Julie Sneider
View from the Waiting Room

Cure ailing schools to improve kids’ health

By - Jun 14th, 2010 04:00 am
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Photo by Temari 09, courtesy of Flickr

The debate over whether America should adopt national academic standards to improve education got a shot of adrenaline this month when the nations’ governors and school chiefs unveiled their recommendation for common core academic standards for kindergarten through 12th grade.

The standards outline in detail the language arts and mathematical skills that students should know at each grade level. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers has already confirmed Wisconsin will adopt the new standards to ensure academic consistency with other states. He also has noted that the new goals measure up to academic standards from high-performing countries around the world, which is something American educators and parents have to think about as today’s schoolchildren grow up to compete in the global economy.

Photo by Smithereen11, courtesy of Flickr

Wisconsin generally stands up well when compared with other states’ public education systems. But there’s no question that a closer look shows far too many of the state’s kids, especially those in Milwaukee Public Schools, aren’t getting an education that adequately prepares them for college, tech school or the workforce after high school. As a result, the economic health of those students, their families and community suffers.

But that’s not all. As it turns out, low-performing schools also may be harmful to physical health. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which spent the past few years researching the socioeconomic factors that impact health, there’s a direct link between the level of education in a community and the physical health of its citizens.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America project, which wrapped up its work in December, looked beyond genetics to evaluate all kinds of socioeconomic obstacles that prevent people from living healthy lives.

One of the big obstacles, the commission realized, is lack of education. Basically, if you’re poor and uneducated, you’re less likely to live a long, healthy life than if you’re educated and financially secure.

This education-health connection can start as early as birth. Babies born to mothers who didn’t graduate from high school are twice as likely to die before their first birthdays as babies whose mothers finished college, according to the commission’s findings.

To further illustrate the connection, the Healthier America commission’s website features an education and health “calculator” that compares state and county education rates with mortality rates.

The calculator also demonstrates the amount of  deaths that could be averted if adults in a community had the same health as those with at least some college education.

Photo by Michael@NW Lens, courtesy of Flickr

For instance, the calculator shows that Milwaukee County’s death rate is 427 people for every 100,000 when 59 percent of the county’s adult population has some level of college education. If that percentage could be raised to 64 percent, the calculator indicates 117 deaths could be averted each year.

The takeaway from the commission’s findings is that “better education is related to better health.”

And if that’s not enough, then consider the bottom line in dollars. The report estimated potential health care cost savings — still a hot issue for the new federal health reform law — can be found through improved education: If American adults with less education experienced the death rates and health status of college graduates, the annual economic benefit would be about $1 trillion.

Whether adopting national academic standards will do much to improve the quality of education in MPS and other Wisconsin schools remains to be seen. We can only hope that it will, so that more schoolchildren can grow up to live longer, healthier lives.

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