04/03/2012 03:58 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

The Missing Piece in the Education Reform Conversation

Attention public health advocates, the education reform train is leaving the station. It is time to get on board!

America's focus on reforming education is a golden opportunity for public health advocates seeking to curb childhood obesity to accomplish their goals. By incorporating health into the education reform agenda, all children who attend public school can be reached more directly than if health reformers try to go it alone.

Childhood obesity is a condition that makes kids sick. More than 23 million children and adolescents are diagnosed as obese or overweight. As a result, the number of kids diagnosed with diabetes and heart disease continues to climb -- diseases only found in adults until recently. And it is challenging to teach a sick child. Research shows that improving health affects drivers of academic performance including increasing attendance and reducing behavior problems.

That is why education reformers are taking a closer look at the non-academic drivers of student achievement like health and nutrition. Addressing the factors that lie outside a teacher's ability to instruct or a curriculum's content is receiving increased focus. Hunger and a lack of nutritious food can affect a child's ability to learn. Conditions like Type 2 diabetes impact a child's school attendance. To get better results in school among at-risk children, these and other non-academic factors need to be addressed.

Nationally, innovative new federal grants provide a push towards a more comprehensive approach to student achievement. The Social Innovation, Promise Neighborhoods and Full Services Community Schools grant fund interventions that address student health and enrichment as well as parental engagement.

In addition, state leaders are promoting their own education reform agendas that include addressing childhood obesity and health.

Across the country, a model called Coordinated School Health -- developed by the Centers for Disease Control -- that coordinates nutrition and physical activity throughout a school district, is taking hold. Tennessee has funded a coordinated school health program statewide since 2006 and has some of the healthiest public schools in the nation as a result. In Connecticut, Senate Budget chairwoman Toni Harp stated recently in an opinion editorial, "As part of education reform, I support hiring a coordinated school health director for Connecticut's lowest performing school districts." In Oregon, public health advocates have a seat at the table as the governor negotiates compacts with failing schools as part of the effort to improve educations. In Mississippi, the state senate recently passed a coordinated school health reform bill.

As education reformers consider health, the vast resources and capacity dedicated to educating our children can also become a vehicle to make them healthier. Childhood obesity advocates must take heed and seize this opportunity. Working together, education and public health advocates can coalesce around the shared objective of improving the lives of children. 

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