social determinants of health

Education in the K-12 system: A social determinant of health that extends beyond the child’s classroom

Author’s note: This is the second post of the social determinants of health series, in which I discuss international public health disparities and societal factors contributing to public health. In these posts, I’ll delve into my journey into the field of public health, specifically focusing on eye care/visual impairments in underprivileged communities, while describing my experiences along the way.

The modern educational system is riddled with disparities; in many aspects, to this day, access to education is dependent on our wealth, socioeconomic status, and zip code. Ever since education started four thousand years ago as a tool of the aristocracy, educational disparities have remained prevalent in our society. This deep-rooted inequality has spanned millennia, but in recent years, our society has become more aware of its problematic foundation. To further mitigate this inequality, we must begin at a level of understanding how and why it came into existence.

Many look to the United States as a beacon of educational opportunity that awaits them; this American Dream has motivated generations of immigrants to move to the promised land to work for a better life. Unfortunately, this notion is an oversimplification that masks the underlying truths of our system that make access to education unequal. Such inequalities permeate both the public and private education systems. 

When considering public schools, many have district zoning laws which require people living in a neighborhood to attend the school nearest to them. At first glance, this may appear normal. However, socioeconomic inequality between neighborhoods, stemming from housing prices, property taxes, etc., can influence which types of households can afford to live in a certain neighborhood. Due to this, many neighborhoods are concentrated with either low-income families or well-off families, but not both. Hence, when zoning systems group together entire neighborhoods, they end up sending well-off kids from one neighborhood to one school — let’s say School A — while a neighborhood of low-income families must attend another — we’ll say School B. This system is what underpins much of the socioeconomic and racial inequality in the public school system. Over many years, School A will thrive due to its greater taxpayer money, parental involvement, and funding, whereas School B may do the opposite.

When respect to private schools, the story is much more simple, yet no less unequal: Those who can afford a higher-end education for their children are typically of the upper-middle to elite class. The financial barrier can block low-income families from resources, networking connections, and extracurricular opportunities that such a private school may provide.

Schools without as many resources can provide fewer opportunities to their students.

From a societal perspective, these inequalities can have lasting impacts on children’s lives. The classroom is an environment which takes up much of a child’s life — 8 hours a day for 5 days a week for 12 years of their life. It’s where children have the opportunity to grow and contribute about the world in unique ways, all while expanding their horizons of knowledge: the extracurriculars offered can allow children to explore their hobbies and passions; as students transition to high school, advanced placement (AP) coursework can help prepare them for succeeding at a university; work and networking opportunities can enable them to gain real-world experience in their field of interest. Each of these areas has the ability to influence the direction of a student’s life for the better or worse.

Yet, because of the tremendous inequality in the education system, many low-income students aren’t given the same opportunities to succeed as their peers in richer schools. As a result, many such students are unable to escape from the cycle of poverty.

And, if nothing changes, the odds are that their children will experience the same fate.

Returning to the focus of this article — the social determinants of health — it’s well-known that income is highly correlated with positive aspects of health, such as one’s lifespan and their access to medical care. In fact, for example, lower-income families are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. If our education systems are designed to allow poverty to continue across generations, low-income environments are likely to be reproduced, and the community is greater at risk. 

Income is just one of the social determinants of health affected by quality of education; as with most societal factors, education is deeply interconnected with variables such as economic stability, nutrition (e.g. if one lives in a food desert), and crime rates. Thus, what starts in a child’s classroom will end up affecting nearly every aspect of their life. 

By analyzing our educational system at a societal level, one can understand how and why inequalities have come to prevalence in our society. It is difficult to change an institution that has stood for many centuries, but the least we can do is understand how we’re affected by it. With this in mind, as we face our neighbors, friends, and communities, we will do our best to change what is unjust.

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