Education and Health Sectors Are Urged To Cooperate To Ensure
By Ellen Flax
Washington--Even though it is well known that the state of a child's health will affect his ability to learn, the education and health-care systems in this country seldom work together to develop fully a child's potential for learning, experts gathered at a conference here said last week.
The meeting, which brought together more than 50 health professionals, educators, and business leaders, was sponsored by the National Health/Education Consortium. The group was formed jointly last month by the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality and the Institute for Educational Leadership to examine the relationship between health and education.
Health researchers at the meeting said that a variety of factors, including maternal drug abuse, prematurity, and poor prenatal care can cause babies to be born with physical impairments that place them at high risk for later school failure.
But given the right circumstances, they added, these babies can thrive and attain a normal academic career.
The factors that cause these high-risk babies and young children to thrive, as well as family and social situations that may cause physically healthy children to do poorly in school, will be the consortium's major focus.
Using information provided by these experts, the consortium will prepare a "white paper" on what is known about the link between learning and health, as well as information about successful intervention programs for at-risk youngsters. No time has been set for the paper's completion.
The consortium is planning afterward, however, to bring together representatives from national associations and agencies in health and education in an effort to identify what can be done at the local, state, and national levels to implement the report's recommendations.
At the conference, both health researchers and educators stressed the need to begin intervention programs for at-risk children long before they enter school. By creating more prevention-based health programs for the young--and for young women before they become pregnant--the experts said, many future educational and health problems can be avoided.
Children who suffer from developmental problems or physical or neurological handicaps, they said, have a greater chance of succeeding if they are treated early.
"If children fall behind in the early years, they may never catch up," said former Senator Lawton Chiles of Florida, chairman of the infant-mortality commission.
Many common, and easily correctable health problems, they said, can affect a child's ability to learn. Just as a child with an uncorrected vision problem cannot see the blackboard, a child with a chronic middle-ear infection may be stymied by an inability to master language skills, they said.
To a large extent, participants agreed, children will be able to overcome a host of physical problems if they live in a stable family environment. Dr. Marie McCormick, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, said that though low-birthweight babies are two to three times more likely to have academic problems than are normal-weight babies, two-thirds of these "at-risk" babies have normal academic careers.
But many young children--often those with the most severe physical and developmental difficulties--are in "double jeopardy," said Dr. Judy Howard, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California at Los Angeles, because they live in chaotic environments. Even if they were born with no physical impairments, many of the children she sees "would still be in trouble," she said.
Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said there should be "new alliances" between health-care providers and educators. Cultural and economic differences have prevented the two fields from cooperating more closely in the past, he said.
Medicine, Dr. Shonkoff said, is perceived as a high-status, male-dominated field that provides services in both the public and private sectors, whereas education is primarily administered by the public sector and is considered a lower-status field. But the two have to begin cooperating, he said, because "both are in crisis."
Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos said at the meeting that the consortium's work dovetails nicely with the national education goals developed by the President and the governors. The consortium's emphasis on providing high-quality prenatal and early-childhood care, he said, will help the nation realize the goal of having all young children who enter school by the year 2000 ready to learn.
"Your topic of crossing the boundaries between health and education is certainly very timely," the Secretary said.