Students who attend more rigorous high schools engage in healthier behaviors than their peers, according to a study released this week.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, surveyed low-income minority students who applied to attend three high-performing charter schools in Los Angeles. The researchers compared the students who were admitted by lottery, to those who were not admitted, most of whom ended up at low-performing public schools. The study found the teens at the charter school were less likely to engage in what the study called “very risky behavior,” including binge drinking, risky sex, gang participation, and substance use at school.
The study’s lead author, Michael Wong from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), concedes that the study’s conclusion is not ground-breaking: “Better education will lead to better health.” But he says his methodology is more accurate than previous studies trying to link education and health.
The UCLA study looked students between 9th and 12th grades, mostly Latino, who had similar 8th grade test scores and were all from a similar neighborhood and demographic. Instead of self-selecting, the students were randomly selected to attend a rigorous high school. The 521 students offered admission to the charter school increased their academic performance, raising their math and English standard test scores, and took less health risks than the 409 students who were not accepted into the charter school.
The study also found that students admitted to the charter school had higher retention rates. Only 9 percent dropped out, compared to 24 percent of students who were not admitted. Same background, same academic level, different outcomes.
Other studies have looked at health outcomes between students at high-performing schools and low-performing schools, but researchers found it hard to parse whether the differences in healthy decisions were attributable to the education itself, or the type of student who was able to get into the school.
“You end up asking, are the outcomes really from education, or is it all the other factors that are associated with poverty?” Wong told The Christian Science Monitor. “This is one of the first studies that has used a rigorous study design to evaluate the impact of better education on health.”
The study’s authors conclude that a challenging school environment keeps kids healthy and out of trouble: “Increasing performance of public schools in low-income communities may be a powerful mechanism to decrease very risky health behaviors among low-income adolescents and to decrease heath disparities across the life span.”