Wide disparities exist in both educational opportunity and life expectancy for adolescents, and a new report from Child Trends released Jan. 21 has found a “small but meaningful” correlation between the two.

Educational attainment, a key social determinant of health, is one of the most powerful predictors of life expectancy,” the report said. “This association has strengthened over the past 20 years, placing our nation’s schools at the forefront of initiatives to improve teen health outcomes and reduce health disparities.”

Charter, magnet and public high schools were all included in the data collection and analysis, while online / virtual schools were excluded. The schools were assessed based on four criteria:

  1. Effective teaching (such as years of teaching experience).
  2. Rigorous academics (including availability of AP and dual enrollment courses).
  3. Nonacademic supports (such as the number of counselors and social workers per student).
  4. Supportive conditions for learning (including the number of suspensions and expulsions).

Cumulative scores were calculated for schools based on each of the four criteria. A school with an overall score of 1 was in the lowest quintile (the bottom 20% of all schools in terms of educational opportunity), while a score of 5 was in the top quintile (the top 20% of all schools).

Additional details on the methodology can be found here.

In the neighborhoods that provide an average educational opportunity (the average school within the middle quintile, which corresponds to a score of 3), 15-year-olds have an average life expectancy of 79.1 years.

That figure drops to an average of 78.6 years for the neighborhoods with the lowest educational opportunity, and the number rises to an average of 79.4 years in neighborhoods with the highest educational opportunity.

Overall, the researchers concluded that educational opportunity contributes to 6% of the difference in life expectancy between neighborhoods.

“Although the contribution of educational opportunity to life expectancy is smaller than the contributions of systemic inequities associated with race, ethnicity and poverty, educational opportunity is an actionable point of intervention to improve life expectancy and diminish disparities between neighborhoods,” the report said.

The report was careful to note that while correlation can be demonstrated by the collected data, causation was not part of the research.

It also emphasized “educational opportunity should not be viewed as an immutable characteristic of a given area. Neighborhoods have the potential to improve their educational opportunity over time.”

To help explain the correlation between these two data points, an interactive map of major U.S. cities was created.

It includes the quintile grades for high schools within communities (using U.S. census tracks), as well as data on life expectancy within those neighborhoods in which the schools are located.

The full report is available here, and a statement of limitations can be accessed here.

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