Invest in schools for better health

AURORA — Investments in education would do far more to drive down health care costs than simply reforming the health care system, an expert on social determinants of health said Friday during a visit to Colorado.

Dr. Steven Woolf

“If there was one thing that modern medicine could do to improve health outcomes, it would be to solve the high school dropout problem,” said Dr. Steven Woolf of the Center for Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Surveys show most people believe that hospitals or access to doctors determines how healthy people are.

But, in fact, Woolf and his colleagues have found that social determinants ranging from education and poverty levels to jobs, neighborhoods and family support systems have a far bigger impact on a person’s health.

Health spending it completely out of whack with no more than 10 percent of more than 2 trillion dollars a year being spent on preventive or behavioral health care, Woolf said.

Critics of the Affordable Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court is now weighing, complain that the law focuses too much on providing health insurance to the uninsured rather than driving down health care costs.

  • This story is one result of EdNews’ partnership with Solutions, a non-profit news website focused on health issues and staffed by professional journalists.

While policy experts have plenty of ideas for trimming health expenses, Woolf said their lens is too narrow.

They need to look outside the health care system and prevent people from getting sick and dying prematurely in the first place, he said, noting health disparities are profound in the U.S. with life expectancies for African-Americans far lower than those for whites and people who live in affluent areas.

Woolf and his colleagues have done studies showing that improving lifestyles, neighborhoods and education for blacks could save far more lives than medical breakthroughs.

“As someone interested in social factors, to me it’s a bit of a no-brainer to cut off the supply of disease that’s flowing into the system,” Woolf told about 100 health experts, doctors and students at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

In fact, a study last year in Health Affairs found that over the long term, encouraging healthier behaviors and improving environmental conditions dramatically saved lives while also driving down costs.

Woolf said he’s alarmed when he sees governors and state lawmakers cutting education funding because their Medicaid rolls are swelling and they feel they have no choice.

At a time when child poverty is at an all-time high in the U.S. and the economy is still sputtering, he thinks strengthening schools, reducing unemployment and investing in healthy neighborhoods could improve the health of millions while saving money over the long term.

Woolf and his colleagues modeled what would happen if every adult in the U.S. had some college education and found that higher educational attainment could save seven more lives than biomedical advances could save.

Studies in Virginia comparing some of the most affluent counties in the country to some of the poorest show that fixing disparities is complex and challenging.

“There’s no magic wand,” Woolf said.

It’s unclear whether people in the more affluent areas live longer because they have access to better health care, stronger anti-smoking bans, easier access to physical activity, better schools and higher education attainment or healthier neighborhoods.

But, “We know something is going on,” Woolf said.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what changes would bring the greatest declines in premature death, Woolf points to better schools as the place he would start.

“The only strategy that actually bends the costs curve and decreases spending is one that takes into account these social factors,” he said.

“Cutting back funding for education is only going to increase spending for medical costs in the long run.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”