Dr. Katrina Walsemann, an associate professor in the Arnold School of Public Health’s health promotion, education, and behavior (HPEB) department at the University of South Carolina, has been awarded nearly 100 thousand dollars to play a key role in improving the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) county health rankings. The one-year research grant is funded through the county health rankings & roadmaps program, a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
[Photo: Dr. Katrina Walsemann]
Dr. Walsemann’s project, “Creating a School Quality Indicators Database to Enhance the RWJF County Health Rankings,” aims to create a contextual database that includes county-level indicators of school quality, school segregation, and academic achievement using data from all public elementary and secondary schools in the United States.
“Schools are one of the most important sites of social, cultural, and racial reproduction in the U.S.,” says Dr. Walsemann. “Yet, population health research often ignores school quality and school segregation when examining the ways in which education matters for health, in part because such data is not easily accessible.”
The rankings currently rely on two measures of educational attainment: high school graduation rate in each county and percentage of county residents who have attended some college. “These measures do not fully capture aspects of, and often mask heterogeneity in, school quality and context that are important for building healthy communities and reducing racial and class inequities in health,” explains Dr. Walsemann. “By developing a user-friendly database that includes theoretically and empirically informed measures of school quality and context, our project will provide county health officials and policy makers with a valuable tool to assess how investments in public education contribute to health and health equity in their own community and state and where they might invest limited resources to improve population health.”
The resulting database will also yield a novel data resource for the research community, which will facilitate significant advances in understanding of how inequities in school quality and context influence health and mortality across the life course. Researchers and practitioners can then expand efforts to address the social determinants of population health and build a culture of health.
“The current education measures available in the county health rankings reflect differences in educational attainment, but the new measures reflect differences in public investment in our schools — something that policy makers and local county officials have a stake in and have the power to influence,” says Dr. Walsemann. “The creation of this database, therefore, has the potential to make school rankings more relevant to a strategic set of new partners by measuring aspects of school quality and segregation that are modifiable, easily understandable, and vitally important to many community members. Such school-level factors provide necessary contextual information from which to assess whether a county is doing its utmost to promote the health of its people, particularly children.”