, Ashley is researching best-practices for student health and wellness and advocating for support of healthy foods in the 2012 Farm Bill.  

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was recently interviewed by NewPublicHealth, a blog at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about why the Department of Education is interested in health. He responded with the clearest and most obvious answer, an answer that HSC also understands – that healthy children are successful students. Here is an excerpt from the interview and the Secretary’s candid response:

NPH: The Department of Education is a member of the National Prevention Council. Why is health a priority for the Department?

Secretary Duncan: Very simply, if children aren’t healthy they can’t fulfill their academic and social potential. I always talk about the foundation of building blocks for great education, which includes good physical and emotional health. If children can’t see the blackboard they can’t do well. If children are hungry they can’t do well. If children are obese they are not going to do as well as they should. So we have to collectively make sure that children are physically and emotionally healthy so they can think about AP Chemistry and Biology and Physics and the rest of their learning.

Secretary Duncan’s observations are backed by research that shows there is a strong connection between health and learning –- healthy, active, and well-nourished children have higher attendance records and perform better on academic tests than their counterparts. In the interview, he touched on multiple facets affecting children’s health, including their learning environment, opportunities for physical activity, and access to nutritious food. He highlighted the Green Ribbon Schools program, which recognizes schools that make progress in energy efficiency, sustainability, and eco-friendly cleaning programs. He also stressed the necessity for children to have time reserved for recess and P.E. classes. These breaks are essential for students to be able to focus while in the classroom and also act as a preventative measure against childhood obesity rates, which are rising in the U.S.

Secretary Duncan believes that the Department of Education’s role in promoting student health is to demonstrate what works –- sharing resources and ideas for improving student health, highlighting schools that have programs and policies in place to ensure its student population remains ready to learn, and being an accountable partner in supporting healthy, successful students.

Earlier this year, Secretary Duncan spoke at HSC’s Health in Mind briefing in Washington, D.C. Through the Health in Mind recommendations presented at this briefing, HSC and Trust for America’s Health outlined practical steps to integrate health into our nation’s approach to education. The Department is in a unique position to provide leadership to states and schools districts on the importance of integrating health into school policy and practice. Many stakeholders have a role in improving student health and academic success, preventing childhood obesity, and enhancing our education system. The Department, under Secretary Duncan’s guidance, can act as a catalyst for innovation and best practices.