As someone with a past in education and a future in public health, I think a lot about how the goals of education and the goals of public health can be aligned. Lately I’ve been following the conversation about what will happen to the dreaded No Child Left Behind law in the new administration. And it seems like the reauthorization of the law might be a good opportunity to use the law to encourage schools to implement programs that will help with both improving children’s education and their health. This might sound strange, since NCLB has become synonymous with teaching to the test, forcing out subjects like music and physical education, and unfairly punishing schools (and therefore students) that need help. But actually, the law itself had a lot of cool things written into it, like promoting parental involvement in schools—these components just fell by the wayside when the law was actually put into action. It is by no means outlandish to think of the law as an opportunity to make schools better all around.
If I could sit down and chat with Arne Duncan, the new Secretary of Education, about the reauthorization of the law, I’d advocate for:
1. A provision that, for schools to be classified as meeting their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), they must show that they have provided students and teachers with opportunities for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day, whether through physical education classes or recess. This would clearly help with not only promoting both students’ and teachers’ health, but also with helping students form the habit of exercise. In addition, it is likely to boost teachers’ morale and job satisfaction, which is one of the biggest predictors of how well a school performs academically. And of course there is some evidence (though at this point much of it is admittedly anecdotal) that more physical activity leads to better concentration, higher academic achievement, and fewer trips to the principal’s office for behavioral infractions.
2. Requiring that middle and high school biology standards be modified to include learning about how nutrition, physical activity, and obesity (and smoking, drinking, and stress) affect human biology and the development of chronic disease. These things should be taken out of the health classroom and into the biology classroom, where children are less likely to be goofing off (sorry, health teachers, but it’s true!). Don’t get me wrong—I do not at all mean to imply that I think if we just teach children and adolescents about sugar intake and Type II diabetes then they’ll put down the Big Gulp. But so many people are really unaware of how their diet and exercise habits can affect disease; a little knowledge couldn’t hurt. From the education side, this could improve students’ engagement with the subject since it’s a more applied side of biology.
3. Support for home economics classes and requiring that schools must provide them to meet AYP, which I never thought I’d say back in the day when I was mostly concerned about literacy standards. Again, education is not even close to being a magic bullet; thinking that nutrition education is going to solve all our problems in the face of a toxic environment is pure folly. However, the fact still remains that most Americans have limited skills in preparing their own food. Cooking skills have been beaten out of us by decades of heat-and-serve and just-add-water products dominating the supermarket. When you develop cooking skills, you tend to eat out less and also cook meals much more efficiently than when you don’t have the skills, so the time and convenience issues that really prevent so many people from cooking for themselves become less of a problem. And families who cook for themselves using whole, non-processed ingredients tend to be healthier than families who do not. Raising a new generation of Americans with the skills and confidence to make and eat healthy and delicious food might be one piece of the puzzle that needs to be filled in to reduce obesity and chronic disease in the future. And cooking and nutrition classes give multiple opportunities for learning math, chemistry, and history skills, not to mention the confidence boost they can give to students who are not performing well in traditional math, science, and social studies classrooms.
The challenge, of course, is balancing these components with pure academic achievement, but it seems clear that promoting health is one way of indirectly but profoundly improving students’ academic progress. Not to mention that these suggested changes should not be unfunded mandates, but should be accompanied by proper financial support to make them happen. But if we want children to do better, we’ve got to stop thinking in silos and start thinking about how education and public health can work alongside each other. If we really want to leave no child behind, we’ve got to think of their wellbeing as much as we think of their test scores.