The health field is shifting from one that is almost wholly focused on how to help individuals when they are in the hospital to one that realizes the importance of external factors on health. The shift indicates that “health” is something much more than what doctors can impart on patients in the operating room or clinic. The field of education would do well to think of “education” as something more than what can possibly be imparted to students during the time they spend together in school: one-third of the hours in a day, for three-quarters of the year, and only after five years of enormous development in the home environment.
Think of all of the factors that influence a child during her lifetime. Studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences significantly impede the success of individuals in future life, leading to elevated special education costs for the school system. Others have recognized the importance of out-of-school factors on student outcomes, even suggesting during the recent economic downturn that “educators should get great credit if they prevent the achievement of disadvantaged children from falling further”. The impact of these out-of-school factors has been estimated to be two times as important as in-school factors on educational outcomes.
In the health world, these sorts of factors are called “social determinants of health,” or SDOH. One approach that the health system is taking to account for these factors is to explore the idea of risk adjustment for payment rates in healthcare. The concept is that doctors and other healthcare providers will be evaluated and ultimately reimbursed based on a sliding scale that takes into account factors outside of the health care system’s control (e.g., home environment, lifestyle, stress due to employment or lack thereof).
While I understand how this could easily devolve into a conversation about different expectations for different groups of students, and would run quite contrary to the mission of organizations like KIPP and Teach for America, I think it’s worth offering some proposals for how to address the social determinants of education.
- Early childhood education: Given the importance of a child’s first 3-5 years, opportunities for healthy development, such as Head Start and Early Head Start, are essential.
- Program providers and out-of-school learning opportunities: The Wallace Foundation, a New York City-based philanthropy focused on learning and enrichment for disadvantage children, has decided the issues of summer and afterschool learning are so important that it has dedicated a portion of its funding to addressing these two issues.
- Coordinated support in schools: Additional student needs can be met by school staff members who offer counseling and special education training and organizations like Communities in Schools, which provides connections for students to social services, healthcare and other needed supports.
By helping students address the social determinants of education, we enable them to focus on learning. We help students be more school-ready and allow teachers to focus more on teaching content than managing behavior. We create a foundation on which students can learn, achieve, and produce, ultimately benefiting—rather than burdening—society and the economy. It’s not an easy process, but support for the initiatives outlined above will be a start to addressing the social determinants of education. Let’s keep the conversation going and make #SDOE as popular as #SDOH.
Bill Winfrey is an associate with a public policy and advocacy firm in D.C. Reach him via email orTwitter.