Why Integrating Health and Education Matters for Equity

January 30, 2014

The role that school wellness can play as our nation strives for greater equity.

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 Education and Health.

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.

One of the most far-reaching questions the Working Group began to explore is: How can stakeholders advance the economic and equity case for closer integration of health and education?

In order to make the type of broad and large-scale change we need for health and education to be truly integrated, we need to help leaders in multiple sectors — government, private business, philanthropy, even other advocates — see the huge long-term implications this work has for our society as a whole.

Today we will look at one part of this question, focused on the role that school wellness can play as our nation strives for greater equity.

We all want the next generation of children to have the opportunity to live healthy and productive lives. One of our society’s most fundamental ideals is ensuring that all children have equal access to this simple and incredibly important opportunity. Schools can play a vital role in supporting this ideal by ensuring that students have access to the health-related resources they need to focus in class and learn, and by creating conditions that support all students’ well-being.

The reality today is that the school setting often does not support health. Too many students spend their days in buildings with unhealthy air, limited opportunities for physical activity, and inadequate access to fresh water, nutritious food or a school nurse.

Many students come to school with one or more health problems that compromise their ability to learn. This has implications not only for children’s long-term health but also for their opportunities to learn and succeed at school.

Over the past few decades, the prevalence of chronic diseases — including asthma, obesity and diabetes — among school children has doubled from one in eight children to one in four. Children in African-American and Latino communities face higher rates of these chronic illnesses than their peers in other communities. When these and other health problems continue unmanaged, students are more likely to fall behind in school and lose opportunities for learning. That’s why one-third of children with hearing problems, for example, have to repeat grades and why students with severe asthma miss about eight school days per year. The consequences of these health challenges continue beyond students’ school years. Absences and poor performance can curtail students’ potential through high school and into adulthood.

This challenge is especially critical in light of the nation’s vast health disparities. Low-income and minority students are at increased risk of health problems that hinder learning. These students are more likely to attend schools with unhealthy environments.

Unless we address these disparities in health status and school environments, efforts to close the education achievement gap will be compromised.

If you are interested in more detail or related research on this issue, we encourage you to see the Health in Mind report from HSC and Trust for America’s Health, especially the section entitled “The Broken Connection Between Health and Learning” beginning on page 14.

Much of HSC’s work in this area, including Health in Mind, has been influenced by the work of Dr. Charles Basch and his excellent report Healthy Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap. You can view the full report here [pdf] or see video of Dr. Basch discussing his research on educationally relevant health disparities at an HSC forum here.

The Working Group realized that transforming our nation’s paradigm around health and education is in part about transforming the way we as a society talk about the issue. We need to help leaders across a range of sectors understand that the dialogue about health in schools is actually a dialogue about our nation’s road to greater equity.