Policy Is a Powerful Tool
The research is clear: healthier students are better learners. They miss fewer days of school, are better able to focus in class and are more ready to learn. Not only that, but long-term studies reveal they also grow into healthier and more productive adults.
Yet far too many students spend their days in schools that do not offer them adequate clean air and water, nutritious food, physical activity and the support of a school nurse. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the incidence of chronic diseases—including asthma, obesity and diabetes—has doubled among children over the past several decades. These conditions affect students’ ability to learn and succeed at school, and also affect their long-term health outcomes.
This challenge is especially critical in light of the nation’s vast disparities in health and education. Low-income students and students of color are at increased risk for health problems that impede learning. These students are also more likely to attend schools with unhealthy environments and limited health services. Unless we address these disparities in health status and school environments, efforts to close the education achievement gap will fall short.
Education policy can be a powerful tool for building school environments that support healthy learners. Policies at the national and state levels that determine funding and set priorities have a major impact on policies and practices across districts and in schools.
HSC works with partners to advocate for education policies that promote healthy schools, with good nutrition, physical activity, basic safety, clean air and water, access to care, and education about how to make healthy choices that allow students to thrive. Learn more about our work on education policy by clicking the tabs at the top of this page.
New Opportunities to Prioritize Health
In December 2015, the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a major overhaul of federal education legislation, was signed into law. ESSA gives states and school districts significantly more authority and flexibility to create standards for accountability and regulate school performance, and specifically recognizes the need for schools to support the whole child. The law also provides opportunities and incentives for states to prioritize student health and wellness and to address health disparities in order to provide a well-rounded and equitable education program. These are grouped in several main areas.
Each state was required to create an accountability system for its state ESSA plan with at least four indicators of their choosing, including three academic indicators (for high schools this must include graduation rate), and one non-academic indicator such as chronic absenteeism. HSC worked with partners to encourage states to include health and wellness in their accountability systems. Ultimately, 36 states chose to include chronic absenteeism in their accountability systems, seven included measures related to physical education and/or fitness and six included school climate measures.
Needs Assessment and School Improvement
Persistently low-performing schools are required by ESSA to go through a needs assessment process to guide their school improvement planning process. Needs assessment provides an excellent opportunity to understand and address health and wellness issues that impact student learning. HSC is working directly with states to help them build health and wellness markers into their needs assessment process.
Funding for Health and Wellness
ESSA allows Title I funding to be used for health-related supports for low-income schools, such as school nurses or a physical education program. Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (Title IV, Part A of ESSA) can be used to promote student health wellness, including mental health services.
ESSA provides funding to support professional development for principals, teachers, early childhood educators and other school personnel, which can include health and wellness topics, including trauma-informed practices.
Supporting Health through Policy Implementation
Over the course of the next few years, states will be implementing the education plans they created to meet the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). HSC is committed to making sure that states understand the vital link between learning and health, and to helping them implement ESSA in a way that ensures schools have the tools to build a culture of health for students. Some of our major initiatives include:
- HSC and Alliance for a Healthier Generation are partnering to work intensively with eight states to help them implement their ESSA plans in a way that supports health and wellness. For example, we are working with states to develop needs assessments that incorporate health and wellness.
- In Illinois, HSC is working to ensure ESSA implementation supports the connection between health and learning. This includes incorporating health and wellness into needs assessments, school improvement programming and professional development.
- HSC is launching a new National Coalition on Learning + Health that will bring together health, education and civil rights organizations to develop and advance a broad and inclusive agenda that links education and health so all students can learn and thrive. This coalition will build on and expand the important work of the National Collaborative on Education and Health.
- HSC has released numerous resources to help states, school districts, school leaders, teachers and parents understand the link between learning and health and build effective policies and practices to create healthy schools. You can access these on the Resources tab and in our Resource Center.
Your voice matters in urging national, state and school leaders to prioritize the link between learning and health. We invite you to learn more and lend your voice to the dialogue about this issue:
- Check out our Resource Center
- Sign up to receive updates about ESSA
- Connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@healthyschools)
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As a nonprofit organization, we rely on support from people like you so we can continue to make schools healthier places where all children can learn and thrive. Your gift—large or small—will make a meaningful difference.
Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.
Education Data for Health Systems: Challenges and Opportunities
This brief highlights existing efforts to integrate education data, such as chronic absenteeism, into health and public health accountability systems, describes common barriers and best practices, and suggests key opportunities for further exploration to advance this work.
Related Programs: Healthy Students, Promising Futures
Using Needs Assessments to Connect Learning + Health: Opportunities in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)
This guide is intended to highlight the ways that school needs assessments required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) can be a valuable tool in identifying, understanding and addressing health conditions that contribute to poor academic performance. It provides child advocates, community leaders, school personnel and other key stakeholder groups with the information that they need to convince their state and local education leaders to make health and wellness a significant component of the needs assessment and school improvement process.
Addressing Mental Health and Wellness through ESSA Implementation
Untreated and undertreated mental health conditions remain a substantial factor in stifling academic achievement. Under ESSA, education leaders have the opportunity to remedy some of these underlying issues to ensure that schools integrate more evidence-based mental health promotion and treatment in the everyday workings of the education system, and help their students thrive and succeed.
Addressing Chronic Absenteeism through ESSA Implementation
ESSA presents an important opportunity to create public accountability around chronic absenteeism and ensure state ESSA plans support a comprehensive approach to address chronic absenteeism. This document highlights various approaches that stakeholders might use to leverage ESSA to support efforts to address chronic absenteeism.
Addressing Nutrition and Physical Activity through ESSA Implementation
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) recognizes the need for schools to support the whole child and specifically acknowledges the importance of health and wellness. ESSA also provides an opportunity to ensure equitable access to quality education and the conditions that support student learning. Health is a key part of this. ESSA transitions authority from the federal government to state education agencies. Thus, as states begin to implement ESSA, it is critical they do so in a way that supports health and wellness.
Addressing the Health-Related Causes of Chronic Absenteeism
Taking action to address health-related chronic absenteeism can have a powerful impact on students’ academic success and well-being for a lifetime. This document focuses on preparing educators—particularly school district decision-makers —with knowledge and practical guidance for creating meaningful change to address health-related chronic absenteeism.
State ESSA Plans to Support Student Health and Wellness: A Framework for Action
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) recognizes the vital role that health and wellness play in education. This document focuses on supporting advocates who are interested in working with state-level policymakers to develop state ESSA plans. It provides practical resources and emphasizes several key areas with the greatest potential impact on student health.
Related Programs: Healthy Students, Promising Futures
Indicators of School Quality: Social and Emotional Learning
This document provides an overview of social and emotional learning as an indicator of school quality, particularly as it relates to state ESSA plans to support health and wellness.
Indicators of School Quality: School Discipline
This document provides an overview of school discipline as an indicator of school quality, particularly as it relates to state ESSA plans to support health and wellness.
Indicators of School Quality: School Connectedness
This document provides an overview of school connectedness as an indicator of school quality, particularly as it relates to state ESSA plans to support health and wellness.