Research Underpinning the Loving Cities Framework
Good health sets a strong foundation for educational success; providing supports that foster physical and mental health are critical to providing healthy living and learning environments.
Even before a child is born, health plays a critical role in future outcomes. The physical, social and emotional health of children in the first five years of life is tied to long-lasting impacts on brain and cognitive development, language, motor skills, and academic learning. Neonatal health has been linked with educational performance in elementary and middle school, even when controlling for family socioeconomic factors and quality of resources (e.g., school quality). Links have been drawn between the exposure of pollution in utero with lower performance on standardized academic assessments later in life. Additionally, low birth weight is a predictor of academic performance in children and adolescents.
Youth experiencing chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and cancer, are significantly more likely to face barriers to educational attainment compared to their healthier counterparts. This effect is sometimes seen because of the disruptive nature of caring for an ailment; for instance, asthmatic students miss school more often, and consequently score lower on tests than their healthier peers.
Youth who live in neighborhoods with greater access to healthy foods, recreational spaces, and resources for physical activity are less likely to experience increases in body mass index associated with obesity and other chronic diseases. Healthy eating and physical activity have shown positive associations with higher student achievement in math and reading. Community environments with clean air and safe, abundant parks help to promote healthy living behaviors that prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma.
It is estimated that more than half of adults have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, such as abuse, neglect, or family/household challenges. In a recent study, 12.5% of all adults in a 17,000-person sample reported experiencing four or more adverse childhood experiences. Exposure to trauma at this level has been associated with learning and behavior problems, as well as obesity. Mental health support for children and families, good health insurance coverage, as well as access to in-school support staff for students — such as instructional aides and guidance counselors — can help ensure that children who need support are identified and connected to resources for total health and wellbeing.
Stable communities minimize the social and economic hardships that can distract children from learning and growing by providing families with access to support for financial security. This can include safe, affordable housing, well-connected and accessible transportation, and diverse and attainable economic opportunities for families. Though the structural supports for economic security are often considered outside the traditional scope of efforts to reform education, they have critical importance influencing student success. Housing security impacts educational outcomes; children residing in stable housing, free of the threat of displacement or eviction, demonstrate higher levels of academic achievement. Parental employment is associated with lower rates of disciplinary action at school, higher grade retention, and positive postsecondary attainment. Family liquid assets are predictive of college attendance and attainment.
One of the most critical determinants of economic security — civic engagement — also has direct implications for student outcomes. Civic engagement plays an important role in determining social and political capital — that is, power to allocate community resources, set investment priorities, and ultimately, determine who benefits from shared social and economic decisions and who doesn’t. International studies spanning a century show that higher rates of voter turnout result in greater spending on social and economic priorities such as affordable housing, living wage jobs, and education. The role of civic engagement in education is also well documented. Investments in Pre-K-12 education are associated with higher educational attainment, higher income, and reduced poverty as adults; the effects are even far more substantial for students from low-income backgrounds.
Encouraging diverse and consistent opportunities for economic growth and civic participation requires multifaceted approaches to community development. Communities that promote stability create an ample supply of affordable housing for residents. They offer broad access to affordable and well-connected transit, and a diverse selection of living wage jobs, to ensure that people can access economic opportunities and stay out of poverty when they are working full time. Education advocates can partner with a host of experts and advocates in community development, housing and transportation equity to create community change. Addressing the multiple factors that influence holistic youth development and success underscores the importance of partnerships between educational institutions and other city organizations and leaders.
Caring communities provide students with safe and positive environments for learning and positive school discipline. Communities with caring systems provide access to affordable early childhood education and offering positive, inclusive approaches to school discipline, aligned with principles of restorative justice.
The evidence is clear that exposure to effective, quality early childhood education, including high-quality preschool education programs, can significantly improve the academic performance of students over the long term. The evidence is so ubiquitous that efforts to provide universal preschool span international borders, and are documented to have existed as early as the early 19th century.In the U.S., the most successful efforts to expand early childhood education to low-income students occurred beginning in 1964 through the Head Start program, a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Head Start supports the development of over 750,000 young children by providing free early childhood education to low-income families. Together with continued high-quality education and efforts to move children out of poverty, Head Start has contributed to greater rates of high school graduation and post-secondary attainment, as well as improved health outcomes, compared with populations who have not participated in early childhood education.
Healthy learning environments require that children feel safe and secure among their peers and with teachers and school administrators; attention to bullying and positive school discipline practices are paramount. Higher rates of bullying and teasing at school have been associated with poorer outcomes on standardized assessments. In places where bullying is more prominent, students engage in school less and ultimately perform more poorly on assessments. Likewise, schools with higher levels of exclusionary discipline (such as suspensions and expulsions) have lower levels of student performance, even among students who are not the direct subject of exclusionary discipline. On the contrary, schools that employ restorative justice practices — focused on misbehavior prevention, positive dialogue, and conflict resolution — have reduced rates of suspension and expulsion, narrowed racial and gender gaps in discipline, and improved academic outcomes.
Communities with high-capacity learning environments ensure that students are engaged and challenged, through exposure to socially and economically diverse peers, experienced and well-paid teachers, and challenging curricula. In high-capacity systems, students engage more in school-related activities and demonstrate better academic outcomes.
Communities with high capacity provide greater access to high quality teachers, which makes a difference for student outcomes. Schools staffed with experienced and credentialed teachers perform better on standardized assessments and demonstrate increased productivity in elementary and middle school grades. Higher teacher quality also strongly predicts better future economic returns for students, with poor teacher quality severely impeding individual economic growth. Persistent teacher absence can negatively influence mathematics achievement. In short, teaching experience matters, and experienced teachers must be distributed in more equitable ways.
Challenging and diverse curricula and supports are also more accessible in high-capacity learning environments. Although findings are split, some research suggests that students with access to gifted/talented programs performed better on cognitive assessments than gifted students not enrolled in such programs; in large part, the students performed better than the general student population. Similarly, some research shows that four-year college enrollment was significantly influenced by participation in advanced placement courses and examinations, even after controlling for demographics and high school level predictors; additionally, students who did not participate in AP examinations were less likely to attend four-year colleges across and within ethnic subgroups. Students with access to social and emotional learning programs demonstrate increased achievement outcomes and advanced emotional development skills. In addition, schools that provide nutritious lunches demonstrate higher performance on assessments.
High-capacity schools are out of reach for too many students, particularly students of color, because of a legacy of school segregation. Although school segregation was legally banned over 60 years ago, the problems continue and are pernicious. Students exposed to poverty face greater academic achievement gaps than those who are not, and in communities segregated by race there are significant differences in school poverty rates between White and Black students. A recent study of race and income in 97 cities showed that in 83 cities where data were available, most Black students attend schools where poverty is highly concentrated — the majority of their classmates qualify as low-income (measured by eligibility for free- and reduced-price lunches). In 54 of these cities, a staggering majority of Black students (80%) attended schools where low-income students are the majority.
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