Recess, breakfast and fewer bullies: why the keys to student achievement point the way to workforce engagement and productivity. Entry 5 – 2010.

Human Capital (definition): the reservoir of capacity each human has to contribute to the well-being of his community, job and/or family.  It is comprised of three types of assets: skills, health and motivation.

A belated thank-you note
Thirty or forty years after the fact, I’d like to thank teachers who made learning fun, coaches who converted lessons into games I wanted to play, and school officials who kept us safe and engaged. I was one of the lucky ones who learned a lot, came home both mentally and physically tired, and suffered mostly from typical stresses (like pop quizzes) and not fears of bodily harm. Best of all, I was surrounded by people who believed – and convinced me – that hard work would result in a rewarding life and career when I grew up.

In other words, without knowing it, my learning environment at school allowed me to develop strong human capital assets that continue to serve me well today.

Lots of kids aren’t so lucky.
According to a recent report called “Healthier Students are Better Learners” (1), many children in the U.S. face circumstances that limit their opportunity to develop and build human capital assets, be it skills, health, or motivation.
Below are seven issues the report’s authors found to interfere with learning in schools. These issues were selected because they: 1) Are relatively common, and disproportionately evident in poor, urban schools; 2) Have been proven to decrease school performance; 3) Have a strong potential to be improved with existing interventions or policies.

I find it interesting that the report labeled these HEALTH issues, with the author calling on public health and school officials to address all of them at once. By assigning them to the category of “health,” under the responsibility of health officials, we may find that we miss better opportunities to correct broader, fundamental issues.

I would argue there is an inevitable parallel between the issues challenging public education providers and those faced by corporate medical directors who later inherit those same students as workers. In the case of students or workers, are these just health issues, or do they simply show us the broader connection between health and human capital?

Each of these issues has a health-related component, but they were chosen because they interfered with the child’s opportunity to participate, learn, perform, or engage in the school environment. For instance, asthma affects learning because, when poorly controlled, it leads to absenteeism, poor sleep quality, lower motivation, and disconnectedness from classmates. (Does this sound similar to the challenges of worksite engagement?)

Bullying decreases motivation and increases depression, absenteeism, and dropout rates. Certainly this can fit within a broad definition of health, but fear of going to school causes a much more direct crisis in motivation and skill than it does in health. Fear certainly has a physical effect, but more importantly it reduces one’s ability to focus or concentrate on learning.

School achievement, like workplace achievement, results from many factors.

In this blog, regular readers have heard our argument many times. We can say that poor work performance is caused solely by health problems, which leads everyone to focus on health-related improvements only. Or, we can recognize the reverse: that high performance is the result of broader human capital success, where the environment promotes health alongside motivation and gaining the necessary skills to perform. Both approaches intend to improve health and raise achievement, but one addresses health to get to achievement, and the other directly addresses achievement, which leads individuals to value and protect their health.

Our sense is that there has to be a bigger, more obvious set of consequences to get anyone to improve; individuals need a reason to care. On the surface we see poor health and low performance, while an underlying absence of hope and optimism can magnify them both. Here are just a few workplace scenarios that parallel issues seen in schools. In workers, we see that:

  • Low job satisfaction leads to higher rates of absenteeism (2).
  • Two workers with the same illness or injury can have drastically different likelihoods of extended absence depending on whether they feel stressed and dissatisfied with their jobs (3).
  • Feeling a lack of support or recognition from one’s boss, or conflicts with co-workers, decrease work engagement (4).
  • Workers eligible for higher rewards rate health as more important to their careers (5).
  • People in communities that experience a significant increase in employment and earnings opportunities decrease their health risks and manage their health better than those in similar communities without employment opportunities (6).

One can easily find similarities if we substitute “school satisfaction” for job satisfaction, “teacher” for boss, and “fellow student” for co-worker.

Girls who envision a bright future may take extra steps to avoid pregnancy; parents who see a bright future for their kids may take extra steps to get them ready for learning; communities that consider student learning and well-being to be the key to our country’s future may work harder to keep school neighborhoods safe.

Students are workers too, only younger.

This school report about ‘improving health’ to solve the achievement gap makes me wonder if we can tackle health AND achievement from both directions. Certainly we should strive to provide all children with access to basic health and safety needs like vision correction and safe learning environments. But at the same time, each child needs a reason to care about coming to school and learning. Whether rewards are in the form of praise, gold stars, grades, favorite stories or a solid understanding of how it will change their futures, we must shape rewards in ways that give kids a reason to care, and to self-engage in their achievement. However, if kids don’t connect their effort at school with something they care about, it’s not likely they will care about their health either, and no health program can change that.

How do we make learning more important? No one has a complete answer. We do know that short-term feedback and rewards motivate us. Harvard educators are experimenting with pay-for-performance (which we support as a strong, aligned incentive in the work environment); kids in New York, Chicago and Washington DC are earning money for passing grades (short-term) and graduating (longer-term) (7). Results aren’t in yet, but perhaps dollars can be part of the equation; maybe they motivate students like they do older workers.

Thanks again.

Again I say thanks to the adults who convinced me that learning would bring rewards. When I did face bullies or peer pressure, I had strong reasons to choose (mostly) to show up and keep trying (instead of missing school or getting high). I had goals I wanted to achieve, and messing up wasn’t worth the risk of losing those.

If I hadn’t believed that effort matters, who knows what choices I would have made.

Why this matters: We all know health challenges affect human performance. But we often overlook how the work environment itself affects our interest in health. Even for children, especially by the time they reach middle school, connecting performance to rewards (ones that matter to the individual) makes all human capital assets more valuable. A child who knows that his skills, health, and motivation will help him reach his immediate and distant dreams is more likely to protect those assets.


1. Basch, C. E. Healthier Students Are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap. Equity Matters: Research Review No. 6, Columbia University Teacher’s College (accessed March 29, 2010).

2. Scott, K.D., Talylor, G. S. An Examination of conflicting findings on the relationship between job satisfaction and absenteeism: A meta-analysis. Academy of Management Journal. 1985;28(3): 599-612 (accessed April 4, 2010).

3. HHC Foundation. When a problem goes beyond illness, the solution must go beyond medicine. Entry 10 – 2009.

4. Wagner R., Hatter, J. 12: The Elements of Great Managing.  New York: Gallup Press, 2006.

5. Brief report from the Health as Human Capital survey, 2007.

6. HHC Foundation. Do we have it backwards? Should we invest in health to get productivity? Or reward productivity to get better health? Entry 8 – 2009.

7. Education Innovation Laboratory. Harvard University (accessed March 29, 2010).


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