Education as a Social Determinant of Health

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Need for Educational Reform to Increase the Odds for All

Education exerts a significant influence on many aspects of health. Studies show that the level of educational attainment is a strong predictor of quality of life, SES, physical health, employment, and zip code. Additionally, there is growing evidence that level of education is inversely correlated with mortality regardless of race or gender. Despite this knowledge, there are considerable educational inequities between White children and ethnic and racial minority children in the United States. As a result, minority youth on average are underperforming in school, placing them at risk for not reaching their fullest potential in life.

Achievement Gaps and Outcomes

While some achievement gaps such as school dropout rates have decreased overtime, significant educational inequities remain. These inequities are reflected in measures of academic achievement (e.g., standardized test scores, grade repetition, involvement in gifted programs, and enrollment in higher education) as well as in behavioral markers of adjustment (e.g., disciplinary action, suspension, and expulsion). Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the effects could be seen in differences in unemployment rates (e.g., Blacks have an unemployment rate of 8% compared to 4% among Whites), and post-secondary education rates for example. These disparities have substantially increased due to the uneven impacts of the crisis on minority populations.

Various underlying causes of educational disparities are identifiable because they are similar across ethnic and racial minority groups. Here, we focus on four domains: early childhood education, diversity, school opportunities, and teacher-student dynamics. While tackling each domain is important in reducing educational inequities among minority youth, conclusions are that focusing on teacher-student dynamics and implicit biases will exert the most significant and immediate impact.

Equal Footing: The Role of Early Childhood Education (ECE)

School readiness is critical to educational achievement over time. Disadvantaged children, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, more often enter kindergarten lacking the skill sets (e.g., academic, social and emotional skills) necessary to be successful in school. ECE programs have been found to help narrow educational gaps associated with poverty. However, ECE programs can differ significantly in quality and/or may not be directed toward the complexities of the intended population.

Even when racial and ethnic minority students enter school with a knowledge base similar to their White counterparts, they struggle with institutional discrimination that directly impedes their academic success. One of the most impactful challenges minority children encounter originates from teachers’ biases.

Teacher diversity matters

There is a significant disparity between teacher and student diversity across the United States. In 2012, Blacks represented 45% of public school student population in the US while 82% of their teachers were White. Because White teachers are more likely to discipline, give lower grades, and provide fewer opportunities for non-white students than White students, this disparity often translates to hurdles encountered by non-white students that have adverse consequences for their educational achievement.

Student Diversity Matters

Increasing student diversity within schools has been shown to reduce achievement gaps. After controlling for student background characteristics (e.g., SES and school factors), black and Brown children attending high minority schools had lower literacy and math skills than their counterparts who attended ethnically diverse schools. Additionally, diversity helped to improve social competence and behavior problems irrespective of the overall quality of the classroom interactions.

School Matters

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