Spotlight on Charles E. Basch: Healthier Students Are Better Learners

  • March 31, 2011

by Joanna Blonska, a writer for the Office of Minority Health Resource Center.

For the past 30 years, Charles E. Basch has studied health disparities across a wide range of urban minority populations.   As the Richard March Hoe Professor of Health Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, his attempt to translate what is already known into practice to help groups with the greatest need has been the running thread of his work. 

If his years of research have made anything clear it is this:  there is a strong link between health and learning and if we are to begin to eradicate disparities in health and education, we should start by creating healthier schools.

 “While we spend a tremendous amount of money on chronic disease, it’s always been clear to me from the outset, the single most effective approach that we have…is primary and secondary prevention from school-based programs,” Basch says.  “It’s when children are young that we can prevent many of these problems and their adverse effects rather than waiting until they are adolescents or adults and the problems have already developed.”

Basch presents the evidence for this argument in his latest report, “Healthier Students Are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap” [pdf] published in March 2010 which brings together findings from fields ranging from neurosciences and child development to epidemiology and public health to illustrate how health-related problems play a major role in limiting academic performance of minority children.

Basch specifically identifies seven factors–poor vision, asthma, teen pregnancy, aggression and violence, physical inactivity, ADHD, and insufficient breakfast–that can and do lead to health disparities. 

While it is not new that these problems disproportionately affect urban minority youth, what Basch emphasizes is that the disparities “have direct causal links to motivation and ability to learn through affecting [children’] sensory perceptions, cognition, connectedness and engagement in school.”  Simply put, healthier students are better students.

Basch argues that there needs to be a reassessment in the approach by educators and public health officials in addressing these problems in order to make any serious inroads into improving the lives of millions of minority children who are affected by these disparities. 

He acknowledges that educators have attempted for years to close the achievement gap by focusing on improving school curriculums and teacher qualifications and introducing better leadership and accountability measures.   There has also been much rhetoric around incorporating health programs in schools.

But for the most part, he says, “the way in which these programs have been done, has not been in a strategic, high-quality and coordinated way.” 

Part of the problem, Basch argues, is that the emphasis has tended to be too categorical.  There may be a violence program or an obesity prevention program, but these, he notes, do not adequately address the overall development of the child or take into consideration the many factors affecting the child, which may overlap and be interrelated.

“We have to realize that [a child’s] development is affected by a multitude of factors and when we focus on some and not others, the benefits are going to be compromised,” Basch says.  “The big picture message I’m trying to get across is the interactive and synergistic effects of these different health problems and the need to address them collectively if we are to have a meaningful effect.”

While school nutrition and fitness initiatives supported by efforts such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign or the USDA’s Healthier US School Challenge are both “an important piece” and “a step in the right direction,” on a national level, he argues, there needs to a “bigger picture” approach—targeting the seven prevalent health factors he studied– and more involvement from the Department of Education.   

He also advocates for political will on a school district level among school leaders “to recognize that these are important issues and they have to be addressed, not in a haphazard way” but “as part of the vision and mission of the school.”

Focusing programs in the places where there is the greatest risk, particularly among low-income urban populations, is critical to closing the achievement gap for urban minority children, Basch says.

In populations with higher socioeconomic status, there tends to be much greater financial and familial support, but in urban minority populations, those resources are not necessarily present to address problems.  There is also often more stress on the families with respect to poverty, working many jobs, or raising multiple children. 

Schools can play a central role in ending both health disparities and the achievement gap and Basch is hopeful that success is achievable with comprehensive school-based health programs.

“The school is really a social institution that’s ideally situated to address the needs of kids in this situation,” he says.  “I think there is lots of evidence of programs that have shown that they can be effective.”

Healthy Schools Campaign is pleased to announce Heroes for Healthy Schools: Coming together for
student wellness and achievement, a weeklong series of events to celebrate Minority Health Month and
focus attention on programs and policies in Chicago that support student wellness and achievement.
This exciting series is presented as a partnership of Healthy Schools Campaign, Chicago Public
Schools Nutrition Support Services and the Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services.

We are thrilled to take this opportunity to spotlight a few of the many individuals who are making a difference for kids' health at school and in our community. Today's “hero for healthy schools,” Professor Charles E. Basch, has dedicated his work to the research of effective strategies for addressing health and education disparities.

Basch will speak at the Citywide Forum on Health Disparities and Education, a cornerstone event recognizing Minority Health Month, to discuss his latest research on health disparities and student achievement. We invite you to join us at this forum on April 6 in Chicago. For details and to register, click here.

Register-forum