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Is health education in America comprehensive?

Bill Stafford/NASA

In many states across the U.S., health education is taught in middle school or high school for a single semester, which is indicative of the lack of quality health education in classrooms, according to a health education professor at The University of Alabama.

Dr. David Birch, past president of the Society for Public Health Education, said health education is not taught the way it should be. He said there are many reasons, the first being that the lessons are not nearly comprehensive enough. We discuss more this week on "Take Care."

Currently, many health classes teach basics like safe alcohol consumption and drug education, but that misses a lot, he said. Birch said ideally, quality school health education would include lessons on critical thinking, goal setting and social factors that affect health conveyed in an engaging style with real-life applications.

Another shortcoming of health education systems today is that it is only taught in one grade for one semester when it should be taught throughout a child’s school life, Birch said.

“The issue there is that we know the health education needs of kids at 9th and 10th grade are different than the health education needs of kids who are in 11th and 12th grade,” Birch said.

In those classes, it is often a physical education teacher instructing the course, but Birch said it is crucial for quality health education to include a passionately and professionally prepared school educator -- a teacher trained in health education.

One thing standing in the way of these improvements is budget restraints that can restrict health education programs. Budget requirements can eliminate elective health courses for students who are interested in it beyond the basic level. It can also make it so the class is taught by a non-health teacher.

The biggest reason for all this disparity between what health education should be and what it is currently is ignorance.

“Many stakeholders, including school administrators … don’t understand what quality school health is,” Birch said.

This lack of understanding is because proper health education has never existed, so it is hard to find a template to judge today’s system by.

“Many people don’t understand what quality, comprehensive, sequential school health education is, and one of the main reasons for that is very few people have experienced it,” Birch said. “If the only thing I knew about health education was what I got from the public schools that I went to many, many years ago, I would not want to allocate any time or any resources toward it.”

When quality health education is presented to people, though, they generally realize that it can be very important for children, which is why advocacy efforts need to be increased to bring in the support of more stakeholders, Birch said.

One sign of hope in Birch’s mind is the recent federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA, which replaces No Child Left Behind. There is a requirement for schools to provide a well-rounded education, and it gives examples of subjects that are part of that well-rounded education, which includes health education. Birch said this is a good first step toward placing more emphasis on quality health education in classrooms.