Study: For poor teens, better schools equal less risky behavior

Low-income teens are less likely to join gangs, binge on alcohol, or engage in other 'very risky' health behaviors when they are enrolled in high-ranking charter schools, a new study finds.  

John Gress/Reuters/File
A student makes his way to class in Chicago, in 2012.

Low-income teenagers are significantly less likely to engage in certain risky health behaviors, such as gang membership and binge drinking, when they attend high-performing schools, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. 

The newest evidence in a growing national discussion about the connections between health and education, the University of California, Los Angeles study compared low-income students in lottery-based, high-performing public charter schools with other teens who were not accepted into those schools. Although demographically equivalent, students in the first group were much less likely to become pregnant, use drugs other than marijuana, carry a weapon to school, or engage in any number of other behaviors categorized by the researchers as “very risky.”  

It is one of the first studies in which scholars have been able to pinpoint a cause and effect between better schools and student behavior, says UCLA’s Mitchell Wong, lead author of the report. While other research has compared students in differently achieving schools, and has looked at the behaviors of high school dropouts versus those of graduates, it has often proved difficult to tease out what outcomes stem from the school itself and what results from students starting out with different backgrounds.  

“You end up asking, are the outcomes really from education, or is it all the other factors that are associated with poverty?” Dr. Wong says. “This is one of the first studies that has used a rigorous study design to evaluate the impact of better education on health.” 

Wong and the other researchers also tried to dig into the “whys.” Although they did not try to explain what about the charter schools (all of which were ranked highly on California’s academic performance index) made students healthier, they did search into what aspect of students’ lives at school were most statistically relevant. They found that academic performance itself – in particular, better results on math and English tests – and staying in school were most linked to a reduction in “very risky” behaviors. 

The study is part of a new focus for many of America’s public health officials, who have long been worried about widening health and academic disparities between low-income children and their wealthier peers. The gap between the average math scores of low-income and high-income students grew by a third from 1978 to 2008, according to research by Stanford University Prof. Sean Reardon. Lower-income and minority children are much more likely to drop out of school, which is connected to a host of health concerns from smoking to obesity.

“The school climate is very, very significant in health and behavioral outcomes, as well as educational outcomes,” says Terri Wright, director of the Center for School, Health and Education in the American Public Health Association. “But for a long time it has gotten short shrift.”  

This has started to change. Last week, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new report showing links between healthy eating and improved academic achievement.  

“We are really pushing people, if they are doing a health study of adolescence, to include academic achievement; to ask about grades, ask about attendance,” says Dr. Shannon Michael, adolescent health researcher with the CDC. 

In the UCLA study, Wong and his team surveyed 521 students, in Grades 9 through 12, who were offered admission, through a lottery, to three high-performing Los Angeles charter schools, and 409 students who were not offered admission and so attended regular public schools with lower rankings. They conducted interviews with each student, used computer-assisted self-interviews, and collected test scores. They evaluated demographics, assessed depression, sexual behaviors, exposure to violence, social networks, and a host of other characteristics.  

While they found no difference between the two groups in what the researchers categorized as “risky” behaviors, such as tobacco and alcohol use, the difference in those “very risky” behaviors were notable, with 41.9 percent of the control group engaging in at least one, compared with 36.3 percent in the group that attended a better high school.

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