Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education: National Prevention Strategy Series
The National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy offers a comprehensive plan to increase the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of life. A cornerstone of the Strategy is that it recognizes that good health comes not just from quality medical care, but also from the conditions we face where we live, learn, work and play—such as healthy homes, clean water and air and safe worksites. The strategy was developed by the National Prevention Council, which is composed of 17 federal agencies including the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and others.
As the Strategy is rolled out, NewPublicHealth will be speaking with Cabinet Secretaries, Agency directors and their designees to the Prevention Council about their prevention initiatives. Follow the series here.
We spoke with Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, about the connection between health and education. Listen to the short podcast, and read the full interview below.
NewPublicHealth.org: The Department of Education is a member of the National Prevention Council. Why is health a priority for the Department?
Secretary Duncan: Very simply, if children aren’t healthy they can’t fulfill their academic and social potential. I always talk about the foundation of building blocks for great education, which includes good physical and emotional health. If children can’t see the blackboard they can’t do well. If children are hungry they can’t do well. If children are obese they are not going to do as well as they should. So we have to collectively make sure that children are physically and emotionally healthy so they can think about AP Chemistry and Biology and Physics and the rest of their learning.
NPH: What are the Department of Education’s key target areas and specific initiatives in implementing the National Prevention Strategy?
Secretary Duncan: We want to do everything we can to make sure that the children’s good health is the norm rather than the exception. When you have one out of three young children being overweight or obese, you’re putting them at risk for serious illnesses. That’s a real challenge. So we’re trying to do everything we can. For the first time this year we’ve introduced a great program called U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools that highlights schools that have done an amazing job of reducing environmental impact and costs, and improving health in integrating sustainability into the curriculum. We want to be a great partner and we think if we can teach children these skills when they are young that these habits will stay with them while they are in school but also for their lifetime, and that’s really what is so important to me.
NPH: How might the Department of Education work with partners to help increase physical activity at school?
Secretary Duncan: I have talked about this being a movement whose time has come and no one can do this by themselves. The private sector can’t do it by themselves. The public sector can’t do it by themselves. But when we’re leveraging each other’s resources and partnering in non-traditional ways, really creative ways, then I think we create opportunities to change children’s lives forever. I worry particularly for disadvantaged communities whether that’s inner city urban or rural remote. We want to increase physical activity to give children a chance to play, to have recess and there are great, great partners out there and we are all starting to work together. There was a national conference here not too long ago—just the energy in the room, the sense of shared commitment, it was just really exciting to be a part of that.
My question is always one of scale. How can we take these pockets of excellence, islands of excellence, and make them systems of excellence? How do we turn that resource into action? How do we change behavior and create many more great opportunities for young people, again particularly in historically disadvantaged communities?
NPH: What do you think is the connection between getting kids active in schools and their academic achievement?
Secretary Duncan: There’s a tremendous amount of academic research that talks about how important it is for children to be physically active, that they lead healthier lives, that they have better levels of attendance, they are better able to concentrate in class. But I’ll also talk from personal experience. If I didn’t have a chance to run around a little bit I could be pretty tough in class. But if I had the chance to get out and run around and burn off a little steam, I could come to class and concentrate.
NPH: Mr. Secretary, how do you think schools can gain traction on creating healthier school environments for children?
Secretary Duncan: We have a couple of different grant programs. We have the Carol M. White Physical Education Program and we fund about 80 million dollars a year there, so that’s an opportunity. And the 78 initial winners of the U.S. Green Ribbon Schools awards program are just extraordinary examples of what schools are doing in a creative way. So whether it’s applying for resources, whether it’s looking at the examples of the Green Ribbon Schools and emulating some of their best practices, I think one of the important roles we at the Department can play is to share what’s working. We can be the clearing house for innovative practices at the local level and what folks are doing in their buildings, what they’re doing outside, what they’re doing in their communities for our children such as walking to school, and biking to school and not just riding the bus every single day. We want to be a great partner and have folks hold us accountable for stepping up and providing great, great resources and ideas and sharing what’s working with folks across the country. If we can have our children enter school every single day healthy and alert and physically active then I think we have a chance to do great things academically. If we don’t do those things, I really do think we put a limit. We put a ceiling on how well our students are going to do in the classroom and they deserve better than that. They need us above all else to be the leaders and to create opportunities so they can again fulfill their tremendous academic and social potential.